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Sochi Mayoral Election: Kremlin Favorite Wins As Opposition Candidate Claims Fraud

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SOCHI, Russia — The Kremlin favorite won an overwhelming victory in the mayoral election in the Russian city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, an official said Monday, but the top opposition candidate claimed fraud and said he would challenge the result.

With all the ballots from Sunday's election in Sochi counted, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov had 76.8 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, elections commission spokeswoman Valentina Tkachyova said.

Pakhomov is the candidate from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Putin personally backed the Sochi Olympic bid and his reputation is riding on a successful Olympic Games in a city that must build most of the facilities during the global financial crisis.

Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, a distant second with 13.6 percent, accused the authorities of pressuring vulnerable state workers to vote for Pakhomov in balloting before election day. Those votes accounted for about a quarter of the total ballots cast _ a proportion the independent election monitoring group Golos said Monday was "extremely high."

"Thirty thousand people voted under pressure, blackmail and threats," Nemtsov told The Associated Press. "This is blatant fraud and falsification."

Kremlin critics and electoral experts say early voting is often abused to boost the votes for government-backed candidates. They say teachers, doctors, soldiers and other government-paid workers are pressured to vote a certain way during early balloting, which usually takes place under the supervision of their bosses.

Nemtsov claimed a study of the results suggested that Pakhomov won 95 percent to 100 percent of the votes cast early in many polling districts, numbers he said proved early voters were pressured. Sochi Election Commission chairman Yuri Rykov denied that early voters were pressured.

On his Web site Monday, Nemtsov claimed that exit polls conducted by his campaign showed he garnered 35 percent of the votes cast Sunday, with Pakhomov taking 46 percent. Russian elections require a run-off if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

The Sochi vote was Russia's most prominent election since Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Putin as president a year ago, seen as a test of how far Medvedev intends to loosen the grip his predecessor established over politics nationwide.

But many residents said the odds were stacked in Pakhomov's favor by a lopsided campaign. Local television stations gave Pakhomov ample air time and cast him in a positive light while painting Nemtsov as a dangerous troublemaker and all but ignoring the other four candidates. Several other candidates were barred from the election.

Some disgruntled voters said their ballots mattered little in an election whose result seemed clear in advance.

Nemtsov, who served as deputy prime minister under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, asserted that "Putin and his team" used the levers of power to ensure that Pakhomov did not face a runoff.

Several media companies refused to take paid campaign advertising, and the contest was virtually invisible on streets bare of campaign posters.

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