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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's Candidate Wins Poll in Saratov

President Boris Yeltsin scored an important victory in his struggle for control of Russia's 89 regions Monday when his preferred candidate, incumbent Dmitry Ayatskov, was proclaimed the winner in the gubernatorial election in Saratov region.

Ayatskov received 82 percent of the vote, while his challenger, Anatoly Gordeyev, the regional Communist Party boss and an economic adviser to Gennady Zyuganov, managed only 16 percent. Voter turnout in Sunday's vote was approximately 60 percent.

The elections in the Saratov oblast were the first of 52 votes for regional leaders across Russia that must take place before the year is out.

The poor result for communists in Saratov, a region on the Volga east of Moscow which had been considered part of the pro-communist "red belt," marks a sharp turnaround from the result of the presidential election. With its ailing agricultural and defense-related industries, Saratov's voters backed Zyuganov in July with nearly 50 percent of the vote.

After Zyuganov's defeat in the presidential election, the communists vowed to pull out all the stops in the regions, where their superior local party organizations allowed them to win the lion's share of seats in the State Duma in last year's parliamentary election.

But Yeltsin hailed the result in the Saratov region as "another proof that Russian citizens expect deeds from their leaders to improve the social and economic situation in the regions," the presidential press office told Interfax.

A spokesman for the Communist Party faction in the State Duma said the party would make no official statement on the result until Tuesday.

Ayatskov's landslide win came as no surprise to political analysts. Alexander Segal, who writes on politics for Pravda, said Zyuganov's defeat had engendered "a certain apathy" among communist voters, even in their traditional stronghold, the "red belt" of agricultural and industrial regions in central Russia.

Political parties, including the Communist Party, also have much less influence at the regional level, Segal said. "Overall, the regional elections will be decided not by political slogans or party affiliations, but on the strength of the popularity of individual leaders. At the regional and local level, the voters know these people very well, and what they can expect from them."

According to Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in regional elections, the basic opposition is between the "party of power," defined by close ties with the presidential administration, and candidates from the opposition, be they communists, liberal-democrats, or liberals.

Once in power, most governors -- even communists -- tend to abandon party doctrine and become loyal to the administration, and with Yeltsin's backing most of them prove invincible. "When the person in charge has had a reasonably high popularity rating, this has practically excluded the possibility of a competitor from the opposition coming to power," Petrov said.

The upcoming gubernatorial elections, the bulk of which fall in December, will most directly affect Yeltsin's control of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. Regional heads automatically become members of the 178-seat body, which also includes one representative from each region's legislature.

Before a new law on the Federation Council was passed last year requiring all regions to elect their governors by December 1996, most regional heads were appointed directly by Yeltsin. The opposition frequently complained that the upper house was nothing more than a second veto for the president.

Few faces are likely to change in the Federation Council as a result of the upcoming elections, however. Petrov said that of 52 seats being contested, a maximum of 10 might go to challengers.

While few faces are likely to change in the upper house, however, Russia's new governors could swerve from their pro-Yeltsin line once they owe their positions not to the president, but to their constituents. For this reason, Petrov said, "the center is feverishly seeking levers with which to influence the governors in order to retain the means to control them after they are elected."

After his re-election, Ayatskov, for one, indicated Monday that he would give Yeltsin little to worry about. "Having become governor, I do not intend to swerve to the left or the right from the course I followed before the election campaign. I will continue to do what I have already begun," he told ORT Russian Television.