A top critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday faced a Kremlin-backed incumbent in a hotly contested Moscow mayoral poll, the first time an opposition leader has been allowed to stand in a high-profile election.
The candidacy of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny has made the race the first genuinely competitive Russian election since the heady first post-Soviet years.
The vote will be seen as a crucial test of protest mood in a city which was shaken by huge demonstrations against Putin’s decade-long rule in the winter of 2011 and last year.
Moscow gave Putin, who sought a third presidential term, a relatively low 46.95 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, well below the nationwide average.
Kremlin-backed Sobyanin, 55, is expected to win yesterday’s poll with a majority, while Navalny is set to come second with about 20 percent, according to opinion polls.
A charismatic 37-year-old lawyer, Navalny shot to prominence during the anti-Putin rallies sparked by widespread claims of fraud in parliamentary polls.
Many ordinary Muscovites said they would vote for Navalny, who channels public anger against the Kremlin, even if some harbor reservations about his tough anti-migrant rhetoric.
“Moscow mayoral elections are much more than just Moscow mayoral elections,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“The election should show us just how popular Putin is in Moscow and therefore a mayoral election is turning into a key political factor,” she added.
The main intrigue in the upcoming polls is not how many vote for the pro-Kremlin incumbent, but what happens to Navalny, who has been campaigning under the burden of a five-year prison sentence on what he says are trumped-up charges.
The blogger, who first made a name for himself exposing corruption among the elites, has vowed to jail Putin and his allies if he is one day elected president.
At the start of the campaign, Navalny was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on fraud charges and arrested in court.
A day later he was suddenly released pending appeal of his term, in an unprecedented move observers say showed the Kremlin did not know how to handle him.
Despite Navalny becoming an increasingly visible presence in Russia’s politics, Putin still refuses to mention him by name and refers to him as “this gentleman.”
Analysts say Navalny’s five-year term may be commuted to a suspended sentence if he performs well in the poll.
Besides Sobyanin and Navalny, four other candidates are running in the polls, but support for most of them is not significant.