In the presidential election on Sunday, the big surprise was the success of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a self-nominated candidate.

Running in a field of five, Mr. Prokhorov came in third after Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, winning almost eight per cent of the votes and finishing second in Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is a remarkable achievement, considering that Mr. Prokhorov joined politics only last summer and that Russians dislike oligarchs.

Mr. Prokhorov (46) is Russia's most sought-after bachelor and whose wealth is estimated at $18 billion, making him the third richest man in this country.

He leaped into the rich men's club during the murky sell-off of state assets in the 1990s when he became co-owner of GMK Norisk Nickel, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium. An avid freestyle jet skier and a basketball fan (he is 2.04 metres tall), he bought two years ago the New Jersey Nets, a U.S. professional basketball team.

Experts attributed Mr. Prokhorov's election success to voters' weariness of seeing the same old personalities in the fray, such as Mr. Zyuganov or the eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Mr. Prokhorov plans to set up a new political party which would work to “unite civil society” and reform Russia's political system from the ground up. More than 44,000 people have already signed up on Mr. Prokhorov's campaign website to join his party.

Experts believe Mr. Prokhorov has made his political debut with the tacit support of Mr. Putin, who hopes his Right-wing party would take off the heat of anti-Kremlin streets protesters that rolled over Russia in recent months. At the same time, Mr. Prokhorov will hardly be able to put up a credible challenge to Mr. Putin's rule given his oligarch background.

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