A surprisingly strong showing by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow’s mayoral election engendered newfound optimism among democratic and human rights activists despite the threat of further crackdowns by President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny finished second in the race with 27 percent of the vote, a significant total for an opposition candidate. The incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, former chief of staff for Putin, won 51 percent of the Sunday vote.
However, independent election observers in Russia said Monday that aggregate data indicates Sobyanin only won 49.5 percent of the vote—which would force a runoff in two weeks between the top two contenders.
Navalny demanded a recount and pointed to abnormally high voting-from-home totals meant to be reserved for ailing citizens. Yet he refrained Monday from urging his supporters to stage mass protests and instead exhorted them to continue the grassroots activism that he said produced the surprisingly high returns.
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the results of the election were "amazing" given that Putin’s regime "stacked the deck against Navalny."
Navalny was barred from campaigning until the conclusion of his trial for charges of embezzlement, which many observers viewed as politically motivated. He received a five-year jail sentence in July but was released on appeal, leaving him just eight weeks to mount a challenge against Sobyanin.
Additionally, many of Navalny’s targeted constituents—upper middle class Muscovites—were on vacation or preparing their kids for school during the summer campaign season, Aron said. Only about a third of eligible Moscow residents came out to vote.
"Given all the barriers and hoops he had to jump through and the amount of time he had to campaign this is a very impressive result," Aron told the Washington Free Beacon.
He added that Navalny could have received as much as 40 percent of the vote—forcing a runoff—if the election was held under normal standards.
Navalny ran a Western-style and anti-Putin campaign in the weeks leading up to the election, passing out brochures at metro stations and conducting a social media blitz after being blacked out from state-controlled television stations. He gained notoriety as a prominent anti-corruption activist after helping to orchestrate mass protests following significant victories by Putin’s United Russia party in 2011 parliamentary elections, which were marred by allegations of vote rigging.
Putin responded to the protests by initiating harsh measures against civil society groups, including a law that requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" and receive heightened scrutiny from the Kremlin.
Sunday’s results prove that activist groups have remained resilient in the face of pressure and continue to garner public support, said Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an interview.
"It shows that the opposition can remain engaged in Russia’s political system," she said.
"Even if the playing field is unfair it’s very meaningful that they can do so well and that they have prospects."
The impressive showing by Navalny could prompt members of Putin’s inner circle to alter their strategy for placating the public, Aron said. Reports suggest that some of Putin’s advisers raised the idea of allowing opposition candidates to run to create the facade of legitimate elections—assuring him that they would not be victorious.
Anti-drug activist Yevgeny Roizman appeared to have beaten his United Russia party opponent in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third-largest city.
"They lose out to the ones who are closer to Putin who warned that this is a risky game, that it will energize the opposition," Aron said, referring to the dispute between Putin’s advisers.
"I think Putin grudgingly agreed to this. Those who persuaded him are not feeling that great now."
Although Putin could prevent other opposition candidates from running in future elections or decide any day to detain Navalny, Aron said his supporters "tasted a semblance of normal elections" that will not be easy to "take away."
"These people are already extremely aggrieved," he said. "They [would be] even more angry at the regime."