Vladimir Putin was poised for an outright victory in the Russian presidential election last night, but could still be forced into a run-off vote following an unexpectedly strong performance by the Communist leader.
Itar-Tass news agency last night quoted election commission sources as saying the acting president had cleared the 50 per cent hurdle needed to become head of state. However, there was no immediate official confirmation of the report.
The latest official figures gave Mr Putin 49.52 per cent, with about 40 per cent of the votes counted. If he fails to win an absolute majority he would face a run-off against the second-placed candidate, most probably the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, on 16 April.
Failure by Mr Putin to win in the first ballot would have been seen as a setback to the man who has promised to restore Russia as a great power. At a late night press conference, Mr Putin said the Communist showing underlined the strength of the protest vote.
The presidential election is the culmination of a year-long struggle to decide the successor to Boris Yeltsin. Mr Putin became the most popular politician in the country when he launched the Chechnya invasion. But he has not spelt out his plans to revive theeconomy, instead stressing that he has the vigour and toughness to give Russia firm leadership.
All day yesterday, voters went to polling stations after a campaign which Mr Putin dominated. But many still said that his political track record was too short for them to judge how he would behave in power.