Sunday's ballot is Russian milestone

Shake-out: Acting President Putin's popularity is likely to reduce number of political parties.

March 22, 2000

A DOZEN candidates are running for president in Sunday's Russian elections.But only Acting President Vladimir Putin has a realistic chance of winning.

Fallout from his expected victory has already begun. Many of the country's political formations believe that after the election the number of viable parties will be reduced to two or three.

Mr. Putin, a 47-year-old former KGB officer, succeeded President Boris Yeltsin on New Year's eve. But in a scant three months, he has solidified his grip on power in ways that his predecessor was unable to do during a turbulent decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A case in point is the Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament. It often flexed its muscles under Mr. Yeltsin.

Mr. Putin has reduced it to a debating society.

The Communist Party, too, has lost much of its earlier prominence. As a voting bloc, its aging base is rapidly disintegrating into splinter groups of malcontents.

Mr. Putin has hastened this trend. He co-opted many second-tier Communist leaders by striking a power-sharing agreement in the Duma. He has wooed the rank-and-file through his youthful determination and toughness, contrasting himself with the dull and stodgy communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.

By Western standards, the election campaign has been a non-event. An example: President Putin has refused to release any coherent political platform. This vagueness has not hurt him but has maximized his already considerable popularity. People see in him what they want to see, good or bad.

As the incumbent, he has enjoyed considerable advantages. Earlier this week, he turned up in Chechnya as the co-pilot of a fighter jet. It was a lead item on all the television channels.

Many Russian liberals worry about Mr. Putin. They don't like his KGB ties. They wonder about his commitment to democratic ideals -- and why so little is known about his background. They fear that his refusal to spell out his economic programs or discuss the war in Chechnya are harbingers of autocratic rule.

This does not seem to bother most Russian voters. They like Mr. Putin's vigor and his public use of profanities. After a decade of Mr. Yeltsin's erratic antics, they want a disciplinarian in the Kremlin who they think will end unruliness and corruption.

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