Centrists Gain In Russia Polls

Centrist parties made major gains Sunday in parliamentary elections in an apparent breakthrough that could change the face of Russian politics and boost hopes for economic reform, according to an exit poll.

The election for the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, also appeared to be a major step forward for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hopes of succeeding President Boris Yeltsin. A pro-Putin party soared in the election, benefiting from his handling of the war in Chechnya and his promise to give the country strong leadership.

The results also suggested that Russians were willing to continue with some form of democratic and market reforms, even though the economy is in shambles. That will be a surprise since many Russians see market reforms as a failure that have made their lives worse since the Soviet collapse.

The Communists appeared likely to remain the largest party in the new Duma with 28 percent of the vote, but four centrist parties looked set to take 54 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll for the NTV television network.

The nationwide poll, conducted in 115 precincts, showed the newly formed Unity Party, which is allied with Putin and the Kremlin, in second place with 24 percent of the vote. If confirmed, the three-month-old party's performance would be an astonishing feat.

The first official election results showed Unity surging ahead with 32 percent of the vote, with the Communists trailing with 24 percent, election officials said. However, the first results reflected less than 2 percent of the vote, they said.

Where Putin has been the strongest public advocate for a merciless offensive against Chechen militants, Unity leader Sergei Shoigu, who is Minister for Emergency Situations, has been credited with helping handle the humanitarian crisis unleashed by the war.

"Wherever Shoigu is, there is order," said Yevgeny Ishchenko, a Cossack leader in the southern city of Azov. "Wherever people suffer, he comes to help."

Yeltsin has said he wants to be succeeded by Putin and the Kremlin helped form Unity, providing it with funds and extensive support on state-run TV. A Duma dominated by centrist parties will be a major boost for the Kremlin, which has attempted to build a market economy.

The other new force in Russian politics, Fatherland-All Russia, appeared to be doing worse than expected with about 11 percent of the vote, akcOvding to the NTV poll. The centrist party is headed by ex-premier Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both prominent opponents of the Yeltsin administration.

In another surprise, the Union of Right Forces, representing several young politicians who are the strongest advocates of market reform, were getting 11 percent of the vote, the poll showed. The party had been expected to fare much worse.

The social-democratic Yabloko party had 8 percent of the vote while the bloc of ultranationalist Vladimr Zhirinovsky was in fifth place with about 5 percent, the poll said.

But while they may take a majority of seats in the Duma, the four centrist parties may not be able to form an alliance. Several of the centrist leaders are rivals for the presidency.

Still, the centrists' strong showing should transform the Duma, which for the past four years was dominated by a Communist majority and locked in a bitter fight with Yeltsin that stymied efforts at effective legislation.

Turnout among the roughly 107 million registered voters exceeded 55 percent, a fairly good showing in a country where many people are disillusioned with 2olitics and politicians.

The election campaign, which was dominated by mudslinging and vicious attacks waged through the media, reflected the bitter power struggle. Yet for voters, the election was about trying to end Russia's decade-long economic decline and a succession of crises.

Many voters were trying to decide which candidates and parties offered the best prospects for an economic upturn.

"I am very upset that our education and health care systems, which were among the best in the world, have unraveled," said Tamara Koreshkova, who cast her vote for the Communists at a Moscow polling station.

"The Communist Party allowed me to get an education. My mother was illiterate, but all her five children got an education only because it was free."

Altogether, 26 parties and 2,318 individual candidates competed in the Duma election. Half of the seats will be filled by the vote for party lists, with groups getting more than 5 percent of votes winning places. The other half will be filled through individual races in electoral districts.