Millions of Russians will take to the polling booths on Sunday to cast their votes in regional and municipal elections. The most important race is happening in Moscow, where Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin faces off against Russia’s protest leader Alexei Navalny. Sobyanin, an ally and former administration head of President Vladimir Putin, is uniformly expected to win the mayoral seat by a wide margin. Turnout for Navalny, though, will determine to what extent Moscow residents oppose the Kremlin and its policies, political pundits said. “A sizeable part of the vote against Sobyanin will be against not the Moscow city government or the personality of the Moscow mayor, but against federal politics,” said Boris Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies. “The Kremlin is receiving many signals that a sizeable part of the population has problems with how it is governing the county.” Authorities worked intentionally to keep Navalny in the race, in what analysts say was an effort to boost the legitimacy of the crucial vote after tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections results. The opposition claimed the contests were rigged in favor of the Kremlin.
“It [the Moscow election] is to put an end to the protests and show that the authorities in Moscow – in the very heart of the protest movement – can win without fraud,” Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based political analyst, said. “The election will show that not only can the Kremlin win, but it can win by a landslide.”
Gubernatorial elections, in addition to Moscow, will be held in seven other Russian provinces, including the Moscow region and the volatile North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Popular elections of regional heads were abolished under Putin’s initiative in 2004 as a move to strengthen federal control over the regions in the wake of the Beslan school hostage crisis in the Northern Caucasus. The regional heads have since been voted in by regional legislatures after being nominated by the president – as happened with Sobyanin in 2010.
Popular votes for governors were reinstated in 2012, but Dagestan and Ingushetia will opt out of direct election. Local legislatures, under a law enacted in April, can still select the new head if authorities believe a direct vote could result in instability and violence.