Moscow’s vote on September 8th will be much more than an election for mayor—although that in itself would be pretty important. For the first time in more than a decade, a political alternative is emerging in Russia—despite the media censorship, the administrative pressure, and the vastly superior resources of the ruling regime. Alexei Navalny’s insurgent campaign for Moscow mayor has already been described as Russia’s first modern (US-style) political campaign: he has met face-to-face with voters every day; raised funds through individual, often small, donations; drawn thousands of volunteers willing to contribute their time and effort; and inspired genuine public enthusiasm for a political cause not seen in Russia since at least the early 1990s.
That cause is not a particular program or even a particular candidate—it is change, after nearly 14 years of repressive and corrupt rule by Vladimir Putin and his associates from the former Soviet KGB and the Ozero dacha cooperative.
According to the Levada Center polling agency, the support for Putin’s candidate, acting Moscow mayor and United Russia party member Sergei Sobyanin, fell from 78 percent in July to 58 percent in August; while Navalny’s figures rose from 8 percent to 18 percent. Since September polling is not available (official polls are prohibited by law one week before the vote), and since up to a third of voters make up their mind on election day, the first-ever runoff in the Russian capital is more than likely (if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote on the first ballot, the top two contenders proceed to a runoff vote). According to the unofficial polling conducted by Navalny’s campaign, Sobyanin will receive between 44 and 47 percent of the vote; with 26 to 29 percent of Muscovites voting for the main opposition candidate.
The Kremlin now faces an unpalatable choice: count votes honestly and almost certainly face a humiliating runoff (where a combined protest vote against its candidate is likely), or resort to vote-rigging—and face mass street protests on the scale of 2011–2012 or larger; its worst nightmare.
Vladimir Putin has often been lucky, be it with the oil prices that began to rise just as he came to power, or with the “war on terror,” which led Western leaders to close their eyes on the Kremlin’s authoritarian policies for the sake of security cooperation. In the coming days, even as the world’s attention is focused on Syria, Mr. Putin must not get a free pass—either on election fraud or on using force against peaceful demonstrators.
He must know that the world is watching.