Gardens and games, but no contest in Moscow mayor poll

A spruced-up Moscow is to hold its mayoral election on Sunday. (AFP Photo/Vasily MAXIMOV )

A spruced-up Moscow is to hold its mayoral election on Sunday

A spruced-up Moscow is to hold its mayoral election on Sunday. (AFP Photo/Vasily MAXIMOV )

Moscow (AFP) - Moscow authorities have decorated the streets and swept the ballot paper clean of serious opposition candidates as the Russian capital prepares to re-elect its Kremlin-backed mayor on Sunday.

Like Vladimir Putin ahead of presidential polls in March, incumbent Sergei Sobyanin has refused to take part in electoral debates but is still almost guaranteed to win another term.

Supporters say he has transformed life in the city with billion-dollar renovation projects that include a showpiece central park and new pedestrian areas along with a string of new metro stations.

But critics argue these are a sop to a new urban middle class which has in the past protested against Putin's rule, as the Kremlin continues to crack down on political freedoms.

"He's widened the pavements, but on those pavements they carry on arresting people, they forbid people from taking part in demonstrations," said former opposition MP Dmitry Gudkov, who was barred from standing against Sobyanin under new rules.

Moscow's mayoral election five years ago was the last time Russian politics came close to a major upset, with opposition leader Alexei Navalny nearly forcing Sobyanin into a runoff.

This time, authorities are taking no such chances in getting the 60-year-old apparatchik back to city hall.

Navalny is currently serving a one-month jail term for organising illegal protests, while other would-be candidates must win the backing of a certain number of local officials before they can stand.

Low-profile representatives of the Communist Party, the nationalist LDPR and two other groups made it onto the ballot, but opposition deputy Ilya Yashin and gay rights activist Anton Krasovsky did not.

"We want a city without fences, without barriers in the literal and the metaphorical sense -- a city of free people," Gudkov told AFP.

Sobyanin's office declined a request for an interview.

- Virtual reality campaign -

With little doubt about the outcome, in both the Moscow election and concurrent regional polls across Russia, much of the focus will be on turnout.

Sobyanin campaign workers have been posted outside metro stations and offer virtual-reality headsets that show how the capital has changed since he became mayor.

A host of celebrities has also taken to social media to praise Sobyanin's achievements, with the seemingly coordinated drive prompting dry parodies.

As with the presidential election, there will be games and food stalls outside polling stations to ensure turnout does not dip below the 30-40 percent predicted by pollsters.

There is no minimum turnout needed to validate the results however.

Muscovites will be able to vote for the first time from dachas -- or holiday homes -- so leaving the city for what could be the last weekend of the long summer is no obstacle.

In town, a festival of exhibition gardens organised by the mayor's office has also kept the capital looking its best ahead of the vote, after being substantially spruced up for the World Cup hosted by Russia.

"I'm voting for Sobyanin, of course. He's done so much for Moscow and I really think he's worthy of this position," said Irina Bykovskaya as she walked down central Tverskaya street, which has seen an overhaul over the last mayoral term.

"What do we need an opposition for, if everything is fine?" the 58-year-old asked.

- Ritual vote -

But office worker Elena Ryazhina was unsure whether she would take part.

"On the one hand, it's important, on the other it's clear this election won't change anything. I don't know who my friends are voting for -- we don't discuss it at all, to be honest."

Newspaper columnist Andrei Kolesnikov told AFP the mayoral election had, like other Russian polls, become a ritual in recent years rather than a genuine choice.

"This ritual has become a habit, so expected turnout should be more-or-less OK," the Moscow Carnegie Center fellow said.

He suggested that a more European feel to the capital had left many dubious residents better disposed to Sobyanin, even if they lacked political freedoms.

"In that sense an open cafe is better than an open society," Kolesnikov said.

"One can get by without an open society -- if the cafe is working, why not support the man who created this atmosphere?"