On the day after centrists and reformers made major electoral gains in the Russian parliament, the Kremlin hailed the result as an "enormous breakthrough" following years of stalemate with the Communist-led lower house, the State Duma.
The outcome primarily reflected voters' demands for a strong government and leader, as personified by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, rather than a revival of the economic reform agenda of the early 1990s, according to analysts and politicians. Nonetheless, leading economic reformists regained a strong presence in parliament and may provide a new impulse for change.
"A peaceful revolution has virtually taken place in Russia," said Kremlin first deputy chief of staff Igor Shabdurasulov of the elections to the 450-member chamber. "It is an enormous breakthrough in the advancement of the country."
The election results also are certain to bolster the perception that Putin is the candidate likely to succeed Boris Yeltsin in the presidential election next June. The Kremlin has been working overtime to prepare Putin for that race, and his current standing in voter preference polls is unrivaled.
Sunday's vote was declared generally fair by an international observer mission, although there were complaints of fraud in individual races. The observers noted in a statement, however, that in a nationwide campaign filled with smear tactics, the news media "failed to provide impartial and fair information" about the choices facing voters.
The Communist Party, which was the largest Duma faction in the last legislative session, emerged from the election with fewer seats but remains the largest single party in the chamber. Still, the balance of power clearly has shifted toward centrist and reform forces led by a new Kremlin-backed party, Unity, which finished a close second based on Putin's endorsement and its strong support for the popular prime minister.
The Duma is elected in two parts. Half its 450 seats are filled by votes for slates of candidates provided by political parties, while the other half are filled through races in individual member districts.
Today, with more than 84 percent of the ballots counted for party slates, the Communists had won 24.22 percent of the vote; Unity 23.37 percent; and the Fatherland-All Russia party, headed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, 12.64 percent.
The pro-market Union of Right Forces, headed by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, captured 8.72 percent of the vote, while Yabloko, a centrist faction headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, won 6.13 percent and the bloc led by ultranationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovksy had 6.08 percent. No other party won as much as 5 percent, the minimum required to gain representation in the Duma by slate.
When the party slates and winners of some individual races are combined, the political lineup of the new parliament can be roughly predicted. The chairman of the election commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, said the Communists will have at least 111 members; Unity, 76; Fatherland-All Russia 62; the Union of Right Forces, 29; Yabloko, 22; and Zhirinovsky, 17.
However, it is not yet clear how more than 100 uncommitted independents who won individual districts will affiliate. Several weeks of wrangling are expected among the factions over committee assignments and a new speaker. In general, it appears there will be two major groupings in the Duma, the Communists and most others, but precisely how coalitions might bridge or divide them is not yet evident.
The voters did not hesitate to punish familiar parties and elevate new ones to prominence. Three of the six parties are newcomers to parliament--Unity, Fatherland and the Union of Right Forces, although each includes some veteran politicians. Of the remaining three parties, two that have been at the center of Russian politics during most of the 1990s, Yabloko and Zhirinovsky's bloc, suffered major losses. Yabloko lost 23 of the 45 seats it held in the last Duma, while Zhirinovsky's faction dropped from 51 seats to 17--assuming they attract no new affiliates from individual districts in the days ahead.
The rise of the Unity party could not have been predicted just a few months ago, but analysts reiterated that the only reason for its strong showing was the support it got from Putin, whose public approval rating is 45 percent--a level practically unheard of here in recent years.
"The phenomenon of Putin . . . is an answer to hopes and expectations, to the mentality," said Alexander Oslon, a leading pollster. "Millions of people saw on their television screens a politician feeling the same [as they do] about what they were concerned about. . . . And so when it became clear that the Unity bloc was Putin's bloc, the vote was preordained."
Sergei Markov, a political analyst, said that Russians declared with their votes that "they don't mind having new faces and new names. They are tired of the old, boring" and familiar faces. Markov said votes for Unity were also a message that voters were tired of the infighting in Moscow political circles. While Primakov presented himself as an arbiter among various groups, Putin cames across as a no-nonsense leader who would make decisions on his own, he added.
"They don't want elites to make the decisions," Markov said. "We want one leader who will rely on popular support. It is General de Gaulle style."
The voters returned to the Duma a pro-market coalition that includes Yegor Gaidar, Russia's first reformist prime minister, and was masterminded by Anatoly Chubais, architect of Russia's mass privatization program. But Markov expressed doubts about the claims by some that this presages a resurrection of an economic reformist agenda.
"It's not the rebirth of liberal economics," he said, but rather a demand by voters for an end to an era of a weakened Russia. "It's the rebirth of state institutions--the military, pensions and so on--people think [these things] should work. They think if the government wants to do something, it should be able to do it."
Yabloko's poor showing also surprised many analysts. Vladimir Lukin, a leader of the bloc, said the party's campaign had made "political mistakes, propaganda blunders" and had "organizational shortcomings." But he acknowledged that its leader, Yavlinsky, may have lost votes when he expressed doubt about the Chechen war effort--which Putin has vigorously pressed and won wide public support in doing so.
"Generally speaking, we have campaigned without due account of public expectations, public likes and dislikes and public moods," Lukin told the Russian Tass news agency. "I am referring in particular to our stand on Chechnya."
The election also sent every one of Yeltsin's former prime ministers into the Duma. Gaidar and Kiriyenko will represent the Union of Right Forces, and Primakov the Fatherland-All Russia party. Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Stepashin won individual district races.
A number of well-known tycoons also secured seats, including Boris Berezovsky, an influential magnate who is believed to have played a role in forming Unity, and Roman Abramovich, a long-time partner of Berezovsky in the oil business.
Although Luzhkov was reelected mayor of Moscow, his wife, Yelena Baturina, appears to have lost a race for a Duma seat in southern Russia.
CAPTION: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's backing gave impetus to Unity party.