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Putin critic takes on Kremlin rival in Moscow polls

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A top critic of President Vladimir Putin on Sunday faced a Kremlin-backed incumbent in a hotly contested Moscow mayoral poll, the first time an opposition leader has been allowed to stand in a high-profile election.

In the Russian capital's first mayoral election in a decade, Muscovites had six candidates to choose from, including current pro-Kremlin mayor Sergei Sobyanin and main opposition candidate Alexei Navalny.

Putin, who has made no secret of his support for his former Kremlin chief of staff Sobyanin, said Moscow did not need a politician for a mayor.

"Such big cities do not so much need to be run by politicians," he said after casting his vote in Moscow, adding the city should be managed by "depoliticised people, technocrats".

The candidacy of anti-corruption crusader and protest leader Navalny has made the race the first genuinely competitive Russian election since the heady early post-Soviet years.

The vote will be seen as a crucial test of the protest mood in a city which was shaken by huge demonstrations against Putin's decade-long rule in the winter of 2011-2012.

Moscow gave Putin a relatively low 46.95 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, well below the nationwide average.

Opinion polls have indicated Kremlin-backed Sobyanin, 55, will win a majority in the first round, while Navalny is set to come second with around 20 percent.

Turnout stood at 18.5 percent as of 1100 GMT, the Moscow election commission chief said, a relatively slack figure that officials hoped would improve.

Navalny, 37, made a last-minute plea to supporters by email, urging them to find three acquaintances to turn out and vote to force a second round. "It is on a knife-edge," he wrote, citing exit polls which he said would be illegal to publish at this stage.

He has threatened protests if officials rig the vote.

Support for the four other candidates in the poll has not been significant.

The Moscow election was part of a nationwide day of local polls across the country, with Kremlin-backed establishment figures also being challenged in key cities like the main Urals centre of Yekaterinburg.

--- 'Voting for Navalny will hasten change' ---

Navalny, who shot to prominence during the anti-Putin rallies, has earned comparisons to a young Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet president, for his exuberant energy, good looks and promise of change.

Many Muscovites said they would vote for Navalny, who channels public anger against the Kremlin, even if some harbour reservations about his tough anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"He embodies the fight against corruption, honesty, protest against the regime," said Ivan Volkov, 28, after casting his ballot.

"I am not sure he will win but any vote in his favour will hasten the arrival of political change."

The opposition leader expressed hope that the election would be free of violations as he appeared at a polling station with his elegant wife and two children.

But in contrast to previous elections in Russia over the past years, independent observers said they had not so far registered any major irregularities.

Many said they were voting for Sobyanin because he had done a lot for Moscow since his appointment to the post in 2010.

"With his arrival Moscow has become better," said Yevgenia Zatsepina, 78. "He is someone who keeps his promises. He's business-like and kind."

Throughout the campaign the buttoned-up Kremlin functionary avoided overt political rhetoric and shunned television debates, instead focusing on sprucing up the capital of 12 million.

By contrast, Navalny made headlines with a Western-style political campaign mobilising the support of thousands of volunteers and securing more than 100 million rubles ($3 million) in donations.

The main intrigue in the poll is not how many vote for the pro-Kremlin incumbent but what happens to Navalny, who has been campaigning under the shadow of a prison sentence on what he says are trumped-up charges.

Navalny, who first made a name for himself exposing corruption among the elite, has vowed to jail Putin and his allies if he is one day elected president.

In July, Navalny was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on fraud charges and arrested in court.

A day later he was suddenly released pending his appeal, in an unprecedented move observers say showed the Kremlin did not know how to handle him.

Despite Navalny becoming an increasingly visible presence in Russia's politics, Putin still refuses to mention him by name and referred to him in a recent interview as "this gentleman".

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130908/putin-critic-takes-kremlin-rival-moscow-polls-2