Fri, 03 Mar 2000

Apathy main problem as Russia poll looms

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters): With one month to go to Russia's presidential election, Acting President Vladimir Putin remains the clear front-runner in a race set to shape the country's post- Yeltsin era.

But some political analysts and Kremlin aides say Putin's huge lead over his 10 rivals could rebound on him by prompting many voters to stay away and thus souring his chances of securing the simple majority needed to win in the first round.

Opinion polls give Putin -- an obscure domestic security boss until his appointment as prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin last August -- a three-fold lead over his nearest rival, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov.

According to the latest poll, conducted by VTsIOM agency on Feb. 21, 59 percent of 1,600 respondents across Russia were ready to vote for Putin if the polls were held this weekend rather than on March 26. Only 18 percent supported Zyuganov.

None of the other candidates had more than 3 percent.

Putin, whose popularity has soared on the back of his tough stance on Chechnya and promises to restore order in Russia, concedes his big advantage, but rejects his opponents' charges that voters have been deprived of any viable alternative.

"I am not to blame that so many people support what the government is doing," Putin said last week. Putin took over as acting president after Yeltsin's resignation on Dec. 31.

Putin, whose past service in the Soviet KGB security service has fueled fears among liberals that he might revive the country's authoritarian traditions, has said his main task is to restore order in Russia and to rebuild its people's dignity.

In his manifesto, published last Friday, Putin said his plans helped rather than endangered liberal reforms and the market economy. However critics say the manifesto was just a vague declaration rather than a concrete plan of action.

Putin's aides shrug off the criticism.

"We have seen enough programs, people don't care about them any longer," one Kremlin aide said. "Besides, any definite plan is a target for attacks by opponents. Do we need this?"

Opinion polls show this tactic has so far worked well for Putin in a cynical and disillusioned country which seems happier to trust a novice rather than a well-established politician.

Putin appears so confident about his chances that ahead of the polls he has even dared to touch two potentially explosive issues -- vodka prices and the powers of regional governors.

Last week the government raised minimum vodka prices, arguing that the move was needed to protect the market from counterfeit and often lethal spirits. Raising vodka prices proved disastrous for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's popularity in the 1980s.

"There is one thing no leader should touch if he cares about stability, that is the price of vodka," liberal candidate Grigory Yavlinsky said last Friday. But Putin's popularity appeared unaffected by the move, first announced two weeks ago.

In another move that could easily backfire, Putin said he wanted to restore central control over the 89 regions, though he denied plans leaked by his camp that he wanted to replace elected regional leaders with Moscow-appointed governors.

The regional leaders, who never failed to rebel against such threats to their authority in the past, appeared to have taken Putin's plans calmly.

Ironically, Putin's commanding lead in the race could itself be the main problem.

"When a voter hears that Mr so-and-so is sure to win, he might chose to stay at home rather than bother going to the polling station," the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily wrote.

Under electoral rules, a presidential election is only valid when the turnout exceeds 50 percent. Otherwise a new poll must be called in three months.

This scenario looks unlikely, with opinion polls showing about 60 percent of eligible voters intend to cast their ballot.

But a turnout figure close to 50 percent could deliver more votes to Zyuganov, whose mostly elderly electorate is more disciplined. This could rob Putin of outright victory in the first round.

"Putin is sure to win the runoff vote, but the very fact of holding it could force the president to look for a political compromise and limit his future freedom of maneuver," the Kremlin aide said.