1996 Presidential election

   As Boris Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on 12 June 1991, the 1996 presidential poll represented the first postindependence opportunity for the Russian people to select their executive. Following the difficult transition to a market economy, Russia’s weakened international position, and the disastrous effects of the first Chechen War, Yeltsin entered the campaign with abysmally low popularity ratings. Conversely, the well-organized Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) candidate Gennady Zyuganov enjoyed significant support, particularly among the military, former members of the security services, and disaffected quarters of the population such as the elderly and rural poor. The radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was also popular in early polls.
   Certain elements within Yeltsin’s inner circle urged the president to cancel the elections and govern the country as dictator. However, Yeltsin rejected this approach, opting instead to delegate power to his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and the head of the privatization campaign, Anatoly Chubais. By instituting the loans for shares program, Chubais was able to win over the support of a significant portion of the country’s entrepreneurs and managers, who benefited from the accelerated program of privatization of enterprises in the lead-up to the poll.
   Through their control of the media and flush with cash, Yeltsin’s key allies painted Zhirinovsky as a buffoon and Zyuganov as a bloodthirsty warmonger. Recognizing discontent with his policies, Yeltsin promised to end the war in Chechnya, increase spending on social welfare, and abandon his most controversial economic reforms. In the provinces, Yeltsin bought off local administrators to win votes. Meanwhile, Dyachenko worked closely with three American political consultants (George Gorton, Dick Dresner, and Joe Shumate) to develop a Western-style campaign based on political advertising, replete with “truth squads,” focus groups, public relations appearances on television, and message framing. After refusing to engage in so-called black PR, Yeltsin, who suffered a heart attack in early June, ultimately consented to running a negative campaign against the Communists in the last months before the first round of the elections. Fearful that the KPRF would plunge the country back into a cold war with the West by trying to recapture the near abroad and/or provoke a civil war by renationalizing the country’s industries and jailing its entrepreneurs, many voters shifted to Yeltsin at the last moment, despite their obvious displeasure with his first administration. In the first round of voting on 16 June 1996, which saw a turnout of more than two-thirds of the electorate, Yeltsin claimed a narrow plurality (35 percent) over Zyuganov (32 percent), thus forcing a runoff. Yeltsin moved quickly to consolidate his position by appointing the third-place finisher, the populist former general Aleksandr Lebed, to the position of national security advisor. With Lebed’s forces in tow and the support of liberals who had previously voted for Grigory Yavlinsky, Yeltsin won a majority (53.8 percent) of the vote in the 3 July runoff election, though Zyuganov won a commanding share of the vote in Russia’s agroindustrial Red Belt.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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