Elections – even biased ones — are funny things. Going into the Moscow Mayoral election on Sunday, the conventional wisdom saw the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin easily winning a majority in the first round. Meanwhile, his main opponent, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny languished in the high teens in the polls. However with 94% of the vote counted, Sobyanin is sweating out a first round victory with a 51.2% of the vote, while Navalny beat expectations and earned 27.4 percent. A race this close could in principle spark a recount and perhaps a second round of voting, although even a remote possibility of turning the second most important Executive position in Russia to the opposition suggests that the authorities will find a way to prevent another round of voting.
One fascinating aspect of this election was Sergei Sobyanin’s attempts to use “relatively” freer elections to gain greater legitimacy even within Russia’s autocratic political system. Sure, he took advantage of all the benefits of incumbency, enjoyed massive television exposure, reportedly pressured state workers to vote, gained from absentee ballots etc., but the incumbent seems to have relied far less on the crude ballot falsifications that marred the Parliamentary elections of 2011. And it is widely reported that Sobyanin favored allowing Navalny to run in the Mayoral race even though he was recently sentenced to 5 years in jail for embezzlement – charges that many view as politically motivated. Free on appeal, Navalny conducted the campaign in full knowledge that he could be sent to prison at any moment. Although he could have run against “loyal” opposition figures from Kremlin-friendly parties, Sobyanin apparently favored the harder, but potentially more rewarding path, of running against a “disloyal” opposition candidate in Navalny.
Sobyanin, who was thought to be generally popular in Moscow, a city that has prospered in recent years, likely thought that he could coast to victory against an inexperienced candidate with little organization in a very short campaign without relying on the most crude forms of falsification. Earning an easy victory in an election against a “real” opposition figure could have greatly increased Sobyanin’s standing – perhaps even as a potential successor to President Putin. Yet in squeaking by with just over 51% of the vote, Sobyanin returns to office diminished. Navalny, on the other hand, may end up in jail but by beating expectations he cemented his position as a leader of the opposition. These are the risks of using “relatively” free elections to gain legitimacy in an autocratic system where outcomes are not easy to predict.