- Associated Press - Sunday, September 8, 2013

MOSCOW (AP) — Two exit polls in Moscow’s mayoral election predicted a strong showing Sunday for opposition leader Alexei Navalny, putting him behind the Kremlin-backed incumbent but with the race far closer than expected.

But as election results began to trickle out more than two hours after polls closed, showing incumbent Sergei Sobyanin with a clear majority, Mr. Navalny said the slowness in reporting the results and the lack of an official turnout figure raised suspicions that the vote was being manipulated.

“We don’t recognize the results that are currently being announced, and I would like to say that we won’t give up one vote that we received,” Mr. Navalny told reporters at his campaign headquarters. “I call on the Kremlin and the mayor’s office to restrain themselves from falsifications.”

The election has energized Russia’s small opposition in ways that could pose a risk to the Kremlin in the days and years ahead.

It also could determine Mr. Navalny’s fate. He faces time in prison after being convicted of embezzlement in a case seen as part of a Kremlin effort to sideline him, but a strong showing could lead to a shortening of his five-year sentence if the Kremlin felt this would help defuse discontent.

The exit polls by pollsters FOM and VTsIOM, which are both usually seen as favoring Kremlin candidates, put incumbent Sergei Sobyanin in the lead with about 53 percent.

FOM predicted Mr. Navalny would get 29 percent, while VTsIOM showed him even higher, at 32 percent — far more than expected. A week before the election, a poll by the independent Levada Center predicted Mr. Navalny would get 18 percent, compared with 58 percent for Mr. Sobyanin. Four other candidates trailed far behind.

With less than 4 percent of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission said Mr. Sobyanin was leading with 57 percent and Mr. Navalny had only 22 percent.

Getting above 50 percent would allow MR. Sobyanin to avoid a runoff, but if he is seen as squeaking through unfairly because of vote-rigging, it could set off protests. Reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 triggered the unprecedented demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Mr. Navalny’s campaign said its own exit polls showed Mr. Sobyanin below 50 percent.

Arriving at his local polling station early on Sunday with his wife and children, Mr. Navalny said he hoped there would be no vote-rigging at the polls so that voters could choose “the political space they need for a new Moscow.”

Golos, Russia’s leading independent election monitor, said the voting appeared to have gone smoothly, but there were fears that election officials would artificially increase the turnout to allow them to add votes for Mr.  Sobyanin.

“This is the dilemma: Either they manipulate something somehow, but then they could be caught and won’t be able to sleep soundly on Monday,” Golos Co-chairman Grigory Melkonyants said. “Or they could let it be a real election and allow a second round.”

Golos observers noted that voter rolls at some polling stations had been padded with people who no longer lived in the neighborhood. They also noted that many people coming to the polls who receive benefits or salaries from the state had been pressured to do so. One woman demanded a document stating that she had voted, supposedly as proof for the state hospital where she worked, the group said.

Anna Grishina, a retiree who came out of the polling station soon after Mr. Navalny, clutched her cane and said proudly that she had voted for Mr. Sobyanin.

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