MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow is holding its first mayoral election in a decade. Although an incumbent backed by President Vladimir Putin is expected to win Sunday's election handily, the candidacy of charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny is changing Russian politics in ways that could pose a risk for the Kremlin in the months and years ahead.
If Navalny can get more than 20 percent of the vote or even come close to forcing incumbent Sergei Sobyanin into a run-off, it could embolden the opposition in its efforts to one day drive Putin from power.
A vote seen as unfair could trigger protests, just as reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 set off the unprecedented protests against Putin's rule.
Navalny had built an online following through his anti-corruption blog, but it was these protests that cemented his status as de facto leader of the opposition, as he led street marches that attracted tens of thousands of people from across the political spectrum.
During the mayoral race, he introduced grassroots politics to the Russian capital, inspiring thousands of enthusiastic volunteers to join his campaign.
Sunday's mayoral election is the first since 2003 and the first since the Kremlin last year reversed Putin's 2004 decree abolishing direct elections for the Moscow mayor and other regional leaders.
Since Putin returned to the presidency for a third term, the Kremlin has cracked down on the opposition and tried to stifle dissent.
Navalny was sentenced in July to five years in prison for embezzlement in a case that he and his supporters describe as legally dubious and punishment for his exposure of high-level corruption. He left the courtroom in handcuffs, but a day later in a surprise turnaround, prosecutors requested he be set free until his appeal could be heard.
Most have speculated that it was Sobyanin who had Navalny set free, in order to ensure that the election would look as fair as possible and legitimize the Kremlin candidate as a politician.
For Navalny, a strong showing could lead to a shortening of his prison sentence, if the Kremlin feels that this would help diffuse discontent.
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