Moscow mayoral election raises many questions

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Prince Yuri Dolgoruki, nicknamed "The Long Arm", founded Moscow over 800 years ago

It was Prince Yuri, nicknamed "The Long Arm", who founded Moscow more than 800 years ago. You can see his statue across from the Moscow mayor's office.

More recently, though, it is the long arm of the Kremlin this city has felt.

Three years ago, President Vladimir Putin's former chief-of-staff Sergei Sobyanin was appointed mayor. He managed to win over some sceptical Muscovites by trying to tackle tough problems, such as the Russian capital's infamous traffic chaos.

The state-controlled media played its part too, painting Mr Sobyanin as a man of action. No surprise then, that when Muscovites were given the chance to elect a mayor for the first time in a decade, Mr Sobyanin emerged the winner with more than 51% of the vote.

The real surprise, though, was how many votes his main rival secured.

Alexei Navalny, a Kremlin critic who has said that President Putin should be put in in jail, secured 27% of the vote; unheard of for an opposition figure in recent Russian elections.

It is all the more remarkable when you consider that just two months ago Mr Navalny had been sentenced to five years in jail for embezzlement; a case, his supporters say, that was politically motivated. He was bailed, though, and allowed to run in the election.

Despite an extremely low turnout - around 30% - Mr Navalny's result confirms his growing reputation as Russia's most prominent opposition figure - the principal thorn in President Putin's side.

Though he did better than expected, Mr Navalny has refused to accept the election result. He claims the poll was rigged to help Mr Sobyanin slip past the critical 50% mark and avoid a run-off. He is demanding a recount.

Questions raised

The chances of Mr Sobyanin's team agreeing to that are small.

So, will Moscow now see the return of "people power", the kind of mass anti-government protests the city witnessed after the disputed parliamentary election in 2011?

That depends very much on whether Mr Navalny can convince Muscovites their votes were stolen and that Mr Sobyanin is an illegitimate mayor. It may be more difficult this time round. The Moscow mayoral elections are widely seen as having been fairer than the Duma (Russian government) poll. He will need clear and compelling evidence.

Then there is the matter of Mr Navalny's conviction and court sentence. He has appealed against the guilty verdict. But will the authorities risk sending an increasingly popular politician to prison? Would jail time boost his ratings, or neutralise a political opponent?

And what about the winner? Sergei Sobyanin wants to be seen as the legitimately-elected mayor of Moscow. Will accusations by Mr Navalny's team of vote-rigging cloud his term in office?

The mayoral election has raised many questions that may affect the future, not only of Moscow, but Russia, too.

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