MOSCOW -- With vote-counting still under way in Moscow's mayoral election, one thing was already clear -- opposition candidate and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny exceeded almost all expectations.
According to analyst Aleksei Mukhin, of the Center for Political Information in Moscow, Navalny "accomplished his goal" of positioning himself as a national-level politician.
Exit polls released immediately after voting ended on September 8 showed Navalny with between 29 and 32 percent of the vote. The Navalny campaign's own exit polling put his support at 36 percent.
But just a week before the voting, most official pollsters predicted Navalny would win about 15 percent.
Navalny, 37, and the Kremlin-supported acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, 55, are awaiting official results to see if Sobyanin will be awarded the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round of voting.
The Navalny campaign has alleged fraud
in the vote aimed at giving Sobyanin a first-round win.
Navalny had told supporters after polls closed that a second round was "inevitable."
Although denied access to state television, Navalny waged an energetic and innovative campaign based on the enthusiasm of his volunteers and financing from small donations.
Navalny campaign staffer Aleksei Shagal, 27, told RFE/RL that his candidate has grown throughout the campaign.
"It is clear that he really tempered himself and has become a politician of a new level," he said.
Turnout in the election was far lower than expected at around 33 percent. Initially, the low turnout was seen as an indication that Navalny had failed to energize Muscovites and overcome their skepticism about elections.
However, the unfolding election results seem to indicate that the low turnout meant that Sobyanin had largely declined to use his so-called administrative resources and decided to conduct a much fairer election than the city saw under his predecessor as mayor, Yury Luzhkov.
Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggests that Sobyanin may have been overly confident about his chances of clearly winning in the first round.
"I think it was cleaner than ever...in Moscow," he said. "The reason why, I think, is connected not only with the need for the Kremlin and for Sobyanin to give him as much legitimacy as possible, but it's connected with forecasts showing that Sobyanin [was] easily winning in the first round. They felt there was no need to falsify election results."
Navalny's Broader Appeal
St. Peterburg-based analyst Mikhail Vinogradov, however, gives credit to Navalny for appealing to a broader spectrum of voters.
"The unexpected reaching out by Navalny -- mostly, Navalny himself, rather than his campaign -- to apolitical voters, including older voters and state workers, had some results," he said. "It wasn't a complete success, of course. Navalny didn't come close to a first-round victory. But it was a sort of unexpected result for both candidates."
WATCH: Navalny says second round is inevitable in Moscow election:
Even as a newly minted national politician, however, Navalny faces a serious obstacle. He was convicted of corruption in July and sentenced to five years in prison, and he is currently free on bail pending his appeal.
Some analysts have speculated that a strong showing by Navalny in the election would make it more difficult for the authorities to imprison him on the charges, which are widely seen as politically motivated.
Analyst Petrov, however, says Navalny's results are "a pretty negative surprise" for the Kremlin.
"The rational choice for the Kremlin is to give him five years on probation," he says. "But I think that it's too early to make any forecasts because there was a pretty negative surprise for the Kremlin today and nobody can be [sure] that the rational choice is the one which will be made."
He thinks it may now be more likely that Navalny will be sent to prison.
"I think that the probability for the so-called hawks to catch Navalny and to give him a term in prison -- this probability now, after what is seen as a humiliation for the Kremlin, is not so low," he said.
The big question still in the air, however, is what Navalny will do if he believes the election results were falsified to give Sobyanin a first-round victory.
Final preliminary results were expected to be announced on the morning of September 9, and Navalny has scheduled an authorized rally for later the same day.
Tom Balmforth reported from Moscow; Robert Coalson reported and wrote from Prague; RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov also contributed from Moscow