MOSCOW: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny Monday disputed the results of the Moscow mayoral poll after narrowly failing to push the pro-Kremlin incumbent into a runoff in closer than expected elections he claimed were marred by fraud.
Several thousand supporters of Navalny gathered in the center of the Russian capital after the Moscow election commission released the final tally showing that an ally of President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Sobyanin, barely crept over the finish line with 51.3 percent of the votes.
In a major surprise, Navalny, a charismatic 37-year-old leader of the opposition movement who campaigned under the shadow of a controversial conviction for embezzlement, polled far more strongly than projected with over 27.2 percent.
Navalny contended the results were falsified and demanded a recount.
In a nationwide day of local polls whose results may worry the Kremlin, opposition anti-drugs campaigner Yevgeny Roizman beat a pro- Kremlin candidate in elections in Russia’s fourth-largest city of Yekaterinburg.
Putin congratulated all the winners in the polls, pointedly noting the campaign was over and urging everyone to begin “joint positive work.”
Analysts said that after Navalny’s stronger than expected showing he had become a force to be reckoned with.
“From a civil activist he has turned into a politician. Twenty-seven percent is a colossal trump card,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“As a result of the poll he’s become even more dangerous” for the Kremlin, she said.
Before the election, which analysts saw as a crucial test of the protest mood in Russia more than a year into Putin’s new Kremlin term, nearly all pollsters had forecast Navalny would receive 20 percent of the vote.
Navalny’s campaign insists that Sobyanin had polled less than 50 percent and urged the authorities to hold a runoff. “We do not acknowledge the published results,” he said on his blog Monday. “They are fake.”
Voter turnout in the mayoral race stood at a meager 32 percent which appeared to have helped Navalny, with the protest leader far more successful in bringing out core support than Sobyanin’s low-key push for votes.
The candidacy of the charismatic anti-corruption crusader Navalny made the race the first genuinely competitive Russian election since the heady early post-Soviet years.
It was also the first time in a decade the Kremlin had allowed Muscovites to elect their mayor and Sobyanin clearly wanted to pick up popular legitimacy after being appointed in 2010 to replace longstanding mayor Yury Luzhkov.
In a late-night Sunday rally in central Moscow attended by thousands and lit up by fireworks, Sobyanin said he was sure of victory and congratulated himself for organizing “the most honest and open elections in the history of Moscow.”
In an apparent dig at Navalny, he called on his rivals not to “rock the boat” and concede defeat.
“When they try to turn the city into a political venue for fights, revolutions – Muscovites absolutely do not need that,” he was quoted as saying.
An independent monitor group with links to Navalny, SONAR, said irregularities had been registered in Sunday’s election, although not as serious as those witnessed in previous polls.
“If there had not been the range of violations that we saw, there would have been a second round,” said spokesman Fyodor Bogdanovsky.
In July, Navalny was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on fraud charges that he says were trumped up. He was jailed, but suddenly released a day later pending his appeal.
Navalny shook up Russian politics with a Western-style political campaign that made savvy use of the Internet.
By contrast, dour Kremlin functionary Sobyanin avoided overt political rhetoric, instead focusing on sprucing up the parks and sidewalks in the capital of 12 million people.