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In close vote, Putin critic claims runoff in Moscow mayoral race
The election was widely seen as an unusually competitive test of Vladimir Putin’s power, after mass protests in 2011 and 2012 over the conduct of national elections, including Putin’s third campaign for the presidency.
The New York Times
MOSCOW — The first mayoral election in a decade ended with a narrow victory for the appointed incumbent Sunday, according to preliminary results. But his main challenger, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics, claimed he had won enough votes to force a runoff, and he warned of efforts to falsify the outcome of a race that proved much closer than expected.
The election was widely seen as an unusually competitive test of Putin’s power, after mass protests in 2011 and 2012 over the conduct of national elections, including Putin’s third campaign for the presidency.
Moments after the polls closed Sunday night, Alexei Navalny, the charismatic lawyer and blogger who has emerged as a potent opposition leader, said his campaign’s exit polling indicated Sergei Sobyanin, the incumbent and Kremlin insider who was appointed mayor in 2010, had won fewer votes than the 50 percent needed to prevent a runoff.
With 76 percent of the ballots counted early Monday, according to official results, Sobyanin’s tally hovered just above 51 percent. Navalny was running second with 27 percent, followed by the Communist Party’s candidate, Ivan Melnikov, who received 10 percent. Three other candidates received around 3 percent each.
Navalny said his campaign’s polling indicated he had won 35 percent, compared with about 46 percent for Sobyanin, depriving him of an outright victory. “All the data from the exit polls that we have indisputably show there will be a second round in these elections,” Navalny said at his campaign headquarters.
He appeared again early Monday and declared that if a second round were not held, he would call on Muscovites to protest.
Regardless of the outcome, Navalny, 37, defied expectations for Russia’s beleaguered democratic opposition. Although Putin faces no imminent threat to his power, the election showed his prolonged rule as the undisputed authority has generated a significant amount of discontent, at least in Russia’s political and economic capital.
Navalny, whose support in polls a few weeks ago was only in the single digits, managed through a short, intense campaign to win a greater share of the vote than any other opposition figure in a major election since Putin rose to power in 1999.
He did so by mounting what was for Russia a novel kind of grass-roots insurgency, stumping for votes on the streets and raising money online, where he first rose to prominence by crusading against pervasive corruption in government and business.
Sobyanin appeared briefly after midnight and spoke to supporters who gathered, pointedly, in Bolotnaya Square, the plaza near the Kremlin that was the focal point of the protests in 2011 and 2012.
“These were the most competitive, most fair, most open elections in the history of Moscow,” he declared, as confetti showered a crowd estimated at a few thousand. He stopped short of declaring victory, but said, “I am sure that in the end we will win.”
There were also elections across Russia on Sunday for seven governors, eight mayors of regional capitals and 16 regional legislatures.
Only in one other race, for mayor of Yekaterinburg, did an opposition candidate mount a significant challenge to the Kremlin’s candidate; that race remained too close to call early Monday.
But the Kremlin now faces no significant challenge at the ballot box for years to come. The next national elections are not until 2016.
The decision to allow Navalny to run reflected divisions among Putin’s closest advisers over the extent to which they would tolerate competition in elections.
After he registered as a candidate in July, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in a trial that was widely denounced as rigged, only to be released on appeal the next day.