MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, was elected overwhelmingly Thursday at the first meeting of the Soviet Union's new congress to fill the country's strengthened executive presidency.
Gorbachev immediately pledged to use his increased powers to accelerate the pace of his political and economic reforms and to broaden their scope.
His election by the first democratically elected Soviet legislature in 70 years gives Gorbachev, 58, broad executive authority to shape the nation's foreign and domestic policies and makes him the leader of the new congress as well. He also remains the party's general secretary.
Gorbachev, who became the sole candidate for president after other nominees withdrew or were rejected, received nearly 96% of the 2,210 ballots cast in the Congress of People's Deputies. Eighty-seven members voted against him in the secret ballot.
Although his election was never in doubt, Gorbachev's suitability for the presidency was debated, often sharply, for several hours, with the deputies taking their new responsibilities quite seriously.
Replying to their questions, Gorbachev declared his intention to speed the democratization of the Soviet political system, replacing a decades-old system of commands from the top with dialogue at all levels.
Referring to his program of political and economic restructuring, he acknowledged that perestroika is facing great difficulties now, but these latest reforms should, he repeated, help break through the conservative resistance to them.
The first meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies was itself a major step--participants again and again stressed its historic character--in the reform process here.
The 2,250 deputies were chosen for the most part in the first truly contested elections since the earliest days of the Soviet state, and the new Congress has, as the result of constitutional changes, far more authority and independence than any previous legislature. Past legislatures are now acknowledged here to have been little more than rubber stamps for party decisions.
The new executive presidency makes Gorbachev the formulator of the country's domestic and foreign policies. He recommends the appointment of the premier for approval by the legislature; he heads the country's defense council, and he can exercise broad, and so far undefined, authority under a constitutional provision saying simply that the president "shall issue orders." The old presidency, which Gorbachev had held since last Oct. 1, was largely ceremonial.
The Congress of People's Deputies will also elect about 540 of its members to serve in the Supreme Soviet, which has been reconstituted as a standing legislature with full lawmaking authority but under the congress.
Together, the strengthened presidency and legislature are part of Gorbachev's broad reform effort, ending the Communist Party's long monopoly on power by sharing it with other segments of Soviet society.
With millions around the country watching the session on television--even the debates over rules were broadcast live--the proceedings at the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin conveyed the drama and excitement of a nation setting out, with both hope and trepidation, on a new course.
In scenes unprecedented since the earliest days of the Soviet state, deputies boldly called on Gorbachev to explain the country's deepening economic crisis and its mounting inter-ethnic tensions.
"Please tell us is it right to use the army for punitive operations against our own people?" a deputy from the Baltic republic of Estonia asked Gorbachev, recalling the deaths of 21 people when troops were sent into Tbilisi in the southern Soviet Republic of Georgia last month.
"Was a country house built for you in the Crimea?" a Leningrad deputy demanded, wanting to know how Gorbachev stood on the highly sensitive issue of privileges, often verging on corruption, that the Soviet leadership has enjoyed.
His wife, Raisa, was both criticized and defended for the prominent role she plays at home and abroad. "Napoleon started out as a national leader," one deputy said, "but because of the ambitions of his wife ended up as an emperor."
And Andrei D. Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and human rights campaigner, said that, although he respected Gorbachev and believed that only he could lead the country at this time, he could not vote for him without first hearing his program for future reforms.
"Do we have the right to elect the head of state before discussions, before debates and before the resolution of political questions that will define the future of our country?" Sakharov asked, opening the session.
"We shall disgrace ourselves in front of our people if we do this. I supported Gorbachev many times, and I do not see another person for the post. But this support of mine is conditional in nature.
"I think that Gorbachev gave birth to perestroika , and he must say what has happened to the country during the past four years," Sakharov said. "We must say what achievements and what mistakes we have made and also what we are going to do in the nearest future to overcome the extremely difficult situation of our country."
There was even a challenge to the legitimacy of Gorbachev's presiding over the opening debates on procedural matters, and the discussions were stopped briefly to reconfirm his temporary chairmanship of the session.
"What is happening in this hall is totally out of the ordinary for all of us," Gorbachev said later as the debate over his leadership grew increasingly frank. "And I see it," he added, amid thunderous applause, "as the most convincing proof that perestroika is pressing firmly ahead."
Most speakers praised Gorbachev for launching the reforms that have transformed the Soviet political scene, restoring the hope for the "bright future" that socialism had promised and giving the country a sense of confidence that it could achieve it.
"He is the man who shook the sleeping kingdom of stagnation," writer Chingiz Aitmatov declared, nominating Gorbachev. "He had the valor to start a new revolution."
Yet, even Aitmatov was critical. Gorbachev and his supporters have to recognize "the errors that have been committed in perestroika up till now, in the economy and in inter-ethnic relations," Aitmatov said, touching the three most sensitive issues here.
The most serious criticism of Gorbachev came on the question of combining the posts of president and party leader. Many deputies said flatly that no man, not even Gorbachev, should occupy the two most powerful posts in the country.
"To ensure that the party autocracy is excluded from influencing the direction of the state," one Moscow deputy said, "the posts of president and general secretary must be separated."
Gorbachev, who listened carefully to all the criticism, argued in reply that it was necessary to bring together the two jobs, at least for the next five years, to push through further changes, but he promised that the arrangement would be reviewed before the next parliamentary election in 1994.
Use of Troops Discussed
He assured the deputies that he and the party's ruling Politburo opposed the use of combat troops to police the country, but he said that the government also had an obligation to maintain stability and avoid bloodshed, particularly from inter-ethnic clashes.
To settle the question of privileges--he said his only country house, or dacha, was one owned by the state--Gorbachev proposed a special legislative commission to "do a full inventory of all we have and the decide what to do about it."
In an effort to ensure a contested election, a construction engineer from northern Russia had put forward his own candidacy for president, outlining an alternative, more radical reform program and drawing some support.
Alexander Obolensky, the engineer, argued that a choice was essential for the country's emerging democracy, but he was rejected as a candidate when only 689 of the deputies voted for inclusion of his name on the ballot rather than the 50% needed.
"I am no fool," Obolensky said. "I know I don't stand any chance whatsoever, but I think we should create the precedent for all future elections."
Boris N. Yeltsin, the Communist Party maverick, who quit his ministerial post this week to sit as a deputy representing the Moscow at-large constituency, was nominated by supporters, who said that his boldness was needed in the top leadership.
But Yeltsin immediately withdrew himself from consideration, saying that he supported the party's nominee, Gorbachev, out of adherence to "party discipline."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times