Yeltsin foes enlist for battle of the hustings

As President Boris Yeltsin yesterday strutted on a global stage alongside his American counterpart, his enemies back home were lining up to join the battle against him in December's parliamentary elections.

More than 40 groups - from the far left to the radical right, from women and patriots to beer-lovers and Muslims - had turned in signatures by Sunday's midnight deadline in the hope of qualifying to take part in the poll. The Central Electoral Commission will spend the next nine days ensuring the groups, which range from formal parties to loose electoral blocs, did not resort to fraud to gather the 200,000 required names.

The election to the 450-member State Duma, or lower house, will be a crucial test of public opinion in the run-up to June's presidential contest and will help determine who runs for the top job. But it is already abundantly clear that Russia's disenchanted voters will have a bewildering choice when they go to vote on 17 December.

There are fears that the number of parties will alienate and confuse the electorate, prompting them to chose candidates at random or because they sound familiar, or to decide not to vote at all. The head of the electoral commission, Nikolai Ryabov, has warned that having so many contesting parties (many of which are politically difficult to distinguish from one another) is more likely to make a mess of the election than to benefit Russian democracy.

Eight of the heavyweight contestants are already registered, including the popular General Alexander Lebed's Congress of Russian Communities, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, and the pro-Yeltsin party set up by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, under the name Our Home is Russia. In all, the list is expected to comprise about 30 "parties", which will each have to win at least 5per cent of the total vote to qualify for seats in parliament.

One party will be instantly recognisable. Russian opinion polls are unreliable, yet they consistently indicate that the Communist Party is in front. Unlike almost all the democratic blocs - from Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Choice to Yabloko - the Communists have not been weakened by any recent split in their ranks. Nor are they tainted by having taken part in government in the years since the break-up of the Soviet Union. They present a simple, familiar option for the many millions who have suffered from the country's economic reforms and hanker for the return of state protection.

The rise of the Communists' fortunes has been reflected in the behaviour of their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who has been trying to convince the world he does not share the hard-line views of the Marxist-Leninists in his party's ranks. At a recent meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, he struck a moderate note, talking positively about foreign investment and good relations with the West.

His rising star has not gone unnoticed by Mr Yeltsin, who appears to be bracing himself to run for office next year despite his recent mild heart attack and his continuing unpopularity. Before leaving for New York, the President - whom the Communists have been unsuccessfully trying to impeach for months - demanded that Communist candidates should be barred if they seek to topple the government.

The Communists retorted by accusing him of meddling in the democratic process, and threatened to sue him.