A survey by a state-run pollster before Moscow's mayoral election in September showed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny would get 15.7 percent of the vote. Instead, he got 27.7 percent in the cleanest and most competitive high-profile election Russia has seen in a decade.
Unlike in recent years, when challengers have been disqualified, Navalny and other opposition candidates were allowed to run in—and in some cases win—a handful of regional mayor and legislative elections on September 8, and Kremlin insiders have said the political system is open to critics of the regime. Opposition leaders in Moscow have responded by beginning campaigns for next year's City Duma elections, although recent changes to electoral law have tilted the playing field even more in the ruling party's favor.
Meanwhile, a court last week upheld Navalny's embezzlement conviction, but suspended his sentence, which for now bars him from running for office. The politicized prosecution of Navalny, which began in earnest after a May 2012 street protest that turned violent, seemed to warn against any challenges to the regime from outside its carefully constructed political system.
For now, both sides see a way to gain ground within the system: Opposition leaders can try to develop an electoral base outside the diminished street protest movement, and the regime can bring them into the political system through elections that pro-Kremlin candidates will often still win. (After a nearly five-month break, the latest opposition march in Moscow on October 27 drew an estimated 6,000 people, about 10 times less than the estimated turnout at the largest street protests in 2011 and 2012.)
The roots of the current political situation stretch back to observers' reports of election fraud in the December 2011 State Duma elections, which sparked the largest street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. (As in previous elections, several opposition parties had been denied registration.) As a result, the Kremlin replaced its main ideologue, and the State Duma reinstated direct gubernatorial elections, which had been abolished in 2004.
The September 8 elections, which included gubernatorial, mayoral and municipal and regional legislative races, seemed to mark another breakthrough for the opposition: Navalny exceeded all expectations in Moscow with his strong finish (although the low 32-percent turnout likely helped him), maverick anti-drug campaigner Yevgeny Roizman defeated the ruling party candidate to become mayor of Russia's fourth largest city of Yekaterinburg, and independent candidate Galina Shirshina, who was supported by the long-standing liberal opposition party Yabloko, defeated the incumbent ruling party mayor in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Karelia region. Boris Nemtsov, a former Yeltsin-era high official, who has published reports on Putin's alleged opulent lifestyle and corruption in Sochi Olympics construction, was elected to the regional legislature in Yaroslavl.
Despite violations in several regions, observers deemed the vote count as mostly fair, at least in Moscow and Yekaterinburg. President Vladimir Putin himself said Russia had never seen such “legitimate, transparent and well-regulated” elections.