Muscovites voted in mayoral elections yesterday with polls predicting a win for President Vladimir Putin's ally Sergei Sobyanin over Alexey Navalny, who led anti-government protests in the Russian capital.
But if Navalny can get more than 20 per cent of the vote or even come close to forcing incumbent Sobyanin into a run-off, it could embolden the opposition in its efforts to one day drive Putin from power.
Sobyanin, appointed as mayor by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 before resigning in June to call the ballot, is on course to get 62.2 per cent in Moscow's first direct elections in a decade, state-run pollster VTsIOM predicted. It forecast anti-corruption activist Navalny getting 15.7 per cent.
The race pits the Russian authorities against an opposition candidate in Moscow for the first time since Putin's 2012 re-election ignited a wave of protests in Europe's biggest city.
Although Navalny had his sights on the 2018 presidential ballot, his anti-graft platform would not threaten Sobyanin, who had focused on living conditions rather than politics, said Alexander Oslon, president of the Moscow-based Public Opinion Fund.
"Russians are always ready to vote for the authorities unless the authorities have given them compelling reasons to do otherwise," Oslon said . "Moscow's economy is doing well, the city's become cleaner under Sobyanin and there's no glaring reason to be disgruntled."
Direct gubernatorial elections were restored after tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations of Putin's rule. He won 48 per cent of the votes in Moscow in his re-election last year, less than anywhere else in the country.
Since taking over as mayor from Yury Luzhkov, who was ousted by Medvedev, Sobyanin, 55, has sought to ease Moscow's traffic congestion and revamp infrastructure such as public parks. He was deputy prime minister in 2008 to 2010 as Putin completed a four-year stint as premier before reclaiming the presidency.
Navalny, who raised about US$3 million for his mayoral campaign, has pledged to reduce corruption, make Moscow's government more efficient and rein in illegal immigration, a theme Sobyanin has also pursued.
Navalny, 37, has also sought to challenge Sobyanin's credibility, asserting in an August blog that two of the acting mayor's daughters own flats worth US$3.5 million and US$5 million. Sobyanin said the property holdings were legal.
Navalny's participation in the ballot had been in doubt after a Kirov court sentenced him in July to five years in prison for defrauding a state timber company. He was released a day later pending appeal after thousands protested in Moscow and other cities. If upheld, the conviction would bar him from holding public office.