MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Communist was on track to win a mayoral election in Russia's third city on Sunday, partial returns indicated, in a setback for the party at the center of President Vladimir Putin's tightly controlled political system.
With more than two-thirds of the ballots counted in Novosibirsk, Anatoly Lokot led a field of 11 candidates with 43.4 percent while the ruling United Russia party candidate, Vladimir Znatkov, had 39.9 percent, state-run news agency Itar-Tass reported.
Defeat in the Siberian city would be a blow to United Russia, which critics accuse of using the levers of executive power to maintain its grip on administrations and legislatures across Russia in the absence of active popular support.
Although United Russia is a key source of support for Putin, in power since 2000, he has tried to decrease his reliance on it by courting rivals and creating a less formal organization called the People's Front.
Putin has also blunted what force the Communists have to oppose him by himself appealing to nostalgia for the Soviet era and defiance of the West, to the point where the Kremlin's liberal opponents say the Communists are now little more than a cog in Putin's system.
The Communists - the second-largest party in the national parliament, the Duma - have supported Kremlin foreign policy initiatives such as the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region last month.
A by-election was held in Novosibirsk, a city of about 1.4 million, after the longtime mayor stepped down in January to join the regional government. Znatkov has been serving as acting mayor, while Lokot is a member of the Duma.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Kevin Liffey)