Anticorruption crusader Alexei Navalny delivered a sharp surprise to Russian authorities by winning 27 percent of the votes in Moscow’s mayoral election, which he had been expected to lose by a humiliating margin to the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin.
Instead, it was Mr. Sobyanin whose commanding lead faltered, leaving him with an officially reported first-round victory of 51 percent from Sunday’s vote. In most Western democracies, a candidate in Sobyanin's position would be partying at this point. But he almost certainly is not.
Mr. Navalny is crying foul, and vowing to bring his supporters onto Moscow’s streets to protest what he claims exit polls show was a five-percentage-point margin of fraud that enabled Sobyanin to avoid facing Navalny in a second round two weeks from now. He said Sobyanin cannot declare victory until there is a fully supervised recount.
"We do not accept these results," Navalny told Ekho Moskvy radio Monday.
"Thousands of election monitors report discrepancies in polling stations, and they believe that the results being given out by the city election commission are different from those that they have tabulated on the ground,” he said. “I think that all Muscovites who don't wish to lose the votes they cast, or remain silent about [fraud], should take to the streets.”
The independent election monitor Golos posted a compilation of alleged polling station violations on its website. Its leaders told a press conference Monday there are strong reasons to doubt that Sobyanin honestly passed the 50 percent barrier and will be able to avoid a runoff.
"This election was more honest than previous ones, but we do worry that procedural violations involving home voting may have influenced the fact that there is to be no second round," says Andrei Buzin, an expert with Golos.
"Since [Sobyanin's] margin above 50 percent was so slight, it's fully possible that small violations could have changed that result. This needs to be thoroughy scrutinized so that the validity of the election can be confirmed," he says.
Navalny, who made a name for himself publicizing government corruption, was convicted in a regional court of embezzlement and other charges earlier this year, but Moscow chief’s prosecutor intervened and had him released from prison. Most experts believe the Kremlin ordered Navalny's release to allow him to pursue his stated goal of running for mayor. Polls at that point were suggesting that Navalny would win less than 10 percent, while the popular professional technocrat Sobyanin would cruise to victory with 80 percent or more.
The idea of Kremlin strategists, analysts say, was that Sobyanin would convincingly vanquish Navalny, who has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side since his anticorruption efforts vaulted him into the leadership of a mass street protest movement following allegations of electoral fraud in national parliamentary elections in 2011. A crushing win for Sobyanin in the critical center of Moscow would enable Russian authorities to declare that protest movement dead and buried.
“It really is a surprise that Sobyanin got such a relatively low vote, and Navalny got much more than expected,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information.
Mr. Mukhin says the fact that Sobyanin didn’t win with a large margin, unlike other regional leaders who also faced elections Sunday, will haunt him, and the Kremlin.
“Navalny had a very high quality campaign, and he effectively mobilized the protest vote. For Sobyanin, this result means that he is elected, but with a legitimacy problem,” he says.
In Russia's fourth largest city, the Ural Mountain industrial center of Yekaterinburg, the opposition candidate actually won a tight race for mayor over the pro-Kremlin candidate. Since Yekaterinburg is a city, while Moscow is classified as a region, no second round is required and the candidate, Yevgeny Roizman, who is a protegé of liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is demanding that officials recognize him as the legitimate winner.
"What we are seeing here, all over the country, is that a new generation of voters are coming to the polls, and a new generation of politicians is emerging, in some places at least, to run in elections," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow media consultancy.
One feature of Sunday's voting that analysts will be pondering is the exceptionally low turnout in Moscow. Barely 26 percent of the city’s electorate bothered to cast ballots, a problem that Kremlin supporters put to overconfidence in the poll-driven certainty of Sobyanin's victory. But some argue that the problem is deeper; many surveys show that public trust in the election process is low, and many people have stopped believing they can make any difference at all by voting.
"Sometimes low turnout can be a sign of social health. People are getting on with their lives, and don't feel politicized," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's foremost political sociologists.
"But we are seeing a distinct lack of trust in elections themselves. People think, no matter whether they vote or not, nothing will change…. Why to make the effort if everything is predetermined?" she added.
Navalny may now be carted off to prison – he was only released on the request of the Russia’s top prosecutor, pending appeal – where a five-year sentence awaits him. That would be enough to keep him behind bars until after the next presidential elections in 2018. But supporters argue that he has changed the political calculus and made it more difficult for the Kremlin to stage-manage elections as it has done in the past.