MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest critic is very close to a major upset in Sunday's Moscow mayoral election and is calling on supporters to take to the streets on Monday if he is denied.
Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who became the face of the 2011-12 protest movement, appears to have received a larger-than-expected share of the vote, pushing the Kremlin-backed incumbent dangerously close to the 50 percent mark, below which he and Navalny would face each other in a run-off.
With 80 percent of the ballots counted by 2:45 a.m., acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin had received just 51.40 percent while Navalny had 27.20 percent of the votes. The rest went to smaller parties, including communists, liberals, and nationalists. The final results are not expected until later Monday morning.
Navalny and his campaign are already calling foul, saying they believe vote totals have been falsified to keep Sobyanin above 50 percent. They claim to have their own exit polls to back it up.
Sobyanin, meanwhile, appears to expect a victory eventually, though his campaign won't rule out a run-off.
Going into the vote, the independent Levada Center expected Sobyanin to win in the first round with 58 percent and Navalny capturing just 18 percent. Voter turnout today was said to be low on a chilly, overcast holiday weekend.
There is no expectation Navalny will ever be allowed to be mayor of Russia's capital, but even forcing a run-off would be a major blow to Putin, not to mention to Sobyanin's career. Sobyanin has been rumored to be among the candidates to take over as prime minister or perhaps even succeed Putin one day.
Earlier this summer, Navalny was convicted on what he insists were politically motivated embezzlement charges. Thousands took to the streets in Moscow to protest. The next day he was released pending an appeal, but the conviction looms over him. If the appeal is denied, he will be technically barred from ever holding public office.
Most observers here believe that, even if the Kremlin lets him win, they would make sure his conviction is upheld, sending him to prison for five years.
Sunday's vote was the first time Muscovites have been able to elect a mayor in a decade, since Putin changed the system to appoint the position directly. Sobyanin was appointed in 2010, but unexpectedly resigned in June to trigger a snap election two years early, giving him a chance to get ahead before any upstart challengers like Navalny could mobilize.
But Navalny has proven to be a resilient candidate. His has been able to tap into a grassroots network that formed as the protest movement picked up steam after fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011. He quickly became one of the most visible and vocal leaders of the motley alliance of Kremlin opponents. Regardless of Sunday's election result, the campaign has marked Navalny's emergence as a political threat to Putin on a national stage.
Big questions will remain until the results are announced on Monday: will the Kremlin allow a runoff to take place? Will Sobyanin avoid one legitimately?
Given the history of vote tampering in Russia and how close the official count is to 50 percent, if Sobyanin is declared the winner in the first round it will likely be met with wide skepticism here.
If it is allowed to proceed to a second vote, it will be a stunning rebuke for Putin in Russia's biggest city. Putin's opponents hope it will legitimize their efforts in the eyes of ordinary Russians and mobilize more of them to support their cause. Moscow is home to Russia's most strident opposition. Putin's national approval ratings have slipped in recent months, but he remains widely popular throughout the rest of the country. The ruling United Russia party all but swept elections around the rest of the country on Sunday.
Navalny supporters have scheduled an officially-sanctioned rally for Monday evening. By then the official results will be known and will likely determine whether the crowd will be jubilant or angry.