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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin, Matviyenko Caught in Vote Flap

President Vladimir Putin wholeheartedly endorsed Valentina Matviyenko's St. Petersburg gubernatorial bid on state television, angering other candidates who said the remarks were in violation of election rules.

The country's elections chief reluctantly acknowledged Wednesday that Putin might have made a mistake, while another senior elections official said he was in clear violation of the law.

The St. Petersburg elections committee was supposed to look into the matter, but it was unclear Wednesday whether it would investigate and, if so, whether anything would come out of it.

Matviyenko, Putin's envoy to the Northwestern Federal District, which includes St. Petersburg, is widely seen as the leading candidate in the Sept. 21 vote -- largely because she has long been considered the Kremlin's pick.

But Putin only publicly acknowledged his support for Matviyenko on Tuesday, in a meeting given prominent coverage on state-run television stations Channel One and Rossia. In their evening news programs, the two channels showed Putin receiving Matviyenko in the Kremlin and instructing her to take care of his native city's immediate needs, including next year's budget. He then wished her luck in the election.

"You are one of the candidates, and I sincerely wish you luck in the election. But despite the campaign-related workload, please work hard on the 2004 budget," Putin told Matviyenko.

Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov was visibly uncomfortable taking questions about the issue at a news conference Wednesday, but he conceded that the broadcasts had effectively ended up being a commercial for Matviyenko.

"By the way, there were other federal stations that chose not to show it and were right not to have done so," Veshnyakov said.

He said the Central Elections Commission did not plan to look into the incident. "This issue is a subject for the consideration of local election officials," he said. "The Central Elections Commission is a not a fire brigade that races around the country looking into every regional election spat."

St. Petersburg election officials said they had not seen the reports and could not say whether the law had been broken. The elections law forbids high-ranking civil servants from using their office to lead or support someone's election bid. "We will only be able to make a comment after we watch the tape. So far none of the commission members has seen it," elections commission official Marina Sakharnova said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

However, Central Elections Commission official Yevgeny Kolyushin told Kommersant that Putin's remarks contradicted the law.

"If remarks made by the head of the state are aired on television, then this is campaigning and an obvious violation of the law," Kolyushin was quoted as saying.

But he said it would be impossible to punish Putin.

The Kremlin press office refused to comment Wednesday.

Matviyenko's campaign team defended Putin, saying no law had been broken because he had discussed issues at the meeting that Matviyenko will have to tackle regardless of whether she is the presidential envoy or the St. Petersburg governor.

"Valentina Ivanovna was shown on television as a participant of an event organized by the president, " Vladimir Litvinenko, the head of Matviyenko's campaign headquarters, said in a statement.

But Matviyenko's rivals were outraged, calling the incident a crude violation of election rules that shows the outcome of the vote has been predetermined.

Vladimir Anikeyev, a spokesman for Matviyenko's main opponent, St. Petersburg Vice Governor Anna Markova, said Markova's team has filed a complaint with local election officials. But he expressed doubt that anything would come of it.

Alexei Titkov, an election analyst with Carnegie Moscow Center, said the only possible outcome would be a few more votes for Markova.

"It's obvious that there will be no sanctions against Matviyenko and, of course, against the president," Titkov said.

He said Veshnyakov had found himself in an awkward position in which he could not directly admit that the president might have broken the law.

"Veshnyakov had to react somehow and apparently could not immediately find the right words," Titkov said.