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LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's powerful first lady Nadine Heredia on Friday made her strongest denial yet that she will run for president in 2016, responding to criticism that she might try to have an anti-nepotism law thrown out so she could launch a bid.

Heredia's announcement could further narrow the field of likely candidates for the next election. Her husband, President Ollanta Humala, cannot run in 2016 because Peruvian law bans consecutive presidential terms.

Two former presidents, Alan Garcia and Alejandro Toledo, are trying to overcome scandals that could upend their expected presidential bids.

Prior to her comments on Friday, the charismatic Heredia had repeatedly said she had "no current plans" to run. Critics complained that the stock phrase left her plenty of room to change her mind and demanded a categorical denial.

"I deny the possibility of running in 2016 because we believe strong institutions in a democracy are necessary and indispensable to development in Peru," Heredia said on Friday.

Heredia, 37, a co-founder of Humala's Nationalist Party who is widely seen as having presidential ambitions, may now end up waiting until 2021 to run.

Speculation that Heredia might ask courts or Congress to strike down a law that bars family members of presidents from succeeding them so she could run for president in 2016 has dogged the two-year-old Humala administration.

Opponents from the right - and increasingly the left - say the government is eager to see "the re-election of the presidential couple" and is setting the stage for her candidacy by sending her on trips around the country. The Humala administration denies this.

A government accountability report released on Friday found Heredia has made 46 trips without her husband. It stopped short of saying the travel spending was improper, noting only that cost controls in Humala's office could be stronger.

The president's office accounts for only a tiny percentage of the national budget. Peru's finance ministry has been praised by investors and rating agencies for its strict discipline.

Usually smiling and talkative, Heredia has appeared less frequently in public in recent weeks after critics railed against her elaborate, televised birthday bash in May.

While Heredia's popularity ratings are consistently higher than those for her husband and other politicians, a poll in June found that just 24 percent of Peruvians think Heredia should be allowed to run for office.

Humala's approval rating has fallen for the last four months to 41 percent, according to Ipsos.

(Reporting by Teresa Cespedes and Mitra Taj; Editing by Terry Wade and Xavier Briand)

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