Russia on Friday disqualified Vladimir Putin's liberal challenger Grigory Yavlinsky from the March 4 presidential ballot, in a move slammed by his supporters as undermining the legitimacy of the polls.
Russia's central elections commission said it could not accept nearly a quarter of the registration signatures gathered by Yavlinsky's Yabloko (Apple) party because they were either photocopies of originals or fakes.
"I am sad to announce that we will not able to register Yavlinsky as a candidate," election commission member Sergei Danilenko said told a special hearing.
Russia's strict presidential election rules require all independent candidates whose parties fail to win seats in parliament to collect two million signatures in a two-month span to win registration.
The restriction has been heavily criticized by candidates as well as the growing protest movement against Putin, who will be standing for a third Kremlin term in the polls after his four year stint as prime minister.
The disqualification "undermines the legitimacy of the vote. This was ordered directly by Putin," said Sergei Mitrokhin, chairman of the liberal Yabloko party that Yavlinsky founded in 1993.
Mitrokhin added that the authorities were particularly keen to make sure that Yabloko -- which sent thousands of observers to December's parliamentary elections -- was barred from monitoring the presidential vote.
Putin had doubled the number of signatures required for candidates' registration in 2004, a year in which he stepped up his campaign to centralize power by also announcing an end to direct elections for regional governors.
The presidential election rules were tightened again in 2007 when Putin was about to hand power over to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, giving candidates just a month to rally their support instead of the previous three.
Facing Russia's largest protests since the turbulent 1990s, Medvedev last month proposed reducing the required number of signatures -- a move the opposition said was being made too late.
Yavlinsky, who was shown winning less than three percent of the vote in most polls, founded Yabloko in 1993 as Russia struggled with a post-Soviet economic crisis that left many impoverished and looking for social protection.
The 59-year-old economist always promoted more socially-oriented policies and twice ran for president, failing to break the 10-percent barrier in both 1996 and 2000.
He made a surprise return to Russian politics last year after refusing to face Putin or then his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev in two past polls that he termed undemocratic.
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