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Alexei Navalny Denounces Moscow Vote Count
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has swept up far more votes than expected in Moscow's mayoral election, in a contest that could pose a risk to the Kremlin.
The exit polls put Mr Navalny on 27% of votes while Vladimir Putin-backed Sergei Sobyanin held a clear lead with around 51%.
But Mr Navalny said he suspects the vote count had been inflated for his rival and has threatened to hold protests.
As the results began to emerge only two hours after the polls closed, Mr Navalny said he believed he would be able to force a run-off.
"We don't recognise the results that are currently being announced, and I would like to say that we won't give up one vote that we received," he told reporters at his campaign headquarters.
"I call on the Kremlin and the mayor's office to restrain themselves from falsifications."
Mr Sobyanin needs more than 50% to win in the first round, but if he is seen as getting through unfairly because of vote-rigging, it could set off protests.
It was reports of widespread fraud in a national parliamentary election in 2011 that triggered the unprecedented demonstrations against President Putin's rule.
Mr Navalny's campaign said its own exit polls showed Mr Sobyanin below 50%. A separate vote count by observers also cast doubt on his clear majority.
"If the mayor's office and Kremlin ignore the people's demands, then we will call everyone out onto the streets of the city," Mr Navalny tweeted.
The elderly are Mr Sobyanin's core constituency, while the young and middle class are more likely to oppose Mr Putin and his team. Mr Sobyanin was the president's deputy from 2005 until he was appointed Moscow mayor in 2010.
"Sobyanin and Putin spend most of their time lining their own pockets," said Alexei Gorshkov, a 34-year-old employee in the IT sector who voted for Navalny.
"It doesn't matter who you vote for today, as long as you vote against Sobyanin. If there's a run-off, Navalny will have a real chance."
Mr Navalny first built his following online through his anti-corruption blog, but it was the protests of 2011 and 2012 that cemented his status as de facto leader of the opposition. He led street marches that attracted tens of thousands of people from across the political spectrum.
His mayoral candidacy inspired a grassroots campaign like nothing the city had ever seen before. About 20,000 volunteers hit the campaign trail for Mr Navalny, passing out leaflets in the metro or hanging banners on balconies.
Mr Navalny faces time in prison after being convicted of embezzlement in a case seen as part of a Kremlin effort to sideline him, but his strong showing could lead to a shortening of his five-year sentence, if the Kremlin feels this would help defuse discontent.
Mr Sobyanin did not actively campaign, preferring instead to play the regal incumbent and let his work as mayor speak for itself.