Navalny runs Putin ally close in Moscow polls
The pro-Kremlin mayor of Moscow was on course Sunday to win elections in the Russian capital, but only just escaping a second round after a strong challenge from the top critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Initial results and exit polls showed that Sergei Sobyanin, a leading ally of Putin, would narrowly win the elections in the first round with just over half the vote after protest leader Alexei Navalny garnered at least a quarter of the ballots.
Sobyanin was winning 52.6 percent of the vote with Navalny on 26.2, the Moscow election commission said in a count based on 31.5 percent of polling stations reporting.
But Navalny, who was campaigning under the shadow of a conviction in a controversial embezzlement case, disputed the initial results and insisted he had managed to force the mayor into a second round.
Addressing cheering supporters at his election headquarters after Moscow's first mayoral polls in a decade, Navalny, 37, accused Putin and Sobyanin of concocting a result that suited them.
"Right now Sobyanin and his main supporter Vladimir Putin are deciding whether to have a relatively honest election and to have a second round, or not," he said.
The candidacy of anti-corruption crusader and protest leader Navalny made the race the first genuinely competitive Russian election since the heady early post-Soviet years.
In a late-night rally in central Moscow attended by thousands and lit up by fireworks, Sobyanin said he was sure of victory and congratulated himself for organising "the most honest and open elections in the history of Moscow".
"We have something to be proud of," he told the cheering supporters.
Turnout was low at 26.5 percent as of 1400 GMT, an unusually slack figure which indicated Navalny had been far more successful at bringing out his supporters than the dour mayor, who ran a supremely low-key campaign.
Communist candidate Ivan Melnikov was third in the partial results with just over 10 percent of the vote.
The election was seen as a crucial test of the protest mood in the city, which was shaken by huge demonstrations against Putin's decade-long rule in the winter of 2011-2012.
-- 'A victory for Navalny' --
The Kremlin-connected FOM polling group in an exit poll projected Sobyanin would win 52.5 percent of the vote while Navalny was due to get 29.1 percent.
A second exit poll by the VTsIOM, another Kremlin-linked polling agency, gave a similar projection, putting Sobyanin on 53 percent and Navalny on 32 percent.
"This is a victory for Navalny, the results he's received are very good, even if there will be no run-off," Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and one-time Kremlin consultant, told AFP.
Putin, who has made no secret of his support for his former Kremlin chief of staff Sobyanin, 55, said when he cast his vote that Moscow did not need a "politician" for a mayor and "technocrats" were better.
Moscow gave Putin a relatively low 46.95 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, well below the nationwide average.
Navalny has threatened protests if officials rig the vote and thousands of supporters are due to hold a meeting on Monday evening in a central Moscow square to decide their strategy.
In the run-up to the vote, Navalny shook up Russian politics with a Western-style political campaign that made savvy use of the Internet and secured more than 100 million rubles ($3 million/2.3 million euros) in donations.
By contrast, buttoned-up Kremlin functionary Sobyanin avoided overt political rhetoric and shunned television debates, instead focusing on sprucing up the capital of 12 million people.
In July, Navalny was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on fraud charges that he says were trumped up. He was arrested in court, but suddenly released a day later pending his appeal.
"The question is, what will they do to Navalny now," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Higher School of Economics.
"I think his term will be commuted to a suspended sentence -- this will prevent protests from flaring up and will also exclude him from politics for some time."
The Moscow election was part of a nationwide day of local polls, with Kremlin-backed establishment figures also being challenged in key cities like the main Urals centre of Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city.
In Yekaterinburg, ruling party candidate Yakov Silin was narrowly losing in a tense battle against anti-drugs campaigner and opposition activist Yevgeny Roizman, initial results showed.
© 2013 AFP