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Last Updated: Monday, 22 September, 2003, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Putin ally leads Petersburg poll
Valentina Matviyenko
Valentina Matviyenko is openly supported by Putin
A Russian politician backed by the Kremlin in her attempt to become the new governor of St Petersburg narrowly failed to win outright in Sunday's election.

The poll is seen as a test of President Vladimir Putin's hold over the country ahead of his re-election bid next year.

The candidate he had endorsed, former government minister Valentina Matviyenko, got 48.6% - just short of the 50% needed to avoid a second round.

But there were concerns about voter disillusionment with the campaign.

Just 29% bothered to vote, and of these one in 10 voted against all candidates.

"Residents felt the election was being conducted without them, that there was no point in voting because everything was decided," city council chairman Vadim Tyulpanov told local radio.

He called for compulsory voting, with fines for those who stayed at home.

Unfair candidates

Ms Matviyenko now faces a run-off with her closest rival, deputy governor Anna Markova, who polled 15.8%.

"I believe I can be certain of victory because what we are fighting for is correct," she said after casting her vote.
Would you vote for a horse if the president asked you to?
Anna Markova campaign

The election is to replace governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who stepped down earlier in the year amid charges of mismanagement of the city's 300th anniversary celebrations

The campaign has been controversial, with rivals recently challenging Ms Matviyenko's candidacy in court.

Ms Markova complained throughout the campaign that Ms Matviyenko has used her position as the president's favourite to dominate the media, despite a new election law requiring equal coverage for all candidates.

Mr Putin at the 300th anniversary celebrations
Putin is himself a native of the city
At the beginning of September, Mr Putin wished Ms Matviyenko success during a meeting broadcast by two national TV stations.

Ms Markova and another candidate, Konstantin Sukhenko, responded by trying to get Ms Matviyenko thrown out of the race on legal grounds. The attempt was unsuccessful.

Ms Markova even took to the city's main thoroughfare with a horse and a sign saying "Would you vote for a horse if the president asked you to?"

Trusted ally

Ms Matviyenko, a 54-year-old former diplomat, has lived most of her adult life in St Petersburg.

She became post-Soviet Russia's highest-ranking woman official, as deputy prime minister in the cabinet of Yevgeny Primakov.

She is considered a trusted ally of Mr Putin, who is himself a native of St Petersburg.

Her appointment as Mr Putin's envoy in the region last March was seen as a jumping-off point for the campaign. Billboards around the city showed her side by side with Mr Putin.

She has pledged to improve the city's dilapidated appearance and continue Mr Yakovlev's reconstruction programme.

The BBC's Stephen Dalziel
"Mr Putin had publicly wished Ms Matviyenko luck in her election campaign"

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