Putin critic Alexei Navalny surprises Kremlin with strong showing in Moscow election

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures as he speaks to the media at his headquarters in Moscow on Sunday. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

A vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin won an unexpectedly large share of the vote in Moscow’s first mayoral election in a decade, according to results released Monday. 

The country's leading election monitor Golos said Sunday's vote had gone smoothly. However, Golos also cited reports of polling stations being padded with people who no longer lived in the area, and people on state benefits saying they were pressured to vote, according to The Associated Press.

Nearly complete counts showed opposition candidate Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who is a thorn in Putin's side, had garnered 27.3 percent of the vote, more than he had been predicted.

The incumbent and apparent winner, Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, appeared to have broken the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a second vote. 

However, Navalny disputed the vote count.

"We do not accept the results that are being announced," said the 37-year-old Navalny, who rose to prominence during protests following the 2011 and 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections. 

Polls suggested Navalny would get just 3 percent of the vote in July, when he was jailed for five years on embezzlement charges. Navalny says the case was politically motivated. He was released pending appeal after large protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg alleged Putin was trying to silence Navalny.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin votes at a polling station in Moscow on Sunday. Alexey Druzhinin / AFP - Getty Images

Just a week before the election, polls suggested Navalny would get about 18 percent of the vote. 

Some political observers believe the Kremlin let Navalny run for mayor in the belief that he would suffer a humiliating defeat.

But Navalny's Western-style campaign appeared to take his rivals by surprise with its energy and professionalism.

Largely denied TV coverage, the charismatic Navalny mobilized activists both online and in the streets. 

Sobyanin’s projected share of the vote dropped from 78 percent in June to 58 percent last month, according to polls.

If Sobyanin's first-round win is confirmed, Putin will have a close ally at the helm in Moscow until after the 2018 presidential election, in which the former Soviet KGB spy has not ruled out seeking a fourth term. 

A pro-Navalny rally is planned Monday night on the same Moscow square where he helped lead anti-Putin protests that erupted following allegations of widespread fraud in a December 2011 parliamentary election.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.