In Final Lap, Race for Russian Presidency Rides on Turnout
Weather may influence outcome more than Yeltsin's faltering image
This was not the way the Kremlin wanted it to end.
Racing to stay ahead of his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had hoped to surge his way into Wednesday's crucial election runoff on a crescendo of tumultuous campaign stops and statesman-like summits.
Instead, he has been crawling toward the finish line, invisible for the last five days and canceling one public appearance after another because of what his aides describe as a sore throat. He reappeared yesterday, looking tired to many Russians, to make a televised final appeal to voters.
Mr. Yeltsin's absence from the public eye at such a critical moment in his political career has reawakened longstanding concerns about his health. Last year he suffered two bouts of heart problems that put him in the hospital for over two months.
Mr. Zyuganov has sought to capitalize on the issue by claiming that Yeltsin is clearly not in good health.
Whether worries about Yeltsin's health will change voters' minds when they go to the polls on Wednesday, however, is less obvious.
The president has looked unwell for much of the past two years, and it was his vigorous election campaign rather than his current indisposition that surprised most Russians.
The latest opinion polls all put Yeltsin ahead, but not by much. Pollsters who have been reasonably reliable in the past suggest that the spread may be as narrow as 50 per cent to 46 per cent, with the rest of the electorate voting "against both" candidates. The president's own advisers appear to believe this projection.
Everything, they say, depends on the size of the turnout, because Zyuganov's supporters, who tend to be older, are more motivated and dedicated voters who can be counted on to go to the polls.
Younger urban voters, who would almost certainly vote for Yeltsin, are notoriously casual about casting their ballots. Kremlin strategists are afraid that so many of them simply won't bother to vote that the president might lose the election.
Poll figures released Sunday night were not encouraging for him. They suggested that turnout in the president's strongholds such as Moscow and St. Petersburg could fall as low as 50 percent.
"Turnout of under 60 percent is a dangerous threshold under which Zyuganov's victory is possible," warned Vyacheslav Nikonov, a senior campaign aide.
"The crucial question of the second round is turnout. Everything must be done to ensure it is high," Yeltsin told a meeting of regional leaders before going into hibernation.
Yeltsin also has done all he could to widen the three-point lead he had over Zyuganov in the first round two weeks ago, by appealing to voters' fear of Communism.
The president's campaign ads have shown the ugliest memories of Communist rule - executions, labor camps, the destruction of churches - and the message has been clear.
In an interview with the Interfax news agency Sunday, for example, the president hoped that supporters of liberal reformist Grigory Yavlinsky would "vote against Communists; that is, vote not so much for Yeltsin, even, as for themselves, their children, for a new free Russia."
Mr. Yavlinsky has stopped short of endorsing Yeltsin, but urged his supporters to go to the polls and not to vote Communist or "against both." Radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has also told his voters to cast a ballot against Zyuganov.
Most important for the Kremlin, Yeltsin has won the full support of Gen. Alexander Lebed, the no-nonsense, law-and-order candidate who won third place in the first round of the election and who was quickly tempted into the government as security supremo.
Most of General Lebed's 11 million voters are expected to fall in behind him to secure Yeltsin's victory.
But Lebed's value to the campaign could quickly fade in a second Yeltsin administration if he keeps up the loose-cannon act he has been putting on recently.
Scorning Western missionary groups as "scum," making a power grab for the post of vice president, which does not exist under the Constitution, and advocating a coalition government against the express opinion of the president, General Lebed has been less than diplomatic since he was appointed secretary to the Security Council.
Zyuganov may have had more favorable reaction from voters on the fitness front: As if to emphasize Yeltsin's ill health, the Communist boss worked up highly publicized sweats twice in the last week - playing volleyball and dancing at a nightclub to celebrate his birthday.
In the end, however, it all may come down to the weather: If sunshine brings out the voters, say the president's analysts, Yeltsin will do well. If rain keeps them indoors, the race will be too close to call.
For now, as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin put it, "We are not in the grip of euphoria at all. There is a general feeling of concern."