Boris Yeltsin got nothing close to the first-round victory he'd predicted, but his backers were jubilant nonetheless at their man's showing in Russia's first-ever democratic transfer of power.
Even with one-third of the vote, Mr. Yeltsin can claim a remarkable political comeback. As 1996 began, his standing with the Russian public had fallen through the cellar. His commitment to reform, his ability to focus on his job, his health - all were question marks. The war in Chechnya was a huge albatross.
But the Russian president revived his ebullience, scrambled for votes, boogied with the young, and promised disaffected pensioners and Army officers a better break. Yeltsin's comeback, however, is only half-complete. He now faces a July runoff with Communist Gennady Zyuganov, whose own one-third of the vote came from the elderly on fixed incomes, workers on collective farms, and others hurt by Russia's shift toward capitalism
The big question in Russian politics now is where the remaining one-third of voters will gravitate. In the first round, half of these votes went to Alexander Lebed, a retired paratroop general whose dominant theme is law and order. General Lebed is also an outspoken critic of communism, and a nationalist. The outlook is good he'll strike a bargain with Yeltsin, reserving for himself a powerful post.
Two unknowns: Will Lebed's voters follow him if he cuts a deal with Yeltsin? And if he joins forces with Yeltsin, will his tough nationalism dim the prospects for liberal reforms? On the other hand, Lebed's firm stance against corruption and criminality could bolster public confidence in the government.
Stepping back from the present political maneuvering, it's important to note broader trends. Russia has embarked on the only sustained democratic experiment in its long, turbulent history. Coalition-building is proceeding without violence; people are casting ballots for competing candidates in an atmosphere of relative order and fairness.
Key decisions lie ahead. Economic reform must continue, but at the same time fairness and equity have to be respected. If he clears the next hurdle, Yeltsin's task is to show Russians those priorities are not contradictory.