Russia election chief says Putin won't run again

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MOSCOW, Nov 27 (Reuters) Russia's top election official appeared to rule out the possibility of President Vladimir Putin exploiting a legal loophole to run for a third term, a Moscow radio station reported.

Some politicians with Kremlin links say if Putin steps down before the end of his term and then runs in a presidential election next year, he would be able to dodge a constitutional ban on presidents serving three consecutive terms.

An election law prohibits a head of state from running in a snap election called as a result of that person leaving office early. But it does not spell out what happens if the president steps down after a scheduled election has already been called.

The election will be officially called tomorrow, when the March 2 date is published in the official gazette. According to the theory, that opens up a window for Putin to step down and then enter the election race.

But Vladimir Churov, a former Putin colleague who is now Chairman of the Central Election Commission, seemed to rule this out in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcast late yesterday.

''After publication of the ... presidential election date, the law prohibiting a citizen having served two consecutive presidential terms from participating in the election goes into effect,'' he told the radio station late yesterday.

LEGAL ISSUES Asked what would happen if Putin tried to exploit this loophole, Churov said: ''In that case, the best lawyers and political scientists will be pulling their hair out trying to work this out.'' Putin's second term ends early next year. Russia's constitution states that ''one and the same person cannot occupy the post of President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms.'' Putin himself has ruled out changing the constitution to allow himself a third term. He has indicated he is committed to stepping down next year after making sure his successor follows his policies.

In October, speaker of the upper house of parliament Sergei Mironov said he was working on a way to get around the constitutional ban preventing a third term for Putin.

Mironov had a public clash with Churov on Thursday, with the upper house speaker saying he believed the loophole could be used while the election chief disagreed.

Putin, by far Russia's most popular politician, is running for parliament in a December 2 election as the top candidate from the biggest pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.

Many analysts expect he will use the endorsement he is likely to get from voters in the parliamentary election as a springboard to ensure he can continue to mould policy after his term expires.

REUTERS RJ ND1646

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