Vladimir Putin has stepped into an acrimonious debate over who will succeed him by publicly suggesting for the first time that he could run for a third term as President.

Speaking on a visit to Germany, Mr Putin ruled out changing the Constitution to run for a third consecutive term in 2008, but said that he could, in theory, stand at the next election in 2012. ~Timesonline.co.uk

Barring a president from seeking more than two consecutive terms is an effective check on an incumbent using the advantages of office and prestige as president. For someone once in presidential office to leave and then recapture the office four years later is politically very difficult. Only someone confident in his democratic appeal and political message could reasonably expect to succeed; authoritarians bent on extinguishing free expression, as Mr. Putin has been caricatured, do not risk giving up power voluntarily.

The reason to prevent a president from running for a third consecutive term is, as it was here, to prevent any chance of an individual so successfully manipulating the machinery of government that he can no longer be ousted by any challenger in an election. What does this story tell us about Mr. Putin? If there is any truth in it, it means that Mr. Putin respects the letter of the Russian constitution, he does not intend to use his pliant majority in the Duma to increase his power indefinitely into the future (which he could probably easily do), and he entertains the possibility of allowing the Russian public to re-elect him at a later date with the very real possibility that, viewed from hindsight, the public will find that his tenure as president does not merit another opportunity. That the predictable leftists (Khakamada) and Western lackeys (the Yabloko party) find fault with this statement reveals their own impotence and irrelevance.

The opposition should be thrilled that Putin has given them any opportunity to revive at all. They carp and belittle his statements because they are perfectly well aware that neither Khakamada nor Yabloko’s representative could carry better than 10% of the vote in a real contest. All of this underscores that there will be a contested Russian presidental election in 2008. If Putin’s successor has significant advantages in institutional support, political leverage and popularity, then that is a mark of Putin’s success as a politician and power-broker.