Yeltsin wins power to reshape Russia: Reformers lead parliamentary poll but far right gains strong support

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin's camp claimed victory last night in a constitutional referendum intended to arm him with sweeping powers to rule Russia, but his Communist and nationalist foes appeared to have scored successes in simultaneous parliamentary elections.

'Dear fellow Russians, the constitution has been passed. We live in a new state. Democracy has triumphed in Russia,' Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said on television.

Government ministers and election commission officials said that more than 50 per cent of Russia's 107 million electorate had voted, ensuring the referendum's validity. Vladimir Shumeiko, a First Deputy Prime Minister and Yeltsin ally, said that about 60 per cent of those who voted had supported the new constitution.

If accurate, the estimates are a triumph for Mr Yeltsin, who had staked his career on a 'yes' vote and had warned of civil war if the constitution failed to pass. After spending two years in an acrimonious and ultimately violent power struggle with the remnants of the old Soviet order, Mr Yeltsin is likely to interpret the results as a mandate to reshape Russia as a free-market democracy with himself as its unchallenged leader.

In the freest parliamentary elections since 1917, voters also selected two chambers of a new legislature to replace the Soviet-era assembly that Mr Yeltsin crushed two months ago. Preliminary results indicated that, out of the 13 parties and blocs contesting elections for half the lower house's 450 seats, the pro-Yeltsin group Russia's Choice had put in the strongest performance.

However, Mr Yeltsin's conservative opponents also fared well, and with the reformist vote split among four parties it appeared unlikely that any bloc would command an outright majority. Many voters questioned at polling stations across Russia's 5,500-mile expanse said they had opted for the Liberal Democratic Party, a far-right group whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, attracted condemnation from his rivals as a crypto-fascist fanatic. The Liberal Democrats looked certain to enter parliament, with at least 10 per cent of the vote.

Attention had centred on whether enough voters would overcome apathy, appalling weather and discontent with Mr Yeltsin's leadership to ensure that the referendum on a new constitution was valid. The constitution is the cornerstone of Mr Yeltsin's efforts to bury the Soviet age once and for all. It arms him with a battery of executive powers at the legislature's expense and aims to restore Moscow's authority over restive ethnically-based republics.

Accompanied by his wife, Naina, Mr Yeltsin cast his vote just after dawn at Polling Station No 56 near Moscow's Belarus railway station. He refused to be drawn on which party he supported: 'I am an optimist by nature and I am sure that a better parliament, more intelligent and politically literate, will be elected.'

Even with the constitution approved, it was clear that Mr Yeltsin's authority is not equally acknowledged across Russia. In the republic of Tatarstan, which has declared virtual independence from Moscow, Tatar nationalists called for a boycott. The turnout appeared to be lower than the 25 per cent in last April's referendum on public confidence in Mr Yeltsin.

For several politicians, the parliamentary campaign was less about electing a legislature than establishing their names as future presidential candidates. These include Yegor Gaidar, architect of Mr Yeltsin's radical economic reforms and head of Russia's Choice.

The reformists' failure to form a common front against the Communists and Liberal Democrats may haunt them. 'We will have to pay a high price for the fact that the democrats could not reach agreement. That price is the large representation the Liberal Democrats, who constitute Russian fascism in its purest form, will have in the new assembly,' said Anatoly Chubais, Privatisation Minister.