More than 15,000 Russians on Sunday endorsed the candidacy of Alexei Navalny to take on Vladimir Putin in the 2018 election, which allows him to file for registration as a candidate in the race.
Thousands backing the 41-year-old lawyer met in 20 cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg in the northwest to nominate him as a candidate in the presence of electoral officials to boost his chances of contesting the March ballot.
Mr Navalny said on Twitter he intends to submit the necessary documents to the Central Election Commission (CEC) that same day, and that “representatives of CEC confirmed to us that they will accept our papers… and extended their working hours.”
It remains unclear, however, whether the politician will be allowed to run – CEC chair Ella Pamfilova said earlier this year that Mr Navalny’s criminal conviction in an embezzlement case precluded him from running and registering as a candidate.
Mr Navalny maintains that the case was politically motivated, the conviction was unlawful and should not stand in the way of his presidential bid. He has been pressuring the authorities to let him run by holding campaign rallies in regional cities.
Pro-Kremlin figures have long marginalised the opposition as affluent city-dwellers with little support outside Moscow. But this year Mr Navalny has begun opening dozens of campaign headquarters and mobilising volunteers in the Russian hinterlands where President Vladimir Putin remains popular.
According to Mr Navalny’s blog, the meetings across Russia show he has a broad base outside the capital.
“We wanted to ruin this political tradition in which a candidate represents a small group of weird people in Moscow,” he wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “We are campaigning all around the country. We receive support all around the country.”
In Moscow, some 800 people gathered to support the politician, which is 300 people more than Russian law requires to endorse a candidate.
The meeting was observed by election authorities, and Mr Navalny’s team vowed to file for registration as soon as the necessary papers were ready.
“Because we held the endorsement meeting [outside] in a tent, printers stopped working – it was too cold. Lawyers couldn’t print out all the necessary documents.
“We are now on our way to the Anti-Corruption Foundation to finish printing the papers. We still intend to file with CEC today,” Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Earlier this month. Mr Putin shrugged off questions about a lack of opposition.
In a press conference, he said: “It’s not my job to raise competitors.”
He later added that the opposition “shouldn’t make noise in the streets,” appearing to reference Mr Navalny’s rallies