MOSCOW – Opposition leader Alexei Navalny swept up far more votes than expected Sunday while finishing second in Moscows mayoral election, a pivotal contest that has energized Russias small opposition in ways that could pose a risk to the Kremlin in the days and years ahead.
Partial results released early today showed Navalny with about 27 percent of the vote, while the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, held a clear lead with about 52 percent. Exit polls, however, predicted Navalny would get as much as 32 percent.
As the results only began to trickle out two hours after the polls closed, Navalny said he suspected the vote count was being manipulated.
We dont recognize the results that are currently being announced, and I would like to say that we wont give up one vote that we received, Navalny told reporters at his campaign headquarters late Sunday. I call on the Kremlin and the mayors office to restrain themselves from falsifications.
The election was being watched for what it bodes for the future of the opposition and for Navalny. He faces time in prison after being convicted of embezzlement in a case seen as part of a Kremlin effort to sideline him, but his strong showing could lead to a shortening of his five-year sentence, if the Kremlin feels this would help defuse discontent.
Sobyanin needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff, but if he is seen as squeaking through unfairly because of vote-rigging, it could set off protests. Reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 triggered the unprecedented demonstrations against President Vladimir Putins rule.
Navalnys campaign said its own exit polls showed Sobyanin below 50 percent.
With ballots from about 70 percent of precincts counted, the results for Sobyanin and Navalny were holding steady at about 52 percent and 27 percent, respectively. The four other candidates trailed far behind.
Golos, Russias leading independent election monitor, said the voting appeared to have gone smoothly, but there were fears that election officials would artificially increase the turnout to allow them to add votes for Sobyanin.
Golos observers noted that voter rolls at some polling stations had been padded with people who no longer lived in the neighborhood. They also noted that many people coming to the polls who receive benefits or salaries from the state had been pressured to do so. One woman demanded a document stating that she had voted, supposedly as proof for the state hospital where she worked, the group said.
The elderly are Sobyanins core constituency, while the young and middle class are more likely to oppose Putin and his team.
Sobyanin and Putin spend most of their time lining their own pockets, said Alexei Gorshkov, a 34-year-old employee in the IT sector who voted for Navalny.