Sobyanin, according to election officials, won 51 percent of the vote. Navalny reportedly took 27 percent, and four other candidates split the rest.
Supporters of Navalny, who rose to prominence when he led protests against rigged elections in 2011, said Monday they suspect that just enough fiddling occurred during the unusually long overnight count to allow Sobyanin to cross the 50 percent threshold and avoid a second round. That would have been a dramatic setback for the ruling establishment.
Even with the loss, Navalny’s relatively strong showing against a Kremlin-backed candidate, who had vast resources and a monopoly on television exposure outside minor channels, almost guarantees a shift in the Russian political landscape.
In the city of Yekaterinburg, a controversial opposition candidate named Yevgeny Roizman was tentatively named winner of the mayoral contest — which would be a surprising blow to the ruling United Russia party in the country’s fourth-largest city.
In Moscow Sunday night, as the election commission delayed releasing any results, Navalny called on the Kremlin — rather than City Hall — to admit that the race should go to a runoff.
Navalny had spent the entire campaign running not against his leading opponent, Sobyanin, but against President Vladimir Putin — and that strategy appears to have clicked with a large number of voters.
“We don’t know him very well,” said Lyuba Kulikova, a Navalny voter in the historic center of Moscow.
“But we know he’s fighting against them,” said her husband, Alexei, referring to Putin’s United Russia party.
Navalny memorably dubbed United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves,” and the sobriquet stuck.
People’s Observers, a citizens group that was collecting results precinct by precinct, reported at midnight that Sobyanin had fallen below the 50 percent mark.
The first official results finally started to come in shortly after 11 p.m. Moscow time.
Navalny’s reported 27 percent is still a much better showing than any poll had predicted even a week ago, and it left two big questions hanging over Moscow.
Even if Sobyanin has squeaked through in the first round, has his standing been weakened, especially among his colleagues? And, more importantly, what does such a showing mean for Navalny, the star of last year’s protest movement?
Navalny is free on appeal following his July conviction on embezzlement charges and being sentenced to five years in prison in a case that was widely viewed as trumped up. His supporters argue that winning the votes of so many Muscovites will ensure that authorities allow him to remain free.