Just a few weeks ago, upstart Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko appeared on the verge of clinching the governor's seat in Primorsky Krai, the most populous region in Russia's Far East.
That was until a suspect last-minute surge brought about the victory of Andrei Taraskenko, the incumbent representing the ruling United Russia party.
Ishchenko kicked up a fuss, inciting protests in the regional capital, launching a short-lived hunger strike, and calling electoral authorities out on what his supporters saw as a clear case of fraud.
His efforts combined with public uproar to get the results of the second-round vote annulled, and an entirely new election scheduled.
But now the unexpected challenger is set to be barred from running altogether.
On November 20, the regional election commission announced that Ishchenko's application contained numerous flaws, and that he was not eligible to participate in the rerun on December 16.
With Tarasenko out, having resigned following the annulled second-round vote, presidentially appointed acting Governor and United Russia candidate Oleg Kozhemyako now faces no serious rivals in the upcoming vote.
"I expected this. The system allows only its own people," Ishchenko told local news site VL.ru after his disqualification was announced.
"For the elections to be legitimate, decent candidates must be allowed to run against the political heavyweight Oleg Kozhemyako. But it's freshmen who are entering the ring with the world boxing champion," he said, referring to the two other candidates approved by the commission so far.
Ishchenko's troubles started on November 3, when the Communist Party announced it would not be supporting his candidacy. He immediately announced he'd be running as an independent candidate, but was left with little time to clear the hurdles required for registration.
To be eligible to run, political candidates in Russia must pass what's called the "municipal filter." In Primorsky Krai, that means gathering the signatures of 140 local deputies and at least 7,000 voters.
Apparently, the authorities decided to choose the toughest, most stupid path, but the only one they understand."-- El Murid, political blogger
On November 18, the deadline for applying, Ishchenko and 10 other candidates delivered their signatures to the election commission. Two days later, the commission announced that Ishchenko had failed to gather the required number of signatures, and declared invalid the signatures of 13 of the local deputies on his list.
That left him six signatures short of the threshold for registration as a candidate, according to Interfax.
The commission alleged that 11 of the deputies whose signatures Ishchenko had submitted had already signed for other candidates -- something Ishchenko insists did not contravene the rules -- and that two other signatures did not belong to active deputies.
The election commission will make a final call on Ishchenko's case on November 24, but it's unlikely to reverse its decision.
According to the newspaper Vedomosti, acting Governor Kozhemyako is currently leading the polls with a 42 percent approval rating. But with Ishchenko barred, voters in the second round may well consolidate around one of the other "protest candidates," the newspaper notes in an editorial.
Regional elections in September saw surprising results for several candidates who appeared to stand no chance against their well-funded rivals from United Russia.
At the time, analysts chalked the candidates' successes up to widespread popular anger over proposed pension reforms.
Kozhemyako, a veteran politician who has run three regions and maintained Putin's approval throughout, enjoys certain advantages in the run-up to the December 16 vote -- such as getting obsequious coverage on Russian state TV. But the Kremlin-backed candidate risks falling victim to the same popular anger that proved to be the downfall of other favored ruling party candidates in September.
As political blogger El Murid suggested in a post on the social network LiveJournal, the prospect of a United Russia candidate assuming the reins of Primorsky Krai at the expense of his primary challenger is not likely to sit well with voters.
"Apparently, the authorities decided to choose the toughest, most stupid path, but the only one they understand," Murid wrote. "Close tight the hatch, press it down and, just to be sure, seal it up. Then add some firewood, so that it burns better."