MOSCOW, September 8 (Kristen Blyth, RIA Novosti) – Millions of Russians will take to the polling booths on Sunday to cast their votes in regional and municipal elections. The most important race is happening in Moscow, where Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin faces off against Russia’s protest leader Alexei Navalny.
Sobyanin, an ally and former administration head of President Vladimir Putin, is uniformly expected to win the mayoral seat by a wide margin. Turnout for Navalny, though, will determine to what extent Moscow residents oppose the Kremlin and its policies, political pundits said.
“A sizeable part of the vote against Sobyanin will be against not the Moscow city government or the personality of the Moscow mayor, but against federal politics,” said Boris Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies. “The Kremlin is receiving many signals that a sizeable part of the population has problems with how it is governing the county.”
Authorities worked intentionally to keep Navalny in the race, in what analysts say was an effort to boost the legitimacy of the crucial vote after tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections results. The opposition claimed the contests were rigged in favor of the Kremlin.
“It [the Moscow election] is to put an end to the protests and show that the authorities in Moscow – in the very heart of the protest movement – can win without fraud,” Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based political analyst, said. “The election will show that not only can the Kremlin win, but it can win by a landslide.”
Gubernatorial elections, in addition to Moscow, will be held in seven other Russian provinces, including the Moscow region and the volatile North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Popular elections of regional heads were abolished under Putin’s initiative in 2004 as a move to strengthen federal control over the regions in the wake of the Beslan school hostage crisis in the Northern Caucasus. The regional heads have since been voted in by regional legislatures after being nominated by the president – as happened with Sobyanin in 2010.
Popular votes for governors were reinstated in 2012, but Dagestan and Ingushetia will opt out of direct election. Local legislatures, under a law enacted in April, can still select the new head if authorities believe a direct vote could result in instability and violence.
Eyes on the Moscow race
Moscow’s mayoral election is something of a surprise, as Sobyanin still had two years left in his term when he unexpectedly announced in June that he would step down and run for his own seat.
“Muscovites don’t want elections in two or three years, but now,” Sobyanin said in a radio interview with Ekho Moskvy in late August. “I realized that if I leave everything to circumstance, after a while they’ll consider me a coward.”
The mayor’s sudden announcement gave potential opponents pathetically little time to mount viable campaigns, likely delivering Sobyanin a guaranteed victory. Polls by both state and independent survey centers show the incumbent should easily win over half of Moscow’s votes.
Sobyanin’s only real competitor is Navalny, who is the only – and, possibly, the first-ever – candidate to run a Western-style campaign in Russia. Navalny’s powerful role in Moscow’s protest movement lends his candidacy an air of genuine authenticity – and the government has gone to great lengths to ensure that he competes for mayor.
Convicted of embezzlement in July, Navalny was released after one day in jail to allow him to continue his campaign pending appeal of his sentence.
“Navalny’s admission to the mayoral election suggests that the Kremlin is trying to find ways to increase the legitimacy of [the authorities],” Alexander Morozov, director of the UNIK Center for Media Research, told RIA Novosti.
Barring vote fraud on Election Day and interference with observers, Morozov added, “It will be a big step toward fair elections.”
Simultaneously, the campaign is a chance to dispirit the protest movement and prove that even with a “fair” election, the opposition can’t win, political analysts said.
Putin voiced that idea explicitly in the summer of 2012. During a visit to the Kremlin-backed youth camp at Lake Seliger, Putin explained a new law relaxing registration requirements for political parties as a way for non-mainstream political groups “to understand that the public does not support them.”
Navalny, a popular blogger and corruption whistle-blower, was not widely known among the general public before he became a prominent figure in the 2011-2012 protests, but his recognition has since grown rapidly.
Putin even spoke of Navalny’s campaign in a televised interview released last Wednesday, albeit only to question the leader’s political competence.
“Riding the fashionable theme of a fight against corruption doesn’t mean he [Navalny] knows how to manage a city of 12 million people,” Putin said.
Though Navalny has risen to become the face of the Moscow protest movement, he regardless may lose his appeal and return to jail after the election. His conviction would legally disbar him from ever running for or holding public office in the future.