Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny swept up far more votes than expected on Sunday while finishing second in Moscow's mayoral election, a pivotal contest that has energised Russia's small opposition in ways that could pose a risk to the Kremlin in the days and years ahead.
Partial results released early on Monday showed Navalny with about 27 percent of the vote, while the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, held a clear lead with about 52 percent.
Exit polls, however, predicted Navalny would get as much as 32 percent.
As the results only began to trickle out two hours after the polls closed, Navalny said he suspected the vote count was being manipulated.
Navalny told reporters that the over 50 percent result for Sobyanin is "guaranteed only by fraud that they organised during the vote outside the voting stations."
"We don't recognise this voting outside polling stations. We think two election rounds must be held, we demand the cancellation of the voting outside polling stations and the second election round," he said at his campaign headquarters late on Sunday.
"If this is not done by morning, we will analyse even more information that we get, find out more evidence and represent it in details tomorrow, and will address citizens calling them to come out to the streets - if the Moscow city office continues violating the election rights of Muscovites in this insolent way," Navalny added.
The election was being watched for what it bodes for the future of the opposition and for Navalny.
He faces time in prison after being convicted of embezzlement in a case seen as part of a Kremlin effort to sideline him, but his strong showing could lead to a shortening of his five-year sentence, if the Kremlin feels this would help defuse discontent.
Sobyanin needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff, but if he is seen as squeaking through unfairly because of vote-rigging, it could set off protests.
It was reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 that triggered the unprecedented demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin's rule.
Navalny's campaign said its own exit polls showed Sobyanin below 50 percent.
With ballots from about 70 percent of precincts counted, the results for Sobyanin and Navalny were holding steady at about 52 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
The four other candidates trailed far behind.
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 Sobyanin.
Unusually, election officials had not released a final turnout figure by early on Monday.
Two hours before the polls closed, turnout was registered at a low 26.5 percent.
Golos observers noted that voter rolls at some polling stations had been padded out with people who no longer lived in the neighbourhood.
They also noted that many people coming to the polls who receive benefits or salaries from the state had been pressured to do so.
Tatyana Romanova, a kindergarden teacher, said she supported Sobyanin "because after he came (to power) lots of things changed here in Moscow."
"Road construction began, many kindergartens are being opened. I'm a kindergarden teacher and I see change in this sphere. We are happy about it."
The elderly are Sobyanin's core constituency, while the young and middle class are more likely to oppose Putin and his team.
Sobyanin was Putin's deputy from 2005 until he was appointed Moscow mayor in 2010.
Navalny first built his following online through his anti-corruption blog, but it was the protests of 2011 and 2012 that cemented his status as de facto leader of the opposition.
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