The right choice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 12:00am

The election news from Russia, for a welcome change, offers a rare bit of modestly good news from that morally, politically and economically blighted nation.

Although final results were still being tallied last night, relatively moderate reformers scored big gains in voting for the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. The outcome should lead to the formation of a coalition able to support Kremlin reforms, rather than one dedicated to obstructing change while defending personal privileges.

This has been no electoral revolution; the intellectually bankrupt Communists may remain the largest party by a whisker, while several winners gained office by the most dubious means. But Communist control over the Duma has been broken, thanks to unexpected victories by moderates and surprise setbacks for a conservative group which had hoped to propel former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov into the presidency.

The main winner is the Unity Party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is now favoured to replace the departing Boris Yeltsin in next year's presidential elections. But two smaller groups which want economic reform also did well, and will probably join Unity to form a pro-government voting bloc. This makes possible a parliament able to do something useful, such as replacing an onerous and ineffective tax system.

Even so, some notes of caution seem in order.

The main public issue was not a call for reform, but the bloody civil war in Chechnya. Those who favoured strong government - one willing to solve the problem by indiscriminate killing - did well. The one politician who declined lost ground in the campaign's final days.

Beyond that, the vote was influenced by an assortment of electoral dirty tricks, involving money, rule-breaking and libelling Kremlin foes on state television. It was no exercise in textbook democracy.

Yet given their limited choices, the Russian people were surprisingly selective, backing those who may actually do something about the sorry state of their nation. There could be lessons in this for other regimes, including some in Asia, which contend they must twist voting rules to serve themselves, if not prohibit honest elections altogether. The Russian results suggest once again that ordinary people can make intelligent choices about who should lead them, if given serious alternatives.