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The constitution sets few requirements for presidential elections, deferring in many matters to other provisions established by law. The presidential term is set at four years, and the president may serve only two terms. A candidate for president must be a citizen of Russia, at least thirty-five years of age, and a resident of the country for at least ten years. If a president becomes unable to continue in office because of health problems, resignation, impeachment, or death, a presidential election is to be held not more than three months later. In such a situation, the Federation Council is empowered to set the election date.
The Law on Presidential Elections, ratified in May 1995, establishes the legal basis for presidential elections. Based on a draft submitted by Yeltsin's office, the new law included many provisions already contained in the Russian Republic's 1990 election law; alterations included the reduction in the number of signatures required to register a candidate from 2 million to 1 million. The law, which set rigorous standards for fair campaign and election procedures, was hailed by international analysts as a major step toward democratization. Under the law, parties, blocs, and voters' groups register with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and designate their candidates. These organizations then are permitted to begin seeking the 1 million signatures needed to register their candidates; no more than 7 percent of the signatures may come from a single federal jurisdiction. The purpose of the 7 percent requirement is to promote candidacies with broad territorial bases and eliminate those supported by only one city or ethnic enclave.
The law requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters participate in order for a presidential election to be valid. In State Duma debate over the legislation, some deputies had advocated a minimum of 25 percent (which was later incorporated into the electoral law covering the State Duma), warning that many Russians were disillusioned with voting and would not turn out. To make voter participation easier, the law required one voting precinct for approximately every 3,000 voters, with voting allowed until late at night. The conditions for absentee voting were eased, and portable ballot boxes were to be made available on demand. Strict requirements were established for the presence of election observers, including emissaries from all participating parties, blocs, and groups, at polling places and local electoral commissions to guard against tampering and to ensure proper tabulation.
The Law on Presidential Elections requires that the winner receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote (a highly probable result because of multiple candidacies), the top two vote-getters must face each other in a runoff election. Once the results of the first round are known, the runoff election must be held within fifteen days. A traditional provision allows voters to check off "none of the above," meaning that a candidate in a two-person runoff might win without attaining a majority. Another provision of the election law empowers the CEC to request that the Supreme Court ban a candidate from the election if that candidate advocates a violent transformation of the constitutional order or the integrity of the Russian Federation.
The presidential election of 1996 was a major episode in the struggle between Yeltsin and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunisticheskaya partiya Rossiyskoy Federatsii--KPRF), which sought to oust Yeltsin from office and return to power. Yeltsin had banned the Communist Party of the Russian Republic for its central role in the August 1991 coup against the Gorbachev government. As a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat of the banned party, Gennadiy Zyuganov had worked hard to gain its relegalization. Despite Yeltsin's objections, the Constitutional Court cleared the way for the Russian communists to reemerge as the KPRF, headed by Zyuganov, in February 1993. Yeltsin temporarily banned the party again in October 1993 for its role in the Supreme Soviet's just-concluded attempt to overthrow his administration. Beginning in 1993, Zyuganov also led efforts by KPRF deputies to impeach Yeltsin. After the KPRF's triumph in the December 1995 legislative elections, Yeltsin announced that he would run for reelection with the main purpose of safeguarding Russia from a communist restoration.
Although there was speculation that losing parties in the December 1995 election might choose not to nominate presidential candidates, in fact dozens of citizens both prominent and obscure announced their candidacies. After the gathering and review of signature lists, the CEC validated eleven candidates, one of whom later dropped out.
In the opinion polls of early 1996, Yeltsin trailed far behind most of the other candidates; his popularity rating was below 10 percent for a prolonged period. However, a last-minute, intense campaign featuring heavy television exposure, speeches throughout Russia promising increased state expenditures for a wide variety of interest groups, and campaign-sponsored concerts boosted Yeltsin to a 3 percent plurality over Zyuganov in the first round. At that point, Yeltsin took the tactically significant step of appointing first-round presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed', who had placed third behind Yeltsin and Zyuganov, as head of the Security Council. Yeltsin followed the appointment of Lebed' as the president's top adviser on national security by dismissing several top hard-line members of his entourage who were widely blamed for human rights violations in Chechnya and other mistakes. Despite his virtual disappearance from public view for health reasons shortly thereafter, Yeltsin was able to sustain his central message that Russia should move forward rather than return to its communist past. Zyuganov failed to mount an energetic or convincing second campaign, and three weeks after the first phase of the election, Yeltsin easily defeated his opponent, 54 percent to 40 percent (see table 24, Appendix).
Turnout in the first round was high, with about 70 percent of 108.5 million voters participating. Total turnout in the second round was nearly the same as in the first round. A contingent of almost 1,000 international observers judged the election to be largely fair and democratic, as did the CEC.
Most observers in Russia and elsewhere concurred that the election boosted democratization in Russia, and many asserted that reforms in Russia had become irreversible. Yeltsin had strengthened the institution of regularly contested elections when he rejected calls by business organizations and other groups and some of his own officials to cancel or postpone the balloting because of the threat of violence. The high turnout indicated that voters had confidence that their ballots would count, and the election went forward without incident. The democratization process also was bolstered by Yeltsin's willingness to change key personnel and policies in response to public protests and by his unprecedented series of personal campaign appearances throughout Russia.