Yeltsin on the edge after low turn-out

Boris Yeltsin appeared to be pushing ahead in the Russian election despite a flurry of panic amongst his advisers over signs of a dissappointingly low turn-out.

According to an exit poll by CNN, the Russian leader won 35 per cent of the vote, a commanding six-point lead over his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov. Although figures are not yet confirmed the poll also showed a astonishing result by the popular General Alexander Lebed, an ally of the Kremlin's, whom the poll placed at 15 per cent. These initial figures will give heart to the President's campaign team, who issued a flurry of last-minute appeals to get the voters out.

From the exit poll it appeared that Grigory Yavlinsky had won 9 per cent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky 7 per cent, with other candidates gaining 4 per cent.

As the day unfolded, evidence had mounted that many Russians preferred to stay in the countryside or to watch the all-important Euro 96 football match between Germany and Russia. Matters were not helped, from Mr Yeltsin's viewpoint, by a humiliating three-nil defeat, which one Russian analyst said could "seriously demoralise" voters.

If neither Mr Yeltsin nor Mr Zyuganov gains an overall majority, the attention of both sides - and the world - will switch to the run-off in July. Mr Zyuganov, 51, has the advantage of loyal, active support, but many analysts doubt whether he can expand this sufficiently to win the 50 per cent needed to get into the Kremlin.

Although he presents himself as a moderate progressive - more nationalist than Communist - his ultimate victory next month would be regarded with horror in the West, not least because his close aides include notorious hardliners and anti-Westerners. Last night, there were rumblings from Washington that the West would block further aid to Russia if the course of free-market reforms were not continued.

The President's campaign team yesterday made no effort to conceal their disappointment over the turn-out, which seemed likely to be less than the 75 per cent they had hoped for. A low turn-out is considered to favour the Communist-nationalist coalition of Mr Zyuganov, who tend to vote come what may. Mr Yeltsin's support, whipped up from miserable ratings by a bombardment of publicity and promises of money, is much more like a souffle - liable to collapse without warning.

If last night's early figures are borne out by events, Mr Yeltsin may have to bear some blame for this. His declaration last week that he would win outright may have led some of his less enthusiastic supporters not to bother to turn out. Others may have chosen to vote for third-party candidates whom they prefer - such as General Lebed.

Such was the concern in the President's camp that the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, yesterday afternoon issued a statement to the official Itar-Tass news agency, appealing for voters to go to the polling booths. Several hours later this was followed by a press conference at Mr Yeltsin's campaign headquarters at which several top artists - including the renowned ballerina Yekaterina Maximova - begged their countrymen to vote, in words that, at times, made it blatantly clear that they were appealing on behalf of the Kremlin.