Sunday's mayoral election in Sochi, Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, has resulted in charges of fraud against the Kremlin favorite who is reported winning the contest in a crushing landslide.
In an election seen as a test of President Dmitri Medvedev's commitment to democratic reforms, Kremlin-backed candidate and acting Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhamov has been declared winner of the contest with just under 77 percent of the vote.
Running a distant second is Boris Nemtsov of the anti-Kremlin Solidarity Movement with 13.6 percent, and Communist Yuri Dzaganiya with less than seven percent of the vote. The combined vote for three other candidates was less than three percent. The municipal electoral commission says turnout approached 44 percent.
But exit polls conducted by the Nemtsov campaign show him taking 35 percent of the vote, with Pakhamov winning only 46 percent and falling short of the 50 percent barrier needed to avoid a runoff.
Nemtsov told VOA the establishment also denied opposition campaigns access to the media to answer his opponents.
Nemtsov says it was impossible to respond to charges that he was a Korean spy, that he destroyed the Nizhny Novgorod region [where he served as governor in the 1990's], that he is a villain, engages in corruption, etc. He refers to the authorities as cowardly and accuses them of totally blocking all media access. In addition, Nemtsov says government special services were 100 percent engaged in the electoral process, detaining his family members, and intimidating supporters.
The candidate says authorities also seized his campaign literature, searched printing houses and followed him and members of his staff. Last month, unidentified assailants threw chemicals in Nemtsov's face, though he was not seriously hurt. He says he now plans to challenge the official result in court. If it is not overturned, Anatoly Pakhamov will be inaugurated in May.
The apparent winner says Sochi voters expressed faith in his campaign platform, which should now be carried out.
Pakhamov says a competent administrative team must now be assembled, because it will need to prepare the city to host the 22nd Winter Olympic Games.
Moscow has slashed Sochi's Olympic construction budget because of the global economic crisis and lack of contractor bids. Nonetheless, the mayor will still have billions of dollars to manage, which will likely give him considerable political influence.
Nemtsov says whatever happens, the Solidarity Movement showing in the Sochi election indicates it is Russia's second-most-popular political force, and he says it is the first sign of a head-on struggle against the power structure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.