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Power to the People?

Some Soviet political analysts describe the national elections that have been called for March 26 as the most momentous event in the Soviet Union since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Those elections are to select the 2,250 members who will make up the three chambers of the Congress of People’s Deputies. From this unwieldy mass will be named the 450 deputies of a new Supreme Soviet, which is supposed to have broad authority to enact legislation and oversee government operations. What gives this month’s elections such putative significance is that voters will have a chance in many constituencies to select from among competing candidates, some of whom have been outspoken in their criticism of local Communist Party officials. Not for nearly 70 years has such debate and such choice been possible.

The degree of choice allowed, to be sure, does not quite achieve the revolutionary promise of “all power to the people!” It fails even to meet the most modest standards of political pluralism that other authoritarian regimes have been compelled or felt confident enough to accept. At best, what is being offered is the possibility that power might now be somewhat more broadly shared, not through permitting a multiparty system that would dilute the party’s monopoly on authority, but by allowing challenges within a single-party framework. This is not democracy as that word is commonly understood. But it could mark an important point of departure in a system whereheretofore a voter’s only function has been to rubber-stamp the decisions made by party officials.

What comes from all this can be expected to have a major bearing on the effectiveness of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reform program. The new electoral process in part reflects Gorbachev’s interest in encouraging wider participation in the political system as one way to overcome conservative resistance to his reform ideas. But the very effort to provide for marginally greater diversity and more committed public participation in the political system has itself been widely sabotaged. As Times correspondent Michael Parks reports from Moscow, manipulations by party conservatives have eliminated any opposition to their single approved candidate in one-fourth of the constituencies. Elsewhere, the most liberal of candidates have, by one or another means, been kept off the ballot.

If the election has indeed been irreversibly skewed to favor the enemies of reform, then Gorbachev will fail to get the kind of Supreme Soviet he must have to put momentum behind his restructuring plans. The March 26 voting may indeed be momentous in the context of what has gone before. But whether the practical results will be momentous, which is what really counts, is by no means a foregone conclusion.

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