Russia Goes to the Polls

December 12, 1993

Russia's merciless winter has come early this year. Heating systems go on the blink, lights flicker and then go out. Buses and trains break down; nothing seems to work. Tempers run short.

This is the backdrop against which Russia's first post-Communist parliamentary elections take place today. Across 11 time zones from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific, 107 million eligible voters will elect members of a new bicameral parliament from a bewildering array of candidates.

Even more important, they are being asked to ratify a new constitution to replace the much-amended basic law that Boris N. Yeltsin's Russia inherited from the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Before 1989, voting was a civic duty and a meaningless ritual. Many districts routinely reported 100 percent voting participation.

The biggest fear among President Yeltsin's supporters this time is that the minimum 50 percent of registered voters might not turn out for the required ratification of the new constitution. Such a failure would send Yeltsin drafters back to the drawing board, prolonging the political chaos and increased lawlessness which have been Russia's defining characteristics during the past two years.

If the constitution is ratified, it would greatly strengthen the president's powers. He would be able to name not only all cabinet ministers but also the head of the central bank, who has been sabotaging the government's monetary policy.

It would also put an end to parliamentary gridlock by making it relatively easy for the president to dissolve the highest legislative body. He could do so, for example, if parliament blocks his nominee for prime minister three times.

The prospect of Mr. Yeltsin's acquiring such powers has led to charges he wants to become a constitutional czar. Since voters will have a choice of only "yes" or "no," the constitution vote will be a referendum on people's confidence in Mr. Yeltsin.

Much of the post-election analysis is certain to center on the elections to the 450-seat Duma and the 178-seat Federation Council. Yet they are a side show. Indeed, Mr. Yeltsin's peculiar detachment from parliamentary campaigning indicates he is prepared to deal with whoever wins and build the necessary coalitions.

Many Russians are disenchanted with their brief experiment with democracy and free-market economy. Crime is rampant, so is corruption. Neo-communists are likely to do well. They want to return a system that was bankrupt and has been largely dismantled. Only President Yeltsin's allies offer a blueprint for rebuilding Russia.

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