The Kremlin-backed mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin Wednesday put his job on the line by calling snap elections two years before his mandate expires, in an apparent bid to outmanoeuvre the opposition after protests rocked the Russian capital.
Sobyanin told President Vladimir Putin he was resigning but would himself stand in the elections expected to take place on September 8 when other local polls are held nationwide.
The election could set up an intriguing clash between Sobyanin, a technocratic stalwart of the ruling United Russia party, and virulently anti-Kremlin figures like the protest leader and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.
Putin accepted his resignation but said that Sobyanin, who took over from former long-serving Moscow strongman Yuri Luzhkov in 2010, should serve as acting mayor until the elections take place.
“We have been working together for a very long time and I know your capacities,” Putin told Sobyanin.
The authorities’ move to call early elections — kept tightly under wraps until this week — seems designed to catch the opposition by surprise and give them little time to prepare for the polls.
“No-one was seriously ready for the start of this campaign among his opponents and it is going to be hard (to prepare) in just three months,” Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Centre pollster, told AFP.
Sobyanin will seek to prove he and the authorities enjoy popular support in the Russian capital even after the city was the focal point of the unprecedented anti-Putin protests in the winter of 2011-2012.
The mayor has sought to build up his support base with projects to make life in the overpopulated capital more palatable by improving sidewalks, sprucing up city parks and introducing innovative cultural projects.
“It’s early to make forecasts as it depends who will take part in the campaign. But the indications are that he can win. His position among Muscovites is positive and getting better,” said Grazhdankin.
According to the Vedomosti daily, Sobyanin had been preparing for elections ever since last year in a bid to outflank potential opponents like the liberal-inclined businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.
The billionaire Prokhorov, who came second to Putin in Moscow in the 2012 presidential elections, may not be able to take part in the polls due to a new ban on officials having assets abroad.
“He has foreign assets, that is no secret,” Prokhorov’s spokeswoman Tatyana Kosobokova told the Moscow Echo radio, saying lawyers were working out how the legal obstacles could be overcome.
Meanwhile, Navalny is entwined in an embezzlement trial and host of other legal problems that he says have been ordered by the Kremlin in a bid to eradicate him from the political scene.
Another opposition leader who wants to run is Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist leader currently under house arrest.
Another possible candidate could be Luzhkov himself, one of the most colourful figures of Russian politics from the 1990s.
The mayoral election had previously been scheduled to take place in Moscow in 2015.
Sobyanin, a former governor of the energy-rich Tyumen region, was brought in by the Kremlin to clean up Moscow amid claims it had slumped into corruption and cronyism under the later years of Luzhkov’s rule.
The elections will be a novel experience for many Muscovites as Sobyanin was appointed by the Kremlin in a move merely rubber stamped by the local legislature.
However changes agreed after the protests have restored a form of direct elections for regional governors and the Moscow mayor, meaning Sobyanin can now seek a popular mandate for his rule.