MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition candidate Alexei Navalny has told a sea of cheering supporters that his surprisingly strong second-place finish in Moscow's mayoral election was a victory that gave birth to real political competition in Russia.
Navalny has claimed that the vote was manipulated to give the Kremlin-appointed incumbent the slim majority needed to win in the first round and avoid a runoff. Russia's most respected election monitoring group also questioned the accuracy of the vote.
But rather than call for mass street protests like those he led after a 2011 national parliamentary election, Navalny on Monday urged his supporters to keep up the kind of grassroots political activism that resulted in him defying all expectations to win 27 percent of the vote.
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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny demanded a recount Monday in Moscow's mayoral election after official results showed that the Kremlin-backed incumbent barely escaped facing him in a runoff. Russia's most respected monitoring group also questioned the accuracy of the vote.
The Moscow Election Commission said Monday that former Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin won just over 51 percent of the vote while Navalny garnered 27 percent in second place, a strong result for a Russian opposition leader. If Sobyanin, 55, had won less than 50 percent, he would have faced a runoff with the charismatic 37-year-old Navalny, who has risen to wide prominence in the past few years with his anti-corruption campaign.
"We do not recognize these elections," Navalny told reporters. "Sobyanin can't consider himself the mayor of all Muscovites, he can't consider himself a lawfully elected mayor unless he agrees to our demands and allows a recount of the vote."
Leonid Volkov, chief of Navalny's election campaign, said the key violation they are contesting is the voting-from-home totals, where the vote count showed what he called an abnormally high number of votes for Sobyanin. Those votes are from people considered too infirm to get to polling stations.
Sobyanin, who was appointed Moscow's mayor in 2010, told Russian news agencies that Moscow had "passed the test for free and fair elections."
Sunday's election was closely watched around the world amid concerns over the democratic process in Russia and following Navalny's recent conviction for embezzlement, a charge he says was politically motivated.
While Navalny's frustrated supporters were gearing up for a protest rally Monday evening, the activist said he was not seeking to bring unrest to Moscow. Still, he pledged to "participate in acts of civil disobedience" if Sobyanin turned down his offer for talks and a recount.
"Our demands are lawful, we don't plan to kick up a fuss for the sake of it," Navalny said.
Golos, Russia's leading independent election monitor, said the voting Sunday appeared to have gone smoothly but pointed to violations that could have tipped the balance in favor of one candidate.
Golos' executive director Grigory Melkonyants said Monday his group's observations indicate the actual tally for Sobyanin was lower than the official result posted by authorities. Aggregated data collected by election observers throughout Moscow and published on Golos' website showed Sobyanin winning only 49.5 percent of the vote — a number that by law would have required a runoff in two weeks among the top two contenders.
"We have results from over 2,000 polling stations, and it's clear that there should be a second round," Melkonyants said. "And yet for some reason, where there aren't any observers, the outcome is different and it changes the overall result. Everyone has doubts. This is clearly not a convincing victory."
This mayoral election was the first in Moscow since 2003 and included six candidates. Last year, the Kremlin reversed President Vladimir Putin's 2004 decree abolishing direct elections for Moscow's mayor and other regional leaders.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.