(RFE/RL) -- There was a lot at stake in this weekend's mayoral election in Russia's resort city of Sochi.
The city, after all, will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, a multibillion-dollar prestige project that is dear to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But despite intense national and international attention on the April 26 race and the involvement of some high-profile political figures, local media all but ignored the vote.
According to preliminary results, the Kremlin-backed candidate, acting Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov of the ruling Unified Russia party, scored a strong first-round victory.
With three-quarters of the ballots counted, Pakhomov is credited with 77 percent of the vote, while former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has been awarded second place with 13.5 percent. Communist candidate Yury Dzagania is third with 6.6 percent.
In the end, just 38 percent of voters came to the polls.
It is sufficient to point out that candidates were deprived of the opportunity to appear on television and radio on a commercial basis. This already means that there is no way this election can be considered a free or democratic election.
Allegations of widespread fraud and manipulation continue, and opposition candidates have vowed to contest the results in court.
With Pakhomov garnering nearly twice the support that pre-vote surveys indicated, opposition candidates have been quick to denounce the election, which had been seen as a test of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's pledges to boost democracy in Russia.
"It must be said that this [election] was unprecedented in terms of the abuse of administrative resources in the campaign," said Communist candidate Yury Dzagania.
"It is sufficient to point out that candidates were deprived of the opportunity to appear on television and radio on a commercial basis. This already means that there is no way this election can be considered a free or democratic election," he said.
Pakhomov virtually declined to campaign during the race. He made few public appearances and did not give interviews. However, he was featured widely in the news programming of local state-controlled media.
Independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the slow vote count is suspicious.
"First of all, early on Monday morning, they reported the results of 80 percent of the ballots. This means that one-fifth of the ballots are still not counted," Oreshkin said. "During federal elections, where counting the ballots is much more difficult, they have already processed 90 percent, sometimes 95 percent, by 3 a.m.
"This means that somewhere behind the scenes they are sitting, working with the protocols, correcting things, writing things in, recounting so that they will end up with the figure they need.”
'Duress, Pressure, Threats'
In denouncing the election, Nemtsov focused attention on the practice of early voting, which he claims the ruling party used in order to boost Pakhomov's support.
Mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov came in a distant second.
"We know that many of those who cast ballots in early voting did it under duress, pressure, and threats," Nemtsov said. "They were threatened that they could be sacked or would not be paid their salaries.
"Naturally, people can be understood in this situation because unemployment is so high in Sochi, people cling to their jobs, and salaries are too low," he said.
Nearly 11 percent of the registered voters in Sochi – some 30,000 people – were officially recorded as having voted early, gazeta.ru reported. That figure is up from the just 5 percent that the local election commission reported on April 24, the last day of campaigning.
In addition, hundreds of residents of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia – which Russia has recognized as independent – were allowed to vote in the Sochi race.
In all, early voting amounted to 27 percent of all ballots cast in the race.
Oreshkin described for RFE/RL’s Russian Service how early voting works.
"What is 'early voting'? That's when they bring workers in from the factories on buses and the department head is faced with a clear task: Now you are voting early," Oreshkin said. "We will check what result there was. And if the voting is 'incorrect,' you are going to have problems. So they vote like they are supposed to.”
Nemtsov's campaign has released the results of its own exit polling on election day that indicated Pakhomov received 46 percent of the vote, followed by Nemtsov with 35 percent and Dzagania with 17 percent. That survey did not take into account ballots cast early.
Nemtsov told journalists that he will contest the election in court. It is expected the Communist Party will also file a complaint.