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Moscow’s Hot Politics

The Soviet Union’s parliamentary election campaign shows that the Communist Party knew what it was doing when it long ago insisted on keeping all power concentrated in the hands of its own self-selected leaders. The campaign--the first since the 1920s to allow some choice among candidates--has vindicated those party hacks and reactionaries who feared the worst if the electoral process was permitted to be more open. Given a real chance to express themselves, Soviet voters have not hesitated to ask a lot of embarrassing questions and display undisguised distaste for many who have long claimed to represent them. That may be the way democratic politics works, but it’s not the way the Soviet system is used to operating, and a lot of people in high places are shocked and scared by what has been happening.

The party, of course, doesn’t have to worry about being put out of business by Sunday’s voting or even seeing its monopoly on governance threatened. The election is so rigged that the great majority of the 2,250 members who will ultimately be named to the three chambers of the Congress of People’s Deputies are virtually guaranteed to be the right sort of people, i.e., safely within the ideological mainstream and not interested in disturbing the established order. From their ranks will be named the 450 deputies of a new Supreme Soviet that is supposed to have considerable legislative and oversight powers. Probably the worst the ruling elite will have to contend with after the voting is a small number of quasi-independent gadflies who will try to nudge the party toward adopting more liberal reforms sooner.

Boris N. Yeltsin, the enormously popular former Communist Party leader in Moscow who lost office because he complained that Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms were proceeding too slowly, seems almost sure to be one of those. If he isn’t, there is probably no one in Moscow who will believe that he lost in a fair count. Andrei D. Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, also seems likely to be elected in special voting next month made necessary by an unprecedented revolt against the officially approved list of candidates put up by the Academy of Sciences.

Perhaps even more important than the personalities who have emerged as genuine public favorites has been the explosive venting of popular frustration and anger that the campaign has permitted. Among other things, people who continue to lack decent housing, adequate food and competent medical services have demonstrated in open forums that they are fed up with the privileges and perquisites of the party elite, who enjoy large apartments, country dachas , special stores and clinics and opportunities for foreign travel and shopping expeditions. The claim of a classless, egalitarian Soviet society has always been a lie. Now, more than ever, it’s evident how resented that lie has become.

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Will the election in the end speed efforts to deal more constructively with the country’s staggering economic and social deficiencies, or will it prove to be only a sham designed to support a pretense of popular sovereignty while the country’s rulers go on doing what they would do anyway? Whatever results, the Soviet Union will still be a long way from real political pluralism. Maybe, though, it will have moved just a mite closer to giving its people more representative government.


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