Why Yeltsin Won: A Russian Tammany Hall

Courtesy Reuters

Boris Yeltsin's rise from the depths of unpopularity to win Russia's presidential election in July is one of the most surprising feats of recent political history. As of January, only six percent of voters planned to support the incumbent-fewer than half the number intending to vote for his main rival, communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov. Yeltsin's victory broke a pattern observable across almost all the postcommunist democracies of Eastern Europe, in which disenchanted voters rejected the first crop of reformers when they stood for reelection. And it confounded the expectations of a long string of early doubters, ranging from Russian and Western journalists, CIA analysts, and some of the president's closest aides to-by her own admission-his wife, Naina.

How did Yeltsin beat these odds? Public opinion polls cast doubt on the explanations that have been offered in the press both inside and outside Russia. The conventional wisdom-as after any unexpected election victory-is that the candidate conducted an extremely intelligent and professional campaign. But was it really? Handicapped by internal feuding, run at one point from five competing power centers, and lavishly overspending on advertising, the campaign continually seemed to risk falling into the overconfident, patronizing, or office-exploiting style that had undermined pro- government blocs in previous Russian elections. Nor could Yeltsin's victory be attributed to favorable economic trends. During his first term, GDP fell 50 percent, income inequality and unemployment grew, and hyperinflation wiped out many families' savings. Although real incomes picked up a little in the spring-rising four, five, and three percent in February, March, and April, respectively-they fell again by five percent in May on the eve of the election's first round.

Some observers credited Yeltsin's victory to a series of subtle television advertisements in which ordinary people told their life stories and explained why they planned to support the president. However well-conceived these ads were, by the time the official television campaign began on May 14 Yeltsin had already surpassed Zyuganov in the preferences of voters looking ahead toward a second

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.