MOSCOW — A candidate favored by the Kremlin, acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, held a narrow lead Sunday in his bid for a full term at the helm of Russia's capital, exit polls showed.
The tense and dramatic race drew international attention because Sobyanin's main challenger was President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny.
Most exit polls showed Sobyanin leading with about 53% of the vote, trailed by Navalny at about 32%. Sobyanin needs more than 50% to avoid a runoff, which would be held in two weeks. Official results were expected by early Monday morning.
Navalny, a charismatic 37-year-old blogger who is viewed as a fighter against corruption, insisted that his own exit polls showed Sobyanin falling short of the threshold for outright victory.“[The delay with announcing vote results] we consider as falsifications carried out by Moscow mayor’s office and Sergei Sobyanin’s staff,” Navalny said, speaking to reporters two hours after polls closed. “I want to say that we will do our best to prevent it. We don’t recognize the results being announced now and we warn the Kremlin and Moscow mayor’s office against falsifications.”
The race reached its focal point in mid-July, when Navalny was sentenced to five years of imprisonment for his alleged involvement in a $500,000 embezzlement scheme at an obscure lumber company.
Navalny, who called the verdict politically motivated, was arrested and handcuffed in a district court in the central Russian city of Kirov. Sent to a local prison, he was released the next morning pending an appeal after thousands of young protesters took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities.Some experts said that regardless of who won Sunday, one important consequence of the election is that the Kremlin may now be hesitant to send Navalny back to prison.
“No matter what will be the final vote count, the Kremlin already suffered a shattering defeat because it no longer can allow the man for whom well over 500,000 people voted in Moscow to return to prison,” Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher of the Academy of Sciences’ System Analysis Institute, said in an interview. “The main slogan of Navalny’s campaign was 'Putin is a thief,' and thousands of people supported that notion.”
Numerous monitoring organizations failed to register any serious electoral problems Sunday, in contrast to elections for president in 2012 and parliament in 2011, when widespread fraud was alleged.
However, the campaign was lopsided, since Navalny never appeared on any of the federal or Moscow television channels while Sobyanin was featured daily, Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center, said.
“The Kremlin tried to experiment, holding something resembling a fair election with a key opposition candidate campaigning with a tight noose around his neck,” Shevtsova said. “The fact that so many people voted for Navalny makes him from now on a major political leader of national scale.”
Turnout on Sunday was low, estimated at about 30%. Experts said many Muscovites either doubted the importance of voting or were late coming back home from a weekend at their summer homes.