Yeltsin's poll poser

EVEN before the referendum votes are fully counted, Russian President Mr Boris Yeltsin seems to have won an unexpectedly convincing display of public support for him and his policies. The final tally in the weekend referendum is not expected before May 5, and there may yet be some surprises in store from more remote areas, but early official results and polls of voters taken after they had cast their ballots tell the same story: of the 68 million people who voted, a big majority expressed confidence inMr Yeltsin.

A high percentage - 58 per cent according to one projection - also voted in favour of his economic reform package. Polls said about 70 per cent favoured new parliamentary elections.

That much is positive for Mr Yeltsin and for the course of democratic development in Russia. The negative in a show of public support designed to bolster him in his confrontation with an obstructive parliament is that he did not win enough votes to forceearly elections. The referendum rules said that half the 105 million eligible voters must vote in favour of early elections to make them an automatic reality. Hardliners in the communist-dominated Congress of People's Deputies can be counted on to resist the reformers.

Using the same tactics as China adopts to disparage Hongkong's low-turnout elections, the opposition is claiming the poll shows public support for Mr Yeltsin is only about 30 per cent, with almost two-thirds of the population either voting against him ornot voting at all. Such a result would be considered a landslide in the West, but an argument based on the workings of democratic electoral systems is not one which suits Mr Yeltsin's enemies.

The President has won a moral victory but moral victories do not confer power. It is far from certain he can give his win practical expression by forcing a reluctant parliament to accept a new constitution.

He is in no position to dissolve the parliament and has ruled out the use of force to drive it out of town. If he did use force, it would be at the expense of the new moral authority he has just won. Yet he has few alternative ways to impose fresh elections.

It is possible he will feel sufficiently emboldened by the results to contemplate radical political action of a more constructive, though still risky, nature. One option would be to declare presidential rule, taking the right temporarily to govern by decree and thus to impose his own constitution. That could, theoretically, allow him to hold new parliamentary elections. He would, however, have to be very sure of his authority to accept the risk of a potentially chaotic and dangerous position where a newly-elected parliament was forced to compete with the existing Congress of People's Deputies.

Or he may be able to use the referendum result to push ahead with other constitutional plans, especially in wresting from the parliament the power to choose his own ministerial team. Increasingly he has been forced to accept the conservative ministers foisted on him by parliament, with the result that his reform programme has been seriously compromised.

Moral authority alone may not be enough even for such limited goals. It does not help the President's cause that his Vice-President, who stood with him on a joint ticket in the 1991 election, is now one of his most bitter enemies. A President who cannot reshuffle his own team will not be able to push through his chosen policies.

In the West, Mr Yeltsin's battle with the old guard is often painted as if it were an epic struggle between good and evil which only the President has the moral character to carry through to the end. Much the same mistake was made about former president Mr Mikhail Gorbachev. The truth, as the West is beginning to realise, is that Mr Yeltsin, too, has been forced to make so many compromises to keep power that his economic reforms have lost much of their original force. That may be one reason why his support was so much higher than expected.

However, having so recently invested some US$43 billion in additional aid and debt relief in Mr Yeltsin's reforms, the industrialised nations must now expect him to revitalise his programme to modernise and liberalise the economy. To do so Mr Yeltsin must show he has the strength to bring his team firmly under control. The referendum results may not be as good as he wished, but they give Mr Yeltsin his best chance to impose his will - and that of the voters who backed him. If he fails, the referendum and the enhanced authority it has given him, will have been wasted.