Could Putin and Medvedev face off in an open Russian election?

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As the political differences between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev widen into a visible public rift, and each continues to insist on the wish to run for president in polls next year, some Russians are mulling a prospect that sounded like a fantasy just a few weeks ago: What if they faced off against each other in an open and fair election?

It was Mr. Putin himself who kicked off the speculation that’s now surging like electricity through Russia’s blogosphere. “Neither me nor Dmitry have ruled out that each of us could be a candidate in the race,” he said last week in an effort to tamp down discussion about the looming Kremlin choice. “We will proceed from the real situation closer to the elections.”

“There are a number of voices now, both from liberal and conservative camps, that maintain it would be best to break with [the Putin system] and let the voters decide between them,” says Alexei Pushkov, anchor of Post Scriptum, Russia’s most popular TV public affairs program.

“If we had two candidates, Putin and Medvedev, with somewhat different political lines, that could create the basis for a genuine two party system in Russia. After all, these are authentic differences within Russian society,” Mr. Pushkov says. “Some favor the more traditional approach of Putin, while others are for the more liberal line that Medvedev pushes…. Whoever the next president would be, he would possess a new level of legitimacy. If it were Medvedev, he would be finally free from the bonds of the Putin system and able to chart his own course. If it were Putin, we would know that his victory was based on honest public support.”

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