MOSCOW – Russians have been going to the polls in 33 provinces to elect eight governors, 16 regional assemblies, and the mayors of 11 regional capitals.
Pro-Kremlin candidates were expected to secure most offices in the September 8 voting. But the balloting comes after unusually competitive campaigns in the cities of Moscow and Yekaterinburg.
The Moscow mayoral elections have become a rallying cry for the anti-Kremlin opposition, which is sensing an opportunity after authorities allowed opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny to run against incumbent Kremlin loyalist Sergei Sobyanin.
Opinion polls have shown Navalny trailing Sobyanin, but Navalny's supporters are hoping for a double-digit result.
In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth biggest city, analysts say 50-year old anti-narcotics campaigner and opposition activist Yevgeny Roizman has a chance of winning the mayoral election.
In Moscow, Navalny – whose very participation is highly unusual in elections usually micromanaged by the Kremlin – has conducted an energetic Western-style street campaign mostly without hindrance, despite being briefly detained by police twice.
He has held scores of meetings with voters, while teams of his volunteers have drummed up support handing out newspapers and plastering campaign stickers city-wide under the banner “Change Russia – Start with Moscow.”
Navalny still trails acting mayor Sobyanin by a significant margin, but his ratings have inched into the mid to late teens and he is comfortably placing second in front of the Communist Party’s Ivan Melnikov.
WATCH: Main Moscow Mayoral Candidates Cast Their Votes
Analysts believe the authorities gambled on allowing Navalny onto the ballot in order to legitimize the elections, banking on an easy victory for Sobyanin.
Although that victory still looks assured, Navalny has used the campaign and access to local media to build up political capital and raise his profile on a federal level despite not having an established party machine behind him.
A strong, double-digit showing would make it harder for the Kremlin to jail Navalny who is currently on bail pending appeal against what’s seen as a politically-motivated jail term of five years for stealing timber.
In contrast to Navalny, incumbent Sobyanin, 55, a white-haired political veteran from oil-rich Tyumen Oblast, has barely campaigned. Instead of billboards and campaign flyers, he has simply pointed to his three-year tenure as mayor, during which he has worked to humanize Moscow by developing parks and streets and offering bicycles for hire on street corners.
Moscow local television has hosted debates, giving airtime to all five opposition candidates. Sobyanin snubbed the debates altogether, while receiving generous state media coverage.
A strong performance by Sobyanin against Navalny in a relatively open election would boost Sobyanin’s credentials as a possible candidate for the Kremlin and successor to President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny’s supporters – who have manned campaign stands across the capital in past months -- are hoping to upstage Sobyanin by pushing the election to a second round run-off between the top two finishers. That would require Sobyanin to garner under 50 percent in the first round, which is seen as unlikely.
Also challenging for the powerful Moscow mayor’s seat are candidates from Kremlin-controlled opposition parties including the Liberal Democrat Party’s Mikhail Degtyaryov and Nikolai Levichev of the A Just Russia Party. The liberal Yabloko Party’s Sergei Mitrokhin is also running.
The Moscow mayoral campaign has seen a degree of genuine politics after years of stage-managed elections under Putin.
Thousands of volunteer election observers are poised to man polling stations. Navalny intends to hold a rally September 9 on Lubyanka Square in front of the secret services headquarters. Allegations of election fraud, if they occur, will likely catalyze protests, as they did in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections in December, 2011.
On September 6, both Sobyanin and Navalny held concerts to rally last-minute support. Thousands attended in the rain.
"I came here before you in order to acquire a name," Navalny told supporters. "It is funny how these guys in the Kremlin are afraid to call me by my name and keep referring to me as to 'some other politician' or 'this mister'. I came here before you to ask for your support and say out loud: 'My name is Aleksei Navalny and I am running in the election of the mayor of Moscow together with you.'"
Nikolai Petrov, a political expert for Carnegie Moscow Center, believes Sobyanin will win in the first round, but that Navalny has “succeeded” in his goal of becoming a federally-recognized politician.
Petrov said Roizman, in Yekaterinburg, has a good chance of winning. But Petrov was skeptical that Roizman would fare well as mayor.
Petrov cited one estimate that 92 percent of mayors who run against the United Russia ruling party are subsequently removed from their posts during their tenure.
In April, 2012, the opposition’s Yevgeny Urlashov with backing from tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, won the mayoral elections in Yaroslavl, but was removed from the post in June and arrested on suspicion of soliciting bribes. The opposition claimed the arrest was politically motivated.