MOSCOW – Liberal former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a Kremlin foe, should be barred from Russia’s presidential election because some of the signatures supporting his candidacy were forged, election officials said on Thursday.
Kasyanov has no chance of winning but his removal would deprive him of a platform to criticize President Vladimir Putin and his preferred successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and open the Kremlin to new criticism that it brooks little real opposition.
Doubts are also growing that the main opposition contender, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, will run in the March 2 election. He said he was thinking of pulling out because the campaign was slanted in favor of the Kremlin frontrunner.
Putin, who is unable to seek a third successive term under the constitution, has endorsed Medvedev to succeed him and is expected to keep some influence after the election. An opinion poll this week gave Medvedev, 42, more than 80 percent support.
The election will be scrutinized closely by Western governments who have in the past expressed concerns that Putin’s Kremlin is squeezing democracy and accumulating too much power. Most Russian voters back Putin’s policies.
Nikolai Konkin, secretary of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said Kasyanov’s bid was in doubt because of the percentage of technical errors, to include forgery, found on signatures collected in support of his candidacy.
“For this reason Kasyanov should be excluded from participation as a candidate in the presidential election,” Konkin told reporters. He said the commission would make a final decision on January 27.
Kasyanov says the Kremlin is trying to sabotage his campaign. Speaking in Brussels where he was meeting members of the European parliament, he said the forgery allegation was “simple propaganda” and that he still hoped to be on the ballot.
Opinion polls give Kasyanov less than 1 percent support but analysts say he is being targeted because officials fear he could use his insider knowledge, and free election air-time, to level damaging accusations at the Putin team.
Communist leader Zyuganov, the strongest challenger to the Kremlin in past elections, said his was contemplating withdrawing from the race. He has accused officials of denying him air time on national television.
“We are considering such an option, but we still hope for the common sense of the authorities,” Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying on a visit to China.
Russian officials say they are committed to holding a fair election. The Kremlin came under fire last year when Western observers accused it of meddling in a parliamentary election to ensure its allies won.
“Control is something they (Russian officials) must enjoy 100 percent — or they don’t feel they have control,” a Western diplomat told Reuters on Thursday.
“After the rough ride for the opposition in the parliamentary elections it’s absolutely essential that in the presidential elections there are some signs of real democracy.”
In the event that Kasyanov and Zyuganov do not run, Medvedev’s only challengers will be nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy and Andrei Bogdanov, leader of the Democratic Party.
Zhirinovsky, who is known for his colorful anti-Western rhetoric and campaign antics, avoids direct criticism of the Kremlin and his party usually votes with Putin loyalists in parliament.
In last December’s parliamentary election, Bogdanov’s party picked up fewer than 90,000 votes, or 0.13 percent of the total.
Putin, 55, is stepping down this year in line with a constitutional ban on presidents serving more than two consecutive terms.
He is expected to keep a grip on the levers of his power and his endorsement of his long-standing protege Medvedev is a key part of that strategy.