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Sobchak Favored In St. Petersburg Election

St. Petersburg, May 17 (RFE/RL) -- With voters in St. Petersburg going to the polls this Sunday to elect the city's next executive, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak appears to enjoy a formidable lead over a divided pack of rivals.

A new St Petersburg Times/Gallup poll, conducted earlier this week shows that, among likely voters, nearly 30 percent surveyed would cast their ballot for Sobchak, who has the highest name recognition among all the candidates.

The survey indicates Sobchak's lead extends across all age groups, income and education levels, although his most solid support was among respondents with higher education and above-average incomes.

But despite Sobchak's big lead, there is a chance the election might not end up as one-sided as it now seems. The poll shows Sobchak is unlikely to get the outright majority necessary to win in the first round, which would force a runoff with the second-place finisher on June 16.

Meanwhile, a tight race is shaping up for the crucial second place spot. The poll shows Deputy Mayor Vladimir Yakovlev coming in second with nearly 9 percent. Trailing in third place is a former deputy of the Federation Council, Yury Boldyrev, with nearly 8 percent.

Moreover, a large number of undecided voters -- 31 percent in the survey -- conceivably could make it a much closer race.

Polls in Russia have often proved an unreliable indicator of electoral preferences, largely because of a high level of fear and distrust among voters. In particular, large numbers of voters declaring themselves to be undecided has been a frequent problem for polling groups attempting to predict election outcomes in Russia.

Oleg Dembo, a researcher for Gallup St. Petersburg Market Facts who worked on the survey, said the undecided vote likely would be split among several candidates. But he said Sobchak could have an edge because of a tendency for fence-sitters to go with the candidate they think has the best chance of winning.

In another development this week, two candidates, Yuri Artemev and Vyacheslav Shcherbakov, announced they were dropping out of the race and backing Yakovlev. It is unclear whether this electoral reshuffle would give a boost to Yakovlev's candidacy, as the two candidates appeared to have marginal support.

Analysts have credited Yakovlev with a vigorous advertising campaign in which he has portrayed himself a "can-do" candidate who would concentrate on rebuilding the city's crumbling infrastructure.

Boldyrev also has scored with his calls for budget control, accountability and rooting out corruption.

Sobchak, for his part, has taken advantage of his role as the incumbent, concentrating on continuing the economic reform program he began five years ago.