Yeltsin wins a clear mandate for change: Early referendum results give President vote of confidence and pave the way for assault on powers of conservative parliament

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SCYTHING through months of muddle in Moscow, Russian voters yesterday gave President Boris Yeltsin a clear mandate for change and pushed the country towards a climactic battle to bury the last vestiges of Communism.

Preliminary results suggested the President had won an overwhelming vote of confidence in a national referendum on his policies and rule. The outcome, if confirmed, paves the way for a full-scale attack by Mr Yeltsin on a parliament packed with former Communists opposed to his radical economic reform. According to a CNN exit poll, Mr Yeltsin won support from 65 per cent of those who voted, while his free-market policies were backed by 58 per cent. Another survey showed high support for Mr Yeltsin in Moscow, but less in Siberia.

The results seem to give Mr Yeltsin the popular mandate he has been seeking to carry out a fundamental reshaping of Russia's entire political system, increasing his powers and diminishing those of the legislature, elected in 1990. Mr Yeltsin wants to turn Russia into a presidential republic.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was confident last night in predicting victory: 'You cannot fool the people.'

But most polling stations had yet to report on the outcome of the four-question referendum. The only firm result regarded turnout. The Electoral Commission announced that more than half of Russia's 105.5 million registered voters had cast their ballots. The turnout reached 70 per cent in some areas of Siberia. This means Mr Yeltsin may be able to force parliament into early elections. Scattered results from the Far East suggested the threshold of support for an early parliamentary poll - half the entire electorate - was reached, though one exit poll suggested this was still unlikely.

There was no indication last night of how Russia's traditionally conservative rural heartland had voted. In cities, however, Mr Yeltsin seems to have secured a resounding victory.

The referendum, while not offering a clear choice between the President and parliament, had been described by Mr Yeltsin as Russia's last chance for a peaceful solution to a paralysing power struggle that brought him perilously close to impeachment and the collapse of free-market reform.

A new constitution unveiled by Mr Yeltsin on the eve of yesterday's referendum would scrap the Congress of People's Deputies in favour of a new, and much weaker, bi- cameral standing parliament. 'Your vote for the President will be seen as backing for the new constitution,' Mr Yeltsin told voters in a television address shortly before polls opened in the Far East. 'Russia does not need a Congress of 1,000 members that meets whenever it likes,' he said.

Even a decisive win for Mr Yeltsin, however, is unlikely to tame his opponents, led by the parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and the rebellious Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi. Mr Khasbulatov warned yesterday that Congress could not be dissolved 'even if 100 per cent of the voters vote for the President'. Mr Rutskoi also gave no hint of backing away from attacks on Mr Yeltsin, his estranged ally and running-mate. Asked whether Mr Yeltsin might do away with the vice-presidency, he referred to comments by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that an elected leader was above the law. 'We all know how Mussolini finished up,' he said.

And while Mr Yeltsin may have a majority of the people behind him, the support among the armed forces is more muted. He won less than 50 per cent support from soldiers in the enclave of Kaliningrad.

Mr Yeltsin's strong showing, however, should calm fears in the West of a hard-line resurgence that would prevent Russia joining any international action in former Yugoslavia.

A Russian television poll forecast a decisive victory for Mr Yeltsin in 16 cities and unofficial results from the Far East, which began voting nine hours before Moscow, also gave him the upper hand.

Hardline Communists and nationalists - in the vanguard of repeated attacks on Mr Yeltsin in recent months - rallied their forces for the fight ahead. A 'Committee for the Defence of the Constitutuion' said it had received reports of vote rigging.

Independent western observers however made no immediate complaints of irregularities, though some polling stations on the Volga river were reported by Russian television to have offered cut-price sausages to boost turn-out.

Queuing from dawn, page 10