Alexei Navalny was known in Russia mainly as a muckraking firebrand who had made himself a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. That changed Sept. 8.

With a stunningly strong showing in Moscow’s mayoral election against an incumbent handpicked by President Vladimir Putin, Navalny has emerged as the country’s most electrifying opposition figure and, potentially, a plausible alternative to Putin himself.

That was not the scenario the Kremlin likely had in mind when Navalny, convicted on trumped-up embezzlement charges in July, was suddenly freed on appeal and allowed to run for mayor.

Sergei Sobyanin did gain the most votes. But it was Navalny who, despite being barred from state television and smeared in the Kremlin-controlled media, managed to emerge triumphant.

By the official tally, he received 27 percent of the vote, nearly twice what any poll had predicted. Possibly he did even better than that.

On Monday, he rallied his mostly young, energized and well-educated supporters, condemning the official results as “fake.” The question was whether he kept Sobyanin from receiving more than 50 percent of the vote, the threshold required to avoid a head-to-head runoff.

As a consequence of his show trial this summer, Navalny, 37, is facing up to five years in prison. If the conviction is upheld, Navalny will be barred from politics for life. Perhaps the Kremlin was content to jail a civic activist. What about a politician with proven electoral appeal?

Russian elections in the Putin era have been mostly a charade, with rules and popular media tilted heavily in favor of officially sanctioned candidates. Navalny — brash, charismatic, savvy to social media and modern campaign tactics and possessed of an immigrant-bashing nationalistic streak — is the first opposition politician to have rattled Putin’s personal authority.

Just imagine how Navalny might have fared at the ballot had the playing field been level.

The Washington Post (Sept. 10)