Sept. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally won Moscow’s mayoral election over opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who gathered thousands of supporters to protest claims of ballot rigging even after faring better than polls predicted.
Sergei Sobyanin, appointed in 2010, got 51.4 percent of the vote, exceeding the 50 percent barrier needed to avoid a runoff, official results today showed. Navalny was second with 27.2 percent, capturing almost twice the share of votes predicted by state-run pollster VTsIOM. About 9,000 people rallied in support of Navalny in central Moscow, police estimated.
The race pitted the Russian authorities against an opposition candidate in Moscow for the first time since allegations of voter fraud sparked a wave of protests in 2011 and 2012 in Europe’s biggest city. Navalny, 37, a leader of the anti-Putin protests, has campaigned on an anti-graft platform, while Sobyanin focused on city management rather than politics.
The “very narrow margin of first round victory gives the opposition more reason to talk about ‘another stolen election,’” Vladimir Osakovskiy, chief economist for Russia at Bank of America Corp. in Moscow, said by e-mail. It will “add to market pressure on concerns over political risks.”
Navalny’s supporters met for an authorized rally at Bolotnaya Square, the site of earlier opposition rallies, within view of the Kremlin. As helicopters hovered overhead, some held blue and red Navalny signs, while some carried white balloons, a symbol of the anti-Putin protests that started in 2011.
“There’s no way Sobyanin got more than 50 percent,” said Natalya Gurilova, a 55-year-old music teacher. “They won’t allow a second round -- the Kremlin won’t retreat. This is the first real small step towards having fair election. It’s a fantastic result. We showed what we can achieve.”
Navalny, who published exit polls that gave him 36 percent and Sobyanin 46 percent, called the result a “clear falsification” in televised comments and demanded a second round of voting.
“When the time comes, I’ll call on you to light fires and flip over cars,” Navalny said at this evening’s rally. “Maybe this time will come, I’ll let you know.”
The benchmark Micex Index, which has fallen 1.6 percent this year, rose 2 percent to close at 1,451.54 in Moscow. The ruble advanced 0.4 percent to 33.1420 per dollar.
Direct gubernatorial elections were restored after tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations of Putin’s rule. He won 48 percent of votes in Moscow in his re-election last year, less than anywhere else in the country.
In a separate mayoral election, a Putin-backed candidate lost in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, to an anti-drug activist. Yevgeny Roizman, supported by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, won 33 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for United Russia candidate Yakov Silin in an election that doesn’t require a runoff.
Turnout for the Moscow vote, which featured another four candidates, was 32 percent, according to the Central Election Commission. The low participation was responsible for Navalny’s unanticipated surge in support, according to Alexander Oslon, president of the Moscow-based Public Opinion Fund.
“That worked to Navalny’s advantage because his backers are enthusiastic and motivated,” Oslon said. Navalny was projected to get 15.7 percent in a Sept. 2 VTsIOM poll.
Since taking over as mayor from Yury Luzhkov, who was forced out, Sobyanin, has sought to ease Moscow’s traffic congestion and revamp infrastructure such as public parks. He served as a deputy prime minister in 2008 to 2010 as Putin completed a four-year stint as premier before reclaiming the presidency.
“It’s a great result,” Sobyanin, 55, who resigned in June to call the ballot, said in televised comments. “We’ve met the test of fair elections: hard-won votes are worth far more than a few percentage points.”
Navalny, who raised about $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.
He courted bankers from OAO Sberbank and Deutsche Bank AG at a dinner at Moscow’s Ritz Carlton hotel and last month won the backing of 38 Russian Internet entrepreneurs, who endorsed his candidacy in a manifesto that called for the rule of law to be upheld and government officials held accountable.
Navalny has also sought to challenge Sobyanin’s credibility, asserting in August blog postings that two of the acting mayor’s daughters own apartments worth $3.5 million and $5 million. Sobyanin said the property holdings are legal.
Navalny’s participation in the Moscow ballot had been in doubt after a court in the city of Kirov sentenced him in July to five years in prison for defrauding a state timber company, a verdict denounced by the U.S. and Europe. He was released a day later pending appeal after thousands protested in Moscow and other major cities. If upheld, the conviction would preclude him from ever holding public office.
While analysts including Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow, have suggested Sobyanin may become a candidate to replace Putin in 2018 elections, the Moscow mayoral battle may prove to be a launch pad for an assault by Navalny on the higher echelons of power.
The low turnout in Moscow doesn’t invalidate Navalny’s showing, according to Luis Saenz, head of equity sales and trading at BCS Financial Group in London.
“Navalny did quite well and the Kremlin needs to take notice,” Saenz said in e-mailed comments.
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