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Yeltsin Sweeps Communist Challenger in Presidential Runoff

July 4, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ President Boris Yeltsin swept to a stunning victory and a second term Thursday as Russians decisively rejected his Communist opponent’s call to revive the Soviet Union and its rigid controls.

It was a remarkable triumph for the 65-year-old Yeltsin, who was given almost no hope of re-election at the start of the year. Overcoming concerns about his competence and his health, Yeltsin stormed back on the campaign trail, crisscrossing the vast country to persuade Russians that he was the best hope for reform and stability.

It also marked another major turning point in Russia’s chaotic recent history, with voters rejecting the resurgent Communist Party’s call to restore the overwhelming power of the Soviet state and roll back economic reforms and personal freedoms.

With 84 percent of the vote counted, Yeltsin had 54 percent compared to 40 percent for Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov. About 5 percent of voters exercised a third option _ not choosing either candidate.

Yeltsin says he will press ahead vigorously with democratic reforms. Still, there is concern about whether he will live out this four-year term after suffering two heart attacks in the past year. He also has a disquieting habit of periodically disappearing from public view.

In the first round of voting June 16, Yeltsin edged Zyuganov by only 3 percentage points in a field of 10 candidates.

Yeltsin had no immediate reaction to the results. Countering rumors he was incapacitated, he looked confident and talked animatedly Wednesday morning as he cast his ballot in suburban Moscow.

His aides, however, were elated.

``We can send the Communists to hell after the election,″ said Yeltsin adviser Leonid Smirnyagin, as election results flooded in at the president’s campaign headquarters.

Zyuganov fled his parliament office by a back door early Thursday, screeching off in his black Volga to avoid reporters.

The mood at Communist election headquarters was somber. A senior Communist Party official, Anatoly Lukyanov, said the Communists would accept the results but would continue to form a strong opposition.

The Communists and their allies have a working majority in Parliament and could try to block Yeltsin’s legislation, but he has the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.

There were only scattered reports of voting irregularities, despite earlier assertions by both camps that they expected widespread vote-rigging.

Yeltsin will be forced to face Russia’s enormous social and economic problems in his second term.

Russia is still reeling from the 1991 Soviet collapse and the impact of wrenching political and economic reforms. The bitter election campaign exacerbated deep social divisions in Russia, and Yeltsin’s lavish spending on his re-election bid has strained the treasury.

Victory gives Yeltsin a mandate to press ahead with privatization, liberalizing land laws, opening Russia’s financial markets and strengthening democratic institutions and freedoms.

He will be under pressure to fight crime and corruption, as well as improve living standards and increase the paychecks of millions of Russians who now live in poverty as a result of his reforms.

Ongoing concerns over Yeltsin’s health and who will succeed him could overshadow the fate of the reforms in a new term.

Yeltsin canceled a number of public appearances in the week before the runoff, and briefly aroused fears Wednesday when he failed to turn up at his scheduled polling place in Moscow. Aides said the president decided to take a break from the constant media attention and vote quietly near home.

Zyuganov never managed to make an issue of Yeltsin’s health during the campaign, and his call for the publication of a presidential medical bulletin went unheeded.

Under the Russian constitution, the president does not have a deputy. If the president dies in office, the prime minister takes over with limited powers and new elections are held within 90 days.

Most ordinary Russians seemed unconcerned.

``Let him be sick. We’ll vote for him all the same,″ said Vladimir Polosukhin, a 61-year-old voter, who said Yeltsin’s reform policies are what matters.

Zyuganov had pledged a sweeping review of privatization and vowed to tighten rules on land ownership, better protect domestic markets and back a ``voluntary″ restoration of the Soviet Union.

The Communists were vague, however, on how they would implement their program. They would have faced strong resistance if they had tried to seize property Russians have obtained as a result of Yeltsin’s reforms.

Many Russians did not trust Zyuganov and feared the Communists would create chaos by trying to revive the old Soviet system.

``Yeltsin may not be ideal, but at least he’s not fascism,″ said Irina Pashenkov, a 61-year-old retiree.

After the first round of voting, Yeltsin picked up a key ally in Alexander Lebed, an ex-general known for his tough law-and-order position. Lebed, who finished third in the first round, appeals to many Russians who fear crime and believe Yeltsin hasn’t done enough to combat it.

Election day was declared a national holiday, and presidential allies filled the airwaves with appeals for Russia’s 108 million voters to go to the polls.

Russia’s media has been unabashedly pro-Yeltsin. For five minutes Wednesday evening, all Russian television stations switched to a black screen with a clock ticking down the hours, minutes and seconds remaining until the polls closed.

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