As he pored over voting figures behind the walls of his country sanatorium, Boris Yeltsin yesterday must have longed for a celebratory nip of vodka. True, they were no triumph, but Russia's parliamentary elections could have been worse. Ill and unpopular he may be, but the President's chances of winning a second term are not dead yet.
Although the Communists emerged as the most popular party with an estimated 22 per cent of the party-based vote, their victory fell short of a fundamental shift in Russia's political terrain, despite the misery suffered by many millions on the path to economic reform.
Fears that Russians have despaired of democracy altogether, and may soon elect another authoritarian leader, are so far still unfounded.
At the 1993 elections to the relatively powerless State Duma, the Communists had 13 per cent and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party had 22.9 per cent of the party-based vote. The assembly huffed and puffed, but did little, as Mr Yeltsin ruled by decree. This time around the numbers have simply switched around.
The Kremlin clique, anxious not to be called to account over their shady privatisation deals, is likely to view the results as a sign they may yet be able to use the ballot box to hang on to power. They will be gleeful over the fate of the nationalist Alexander Lebed, whose Congress of Russian Communities fizzled out. The popular Afghan war hero may yet mount a strong presidential campaign, but he has not had the roar-away start that many expected.
The political battleground now switches to next year's presidential race. Mr Yeltsin's prospects look better than before: the pro-government vote, for Our Home Is Russia, did not collapse (it stood at 9.6 per cent last night). And he has several cards up his sleeve.
For instance, he will probably reshuffle his Cabinet, kicking out his whipping-boy, the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who has won a seat as an MP. The International Monetary Fund is expected soon to grant another big loan to Russia, funds which will allow the Kremlin to try to garner some votes by ploughing money into some of Russia's most severely neglected areas - the army, schools, power supplies. And he will be helped by the economy, which is out of its nosedive.
However, time is short. The first round of the presidential election is on 16 June, after which the two top candidates go to a run-off, unless one of them is an outright winner with more than 50 per cent (an unlikely scenario). The biggest danger facing Mr Yeltsin is that he will fail to make the second round, because the pro-reform vote is split, not least because of competition from the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, of Yabloko, which was running fourth yesterday. If Mr Yeltsin (or, if he's too ill, possibly the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin) squeezes through, and faces a Communist candidate, he would have a chance of victory. Although well-organised, the Communists have yet to expand their nationwide base significantly beyond their elderly core followers. Mr Yeltsin, on the other hand, would harvest the vote of everyone who fears the shadow of the Soviet past.
For all its success, the Communist Party is also internally divided between unreconstructed Marxist-Leninists and "new" Communists who bear far more similarity to social democrats than to any of their flag-flourishing fore- fathers. And if Gennady Zyuganov, the party leader, is their presidential candidate (yesterday he fudged questions about it), he will have to raise his game considerably. Although an impressive speaker, he still lacks sparkle.
If Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant neo-fascist whose Liberal Democratic Party was running second last night, makes it to the second round against Mr Yeltsin, the President's chances would be better still. Many who enjoy Mr Zhirinovsky's titillating escapades and wild anti-Western rhetoric may be happy to vote for him in parliament, but will have second thoughts when it comes to handing him the presidency.
But there is a nightmare scenario. What if no pro-reform candidates get through to the final round, and Russians are offered a choice, say, between a hard-line Communist candidate and Mr Zhirinovsky? Time to dust off the history of the Weimar Republic.
Main parties' share of the vote
Party 1995 % 1993 %
Communist 21.9 12.4
Liberal Democratic 11.1 22.9
Our Home is Russia 9.6 n/a
Yabloko 8.4 7.9
Democratic Choice of Russia 4.8 15.5
Women of Russia 4.5 8.1
Congress of Russian Communities 4.3 n/a
Working Russia 4.2 n/a
Party of Svyatoslav Fyodorov 4.1 n/a
Agrarian Party 3.0 8.0
Other parties scored less than 3%. Overall turnout was about 65% compared with 53% in 1993, the commission said. Source: Reuter