Russian Elections: Yeltsin struggles to stir tired voters

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The Independent Online
ALLIES of President Boris Yeltsin made a last attempt yesterday to stir Russia out of its torpor and confusion before a historic parliamentary poll tomorrow to decide the shape of a new order, warning that demagogic nationalism was no longer comic but a 'threat to the existence of the nation'.

The new political system, created by presidential diktat, sweeps away Soviet institutions and returns Russia to a democratic experiment first launched in 1906 when Tsar Nicholas held elections for a State Duma. The first duma lasted 72 days.

Mr Yeltsin's new order is also fragile. Yesterday's broadside against the far- right fits into a strategy of scare-mongering by the President and his supporters, though polls do suggest increased support for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. It followed a warning by Mr Yeltsin in a televised address on Thursday that voters would plunge Russia into civil war if they rejected his tailor-made constitution, also to be voted on tomorrow.

'If it has all been a joke to you so far, then now it really is frightening,' said a statement attacking Mr Zhirinovsky issued by Russia's Choice, the reformist bloc considered the election front runner and stacked with government ministers. Mikhail Poltoranin, an ally of Mr Yeltsin, said Mr Zhirinovsky might be president by next summer.

Mr Zhirinovsky received 7.9 per cent of the vote as an unknown in presidential elections two years ago. His Liberal Democratic Party is now expected to pass the 5 per cent threshold and enter the State Duma, the lower house. He has led a flamboyant campaign, appearing on television daily, his raw language and irreverent humour in stark contrast to the drone of the grey leaders of 12 other political blocs.

'He attacks everyone and everything. Many ordinary people feel the same way,' says Yuri Levada, director of the All-Russia Centre for Public Opinion Research. A survey in Kuranti newspaper yesterday showed 75 per cent of Russians unhappy with their lives. Some 37 per cent said they could not go on; 45 per cent said it was hard but possible.

The biggest enemy now is cold weather and apathy, though similar public indifference before a referendum in April vanished on the day, when 63 per cent of the electorate voted. Mr Yeltsin needs at least half the votes of a minimum 50 per cent turnout to get his constitution approved.

Both Mr Yeltsin and Russia's Choice, headed by his protege, Yegor Gaidar, present themselves as the only alternative to chaos and a Communist revival. The aim is as much to undermine reformist rivals as extremists on the left or right.

'There is no place for centre. We are in a transition period. There are the democrats and Communists. There is no third force,' said Arkady Murashev, a senior campaign organiser with Russia's Choice. 'This is part of our strategy. We have an interest in supporting this view of two poles.'