Kremlin ally Sergei Sobyanin won a Moscow mayoral election on Sunday, two exit polls showed, but opposition leader Alexei Navalny did much better than expected and challenged the count.
The exit polls put Navalny on about 30 per cent of votes, a strong showing which could energise resistance to President Vladimir Putin, and his campaign team said it believed Sobyanin had not crossed the 50 percent threshold for outright victory.
An exit poll by state-funded VTsIOM showed Sobyanin won 53 per cent of votes versus 32 percent for Navalny, RIA news agency reported. Itar-Tass said an exit poll by the Public Opinion Foundation gave Sobyanin 52.5 percent and Navalny 29.1 percent.
But Navalny aides said its own exit polls showed Sobyanin received only 46 percent, not enough to avoid the embarrassment of a two-candidate runoff that would be risky for Sobyanin.
"Our exit poll data undeniably show that there will be a second round of this election," Navalny, the face of the largest wave of street protests against the 13-year rule of Putin, told campaign aides and journalists after the polls closed.
If Sobyanin's first-round win is confirmed, Putin will have a close ally at the helm in Moscow until after the 2018 presidential election, in which the former Soviet spy has not ruled out seeking a fourth term.
Navalny, 37, faces a five-year jail term if he loses an appeal against a July conviction on a charge-scale theft for a state firm. He denies guilt and says his trial was Kremlin revenge for his anti-corruption efforts and opposition activity.
Irina, a Muscovite in her 40s who works in manufacturing and on Sunday voted with her father, cast her ballot for Navalny in protest against the Kremlin.
"We've both voted for Navalny, we like some things about him but first and foremost we really don't like the authorities," she said.
Several voters who chose the white-haired Sobyanin said they had seen improvements in the city since he took office.
"There is no need for any change, everything is fine here. He's got serious experience now, he's well into this job. I like the way he works and want to see more of the same," said Yevgeny.
Putin, who has praised Sobyanin and suggested Navalny lacks the experience to run a city of nearly 12 million, repeated that message on Sunday without referring to any candidate by name.
"We need businesslike, no-nonsense, I would even say ... depoliticised people - technocrats who know how to work, know what to do and how to do it," he said in televised comments after casting his ballot at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A win for Sobyanin would put a trusted ally in office as mayor of Moscow - which accounts for more than a fifth of Russia's economy - until after the 2018 presidential election, in which Putin has not ruled out seeking a fourth term.
Even among those who voted for Navalny, there was little hope he could win and the threat of jail hangs over him.
He was convicted in July of stealing from a state firm and sentenced to five years in prison after a trial he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
In a highly unusual ruling, a judge released him the following day pending a ruling on appeal, enabling him to continue his mayoral campaign.
"I hope there will be no violations today, I'd very much want Muscovites today to finally be able to express their will and chose the mayor they want," Navalny, flanked by his wife Yulia and their two children, said on leaving a polling station.
Many political analysts say the Kremlin wanted Navalny to run because it expected him to be humiliated and believed this would wipe out any political threat from a critic who has presidential ambitions.
While opinion polls have shown Navalny has little or no chance of winning, his lively campaign has revived some of the enthusiasm of a flagging protest movement and may have rattled the Kremlin.
A strong showing for Navalny could deepen Kremlin concerns and boost the morale of Putin's opponents - particularly if Sobyanin were to fall short of 50 percent of the votes, forcing him into a run-off election.
Sobyanin waited in a short queue with his wife to cast votes in a upscale central neighbourood near the Russian government headquarters. They made no comments.
Navalny supporters said names were added to voter lists at the last minute to help Sobyanin. But there were no immediate reports of the kind of widespread alleged violations that sparked the protests that Navalny helped lead after a 2011 parliamentary vote won by Putin's ruling party.
Navalny and Sobyanin are among six candidates fighting for the ballots of nearly 7.2 million registered voters in Russia's biggest and wealthiest city, its main financial centre and the seat of most big Russian companies.
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