The election for the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament 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 and restore national pride.
With 57 percent of votes counted, Unity was ahead with 25.3 percent, followed by the Communists with 25.1 percent, election officials said.
The results suggested that Russians were willing to continue with some type of democratic and market reforms, even though the economy is in shambles. That would be a surprise since many Russians see market reforms as a failure that have made their lives worse since the Soviet collapse.
"For the first time in 10 years the Duma will not be controlled by the Communists. This victory is hard to overestimate," said former Premier Sergei Kiriyenko, leader of the Union of Right Forces, one of the four centrist groups.
The four centrist parties looked set to take roughly half of the vote, according to early results. Independent and centrist candidates were also leading in 107 of the races for the 225 individual constituency seats. Half the Duma seats are decided on party lists, and half on races in the individual constituencies.
If confirmed, the 3-month-old Unity party's performance would be an astonishing feat.
Like many voters, retired economist Lydia Alexeyeva said she backed Unity because she believes it would revive the economy and ensure stability.
"These are healthy young people who always strive for victory," she said of the party after casting her vote.
Where Putin, a former KGB officer, has been the strongest public advocate for a merciless offensive against Chechen militants, Unity leader Sergei Shoigu, who heads the Emergency Situations Ministry, 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. The Kremlin helped form Unity in September, providing it with funds and extensive support on state-controlled TV.
The other new force in Russian politics, the Fatherland-All Russia party, appeared to be doing worse than expected with 9.2 percent of the vote, according to early results. 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, representin several young politicians who are the strongest advocates of market reform, was getting 8.8 percent of the vote, the results showed. The party had been expected to fare much worse.
The social-democratic Yabloko party had 5.9 percent of the vote while the bloc of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky had 6.6 percent, the results showed.
While they may take up to half the 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.
Nor are the centrists' track records as spotless as voters would like. Several prominent centrists have been dogged by corruption allegations, and Fatherland's and Unity's ranks include provincial governors with reputations for autocratic rule and election-tampering.
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 was about 60 percent.
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