Putin offers voters a reason to believe

The predictability of today's presidential election should not disguise the dramatic change of mood
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The Independent Online

As Russia goes to the polls today, the only issue in doubt is whether Acting President Vladimir Putin will get the 50 per cent of the votes necessary to avoid a run-off election.

Mr Putin's likely victory will end an extraordinary campaign which began last year when the Kremlin desperately sought a candidate and a policy that would enable the deeply unpopular President Yeltsin to retire without having to hand over power to an opposition politician.

In Mr Putin, almost unknown in Russia eight months ago, and the war in Chechnya, the Kremlin and its associates found the right formula to avoid radical change at the top. Pre-elections polls show Mr Putin getting almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, with other candidates far behind.

Russian opinion polls have been woefully inaccurate, notably in the Duma elections in December. Mr Putin has been playing safe. In the last days of campaigning he flew to Chechnya in the back seat of a fighter-bomber, though he claimed the visit was part of his official duties.

State-controlled television has given wall-to-wall coverage of his tours of provincial centres. On Friday, the last day on which electioneering was allowed, Mr Putin appealed for a high turn-out, saying: "Those who say there is no need to go to the polls are trying to deprive the people of its power."

If there is less than a 50 per cent turn out of registered voters the election is automatically invalidated, but the polls predict that 65 per cent of Russians will vote.

The outcome of the election has been in little doubt since Mr Putin took over as Acting President from Mr Yeltsin on New Year's Eve. He had already seen off his most dangerous rivals, Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister, and Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, in the parliamentary elections in December.

Mr Putin's success may be greater than his original supporters expected, giving him more room to manoeuvre between the political-business groups that have dominated Russian politics since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

His victory would, nevertheless, mark a serious change in Russia. Part of his campaign strategy has been to emphasise that here is a vigorous, self-assured and competent leader, in sharp contrast to the sick and incoherent Mr Yeltsin.

This has enabled him to convince many voters that his election just might do something to limit the corruption and mismanagement of the Yeltsin era.

The impression is not wholly misleading. This has less to do with Mr Putin's personality than the financial crisis of 1998, which finally discredited the policies pursued by Mr Yeltsin and his entourage. At the same time, Mr Yeltsin made Mr Putin his surprise choice as prime minister last August to preserve, not undermine, the political and economic status quo.

The turn-around in the fortunes of the Kremlin during the long battle to succeed Mr Yeltsin has been dramatic. Last summer it seemed that it had either to find a way of postponing the election or lose.

Instead, it successfully substituted the military campaign in Chechnya for the political campaign in Russia. Powerful contenders such as Mr Primakov were swiftly marginalised.

Most polls show Mr Putin hovering above 50 per cent of the vote with Mr Zyuganov at 25 per cent and Grigory Yavlinsky at 7. Even if he does have to stand in a second round, against, presumably, Mr Zyuganov, his victory is certain.

But the degree of authority he will have, once elected, is unclear because power is so fragmented in Russia and, for all Mr Putin's talk of a powerful state, may remain so.