ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA, JULY 24 -- Mongolians appear to have handed their Communist rulers a comfortable victory in the north Asian nation's first free elections, according to results from first-round voting announced today.

Prime Minister Sharavyn Gunjaadorj told journalists that of the 799 candidates who survived Sunday's vote and are eligible for next Sunday's second round, only 101 are members of opposition parties.

The Communists have ruled Mongolia -- an arid land the size of Western Europe with a population of only 2 million -- since 1924, three years after the Soviet Union helped Mongolia gain independence from China, which it borders. Mongolia maintains close ties with Moscow and relies heavily on Soviet trade.

The first-round vote -- for which 92 percent of Mongolia's eligible voters turned out, including nomadic herdsmen who rode long distances on horseback to cast their ballots -- was confused but basically fair, said Maciej Jankowski, an election observer from Poland's Solidarity movement.

Some foreign observers said they saw a number of people lining up at polling stations with three ballots in hand, which the observers attributed to misunderstanding rather than mischief.

"Judging by the result of the first half of the election, I think the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party {Communist Party} participated very successfully," party chief Gombojaviin Ochirbat told reporters.

Mongolians on the streets of Ulan Bator, the capital, spoke with delight of their first taste of democracy. "It was a wonderful feeling to be able to vote against the Communist Party for the first time. It was like swearing at them," said one man.

Opposition leaders said they had fared as well as could be expected, given the Communists' long rule and superior propaganda and financial networks.

Sunday's voting was the first stage in electing representatives to the 430-seat legislature, or Great People's Hural.