- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 1999

MOSCOW Centrist parties made major gains yesterday in parliamentary elections in an apparent breakthrough that could change the face of Russian politics and boost hopes for economic reform, according to early results.

The election for the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, also appeared to be a major step forward for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hopes of succeeding President Boris Yeltsin.

A pro-Putin party soared in the election, benefiting from his handling of the war in Chechnya and his promise to give the country strong leadership and restore national pride.

With 28 percent of votes counted, Unity was ahead with 26 percent, followed by the Communists with 25 percent, election officials said.

The results suggested that Russians were willing to continue with some type of democratic and market reforms, even though the economy is in shambles. That would be a surprise since many Russians see market reforms as a failure that has made their lives worse since the Soviet collapse.

“For the first time in 10 years the Duma will not be controlled by the Communists. This victory is hard to overestimate,” said former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, leader of the Union of Right Forces, one of the four centrist groups.

The four centrist parties looked set to take 48 percent of the vote, according to early results. The actual distribution of seats could be different because half are decided on party lists and half on constituency races.

If confirmed, the 3-month-old Unity party’s performance would be an astonishing feat.

Like many voters, retired economist Lydia Alexeyeva said she backed Unity because she believes it would revive the economy and ensure stability.

“These are healthy young people, who always strive for victory,” she said of the party after casting her vote.

Where Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, has been the strongest public advocate for a merciless offensive against Chechen militants, Unity leader Sergei Shoigu, who heads the Emergency Situations Ministry, has been credited with helping handle the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the war.

Most of the main parties said during the election campaign that they alone could provide the tough leadership many Russians want to crack down on rampant corruption and ensure stability. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Shoigu appeared to have won the contest.

“Wherever Shoigu is, there is order,” said Yevgeny Ishchenko, a Cossack leader in the southern city of Azov. “Wherever people suffer, he comes to help.”

Mr. Yeltsin has said he wants to be succeeded by Mr. Putin. The Kremlin helped form Unity in September, providing it with funds and extensive support on state-controlled TV. A Duma dominated by centrist parties will be a major boost for the Kremlin, which has attempted to build a market economy.

The other new force in Russian politics, the Fatherland-All Russia party, appeared to be doing worse than expected with about 8 percent of the vote, according to early results. The centrist party is headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both prominent opponents of the Yeltsin administration.

In another surprise, the Union of Right Forces, representing several young politicians who are the strongest advocates of market reform, was getting 9 percent of the vote, the results showed. The party had been expected to fare much worse.

The social-democratic Yabloko party had 6 percent of the vote while the bloc of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky had about 7 percent, the results showed.

The rest of the 26 parties competing in the race did not win the minimum 5 percent of votes necessary to get into the legislature. However, they could still have some representation because half of the Duma seats are determined by races between individual candidates some of whom are independents and others who are affiliated with parties.

But while they may take up to half of the seats in the Duma, the four centrist parties may not be able to form an alliance. Several of the centrist leaders are rivals for the presidency.

Nor are the centrists’ track records as spotless as voters would like. Several prominent centrists have been dogged by corruption allegations, and Fatherland’s and Unity’s ranks include provincial governors with reputations for autocratic rule and election-tampering.

Still, the centrists’ strong showing should transform the Duma, which for the past four years was dominated by a Communist majority and locked in a bitter fight with Mr. Yeltsin that stymied efforts at effective legislation.

Turnout among the roughly 107 million registered voters was about 60 percent.

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