MOSCOW // Two exit polls in Moscow's mayoral election yesterday are predicting a stronger showing than expected for the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The exit polls by pollsters FOM and VTsIOM, which are both seen as favouring Kremlin candidates, put the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, in the lead with about 53 per cent.
But FOM predicts 29 per cent for Navalny, while VTsIOM shows him even higher, at 32 per cent.
The election was a potentially pivotal contest that energised the small opposition in ways that could pose a risk to the Kremlin in the days and years ahead.
Although Mr Sobyanin, backed by President Vladimir Putin, was expected to win handily, the candidacy of the charismatic Mr Navalny prompted a burgeoning wave of grassroots campaigning by thousands of volunteers who had not engaged in a competitive race before.
Mr Navalny faces time in prison after being convicted of embezzlement, but he was released from custody before the mayoral race until his appeal can be heard.
If Mr Navalny gets more than 20 per cent of the vote or even comes close to forcing incumbent Mr Sobyanin into a run-off, it could embolden the opposition in its efforts to one day drive Mr Putin from power.
A vote seen as unfair could trigger protests, just as reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 set off the unprecedented demonstrations against Mr Putin's rule.
Mr Navalny had built an online following through his anti-corruption blog, but it was 2011's protests that cemented his status as de facto leader of the opposition. He led street marches that attracted tens of thousands of people from across the political spectrum.
The election is the first since 2003 and the first since the Kremlin last year reversed Mr Putin's 2004 decree abolishing direct elections for the Moscow mayor and other regional leaders.
Since he returned to the presidency for a third term, the Kremlin has cracked down on the opposition and tried to stifle dissent.
Mr Navalny was sentenced in July to five years in prison for embezzlement in a case that he and his supporters describe as legally dubious and punishment for his exposure of high-level corruption. He left the courtroom in handcuffs, but a day later in a surprise turnaround, prosecutors requested he be set free until his appeal could be heard.
Most have speculated that it was Mr Sobyanin who had Navalny set free, in order to ensure that the election would look as fair as possible and legitimise the Kremlin candidate as a politician.
For Mr Navalny, a strong showing could also lead to a shortening of his prison sentence, if the Kremlin feels that this would help defuse discontent.
* Associated Press