Centrist parties make gains in Russian election

DUMA VOTE: 107m people will decide who rules after Boris Yeltsin steps down, as exit polls showed Unity and the Communists fighting it out

RUSSIANS VOTED yesterday in parliamentary elections that marked the beginning of the end of Boris Yeltsin's flawed presidency. The results of the race for the 450-seat State Duma will give the best indication yet of who is likely to rule Russia after Mr Yeltsin leaves the Kremlin in June.

The first results showed the pro-Kremlin Unity alliance surging ahead with 32 per cent of the vote, reflecting the soaring popularity of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. One exist poll showed the Communists were likely to be the biggest single force in the Duma.

The first of 107 million electors started voting in the far east of this vast country, which stretches over 11 time zones. The President was among the first to cast his ballot in Moscow.

On Saturday, in the pause between the end of campaigning and the opening of the polls, Mr Yeltsin told Russians that for him, it was a matter of honour to become the first Kremlin leader to make a voluntary transfer of power.

He hoped to see a new Duma that would work more constructively with the government than the outgoing assembly, which was dominated by his Communist opponents.

This suggested that he would almost certainly vote for the Unity or "Bear" Party, created only two months ago to support Mr Putin, his heir of preference.

If "Bear", led by the popular Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu, makes a strong showing, that will further boost the presidential chances of Mr Putin, already enjoying a high rating because of the war he is pursuing in Chechnya. If the Communists or the more moderate opposition bloc, Fatherland-All Russia (FAR), do well, that will make it less of a foregone conclusion that Mr Putin will inherit the Kremlin. If he does, he might have to deal with another turbulent parliament, as Mr Yeltsin did.

Opinion polls put the Communists in first place.They enjoy a loyal following, mainly among elderly Russians. Second came "Bear".The Communist Party, which had a monopoly on power for the 77-year existence of the Soviet Union, is Russia's only real party in that it stands for a permanent philosophy and has links with the grass roots.

All the other 25 parties on offer are developing and many are blocs of convenience in which politicians come together as it suits them. None more so than "Bear", which hopes to become the new "party of power" on the strength of Mr Shoigu's friendship with Mr. Putin. The Communists topped the opinion polls last week because the other opposition bloc, FAR, seemed to be failing to live up to the promise it showed in the summer.

Then, after the respected former premier, Yevgeny Primakov, joined forces with Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, it looked unstoppable.

It called for constitutional changes that would limit the ability of a future president to dismiss prime ministers arbitrarily and also spoke out against the corruption that has marred Mr Yeltsin's rule. But although Mr Luzhkov kept up his fiery rhetoric against the Kremlin, Mr Primakov seemed reluctant to criticise the government as Russia united to go to war in Chechnya.

That changed last Friday when Mr Primakov, 70, announced that he was throwing his hat into the ring for the presidency, thus ensuring that Mr. Putin, 47, would have a heavyweight challenger.

The elder statesman's announcement came too late to be reflected in the opinion polls and it remains to be seen how much of a recovery FAR will make in the Duma vote.

Of the other parties, only the liberal Yabloko and the pro-market Union of Rightist Forces were thought likely to get over the threshold of 5 per cent, the minimum needed to enter the Lower House.

Another sacked premier, URF co-leader Sergei Kirienko, seemed to have little hope of success. He is remembered as the man in charge when the economy crashed in August 1998.

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