Yeltsin takes early lead in presidential vote, but heads for runoff

MOSCOW (AP) — Boris Yeltsin held a narrow lead over his Communist rival early Monday as Russia’s weary, worried public got its first real chance to decide the nation’s future. A July runoff was almost certain, and a candidate running third, a tough-talking former general who says he supports law, order and democracy, emerged as a possible kingmaker.
With 55 percent of the vote for president counted, 35 percent of voters were backing Yeltsin, whose political and economic reforms have also spawned new crime and corruption. Communist Gennady Zyuganov, who promises a return to the global might and controlled economy of the Soviet era, had 32 percent, the Central Election Commission reported.
But with neither Yeltsin nor Zyuganov expected to win 50 percent of the vote for a first-round victory, the runoff may depend largely on the strength and loyalties of the other candidates.
Chief among them Sunday was former Gen. Alexander Lebed, running a strong third with 15 percent of the vote. Many scenarios have Lebed throwing his support to Yeltsin in a second round, though the Communists also have sought his support.
Lebed, 46, brought a paratroop battalion to help Yeltsin in his showdown with hard-liners in 1991. He quit the army after lambasting the top brass for corruption and incompetence in handling the war in Chechnya, and has openly aspired to be defense minister.
Lebed refused early Monday to speculate about a deal between himself and Yeltsin, but told Russian television: “I see my main task as preventing this country from being plunged into the depths of bloody chaos. … I will do everything to preserve the country as a civilized state.”
Liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky followed Lebed in Sunday’s voting with 8 percent and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was fifth with 7 percent. Yavlinsky voters likely would support Yeltsin in a runoff, and many of Zhirinovsky’s backers are expected to shift to Zyuganov.
Sunday’s voting followed a bitter campaign, offering what many voters found to be only unpleasant choices.
There was no sign of serious voting irregularities, but the mood at polling stations throughout the country was emotional: Many voters appeared visibly worried, people quarreled angrily about candidates and some elderly voters were in tears.
Five candidates, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, polled a total of less than 5 percent. About 70 percent of Russia’s 106 million voters cast ballots; Yeltsin’s backers had hoped for 70-75 percent, believing a high turnout would help them against the better-organized Communists.
The dramatic changes that have taken place in Russia since the Soviet collapse in 1991 have created a new wealthy class, but have driven many into poverty. Crime and corruption have flourished and Yeltsin has been unable to end an 18-month war that has killed thousands in the southern republic of Chechnya.
Zyuganov said Russia would be democratic under his leadership, but also vowed to rebuild the Soviet Union and punish the reformers — promises that chilled Russians who value their relatively new freedom to travel and speak at will.
Ebullient on election day, Yeltsin, 65, exuded the tremendous confidence that transformed him in four months from political has-been to front-runner.
A Communist victory was “out of the question,” Yeltsin declared after casting his own ballot.
Zyuganov was no less upbeat, saying victory was certain as long as the vote was counted honestly. He was confident the groundswell of discontent that pushed the Communists to victory in December’s parliamentary elections would help him.
In the Moscow mayoral race, early returns showed Yuri Luzhkov gliding toward re-election. With 60 of the more than 3,100 polling stations reporting, Luzhkov, who has presided over a construction boom that has transformed Russia’s capital, had 91 percent of the vote. His main rival, Communist Olga Sergeyeva, had 4 percent.