When voters went to the polls Sunday in the Soviet Union’s parliamentary elections, it was the first time almost since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that the results were not a preordained, across-the-board sweep for the Communist Party--even before the ballots were cast. And President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the party leader, was pleased.
“The present election campaign in itself means a very significant advance of the democratization of our society,” Gorbachev told journalists after he finished casting his ballot, “and this has come on the main question--where power is at stake.”
These were the first multi-candidate national elections since the earliest days of the Soviet state, and Gorbachev, who has staked his reform effort upon them, pronounced them a success for the profound shifts in political outlook they have already brought.
After a monopoly on political power of almost 70 years, the Communist Party has, in establishing a new parliamentary system for the country, taken a major step toward sharing that power more broadly with its allies--and also with its critics, many of whom are expected to win seats in the new Congress of People’s Deputies.
The party has held fast for decades to the Marxist-Leninist political doctrine that, as the vanguard of the working class, it represented the will of the people. Now, in amending the Soviet constitution and then in campaigning for popular support in contested elections, it has accepted the principles of a participatory, representative democracy.
And, after long forbidding most significant political debate and jailing many of those who dared to question its policies, the party has opened to vigorous, often boisterous discussion on virtually all topics, even the country’s one-party system, and thus its own fitness to govern.
In a society where political practice has proceeded from theory in many important respects, these changes reflect a fundamental re-orientation.
Shift in Power
“This was the main thing we set out to achieve,” Gorbachev said of the elections--the shift in the balance of power they have brought and the political energy they released. “Note, too, that all this was manifested at the very first stage of its introduction.”
Gorbachev had made his broad goals of a national rebirth clear when he first outlined the country’s new constitutional system at a special party conference last June and stressed the party’s need to share power in order to awaken the country from “years of stagnation” and energize it politically.
Only through such basic reforms, Gorbachev has argued repeatedly, can the Soviet Union emerge from the prolonged crisis in which its military might is declining rapidly and in which it has become unable to feed, clothe or house its people.
“The key to bringing out the potential of the Soviet socialist society lies in identifying the diverse interests of people and in harmonizing them,” Gorbachev said. “It lies in democracy and in political openness. . . . That is why we intend to further the democratization process to cover all spheres, economic, political and cultural. Far from retreating, we will continue to open up possibilities of our system.”
In the past, Soviet leaders took for granted the 99.75% or 99.85% approval rating they received in elections in which their name was the only one on the ballot. For them, this was a popular referendum, an approval rating, on their work and on party policies, not an election in the Western sense.
But, in reality, it only added to the widespread cynicism here about the whole Soviet political system, particularly about the ability of an individual, however great his efforts, to make an impact on society, particularly one that runs counter to party policies and the top leadership’s interests.
Speaking of perestroika, or restructuring--his program of political, economic and social reforms--Gorbachev said, “Perestroika will be implemented only if people join in it everywhere--at enterprises and on construction sites, in educational establishments, in research institutes, at schools, at medical facilities, wherever people are working.
“No campaign from above, no matter how many canvassers it has or how much noise it makes, can decide the country’s destiny. The Soviet people are central to perestroika, and they should be involved through the potential of democracy, through glasnost (openness), through reforms, particularly the economic reforms, and should be given the real opportunity to judge everything and make decisions.”
Gorbachev, of course, had not put all at risk in the new reforms, or in Sunday’s voting.
About 82% of the 2,895 candidates competing for the 1,500 seats at stake Sunday in the Congress of People’s Deputies were party members, and even the most critical individuals largely accepted the reality that the party would continue to lead the country.
The party had also assured itself a strong role in the congress and in the new Supreme Soviet, the country’s principal legislative body that it will elect, through the inclusion of 750 more deputies from public organizations, including 100 from the party leadership itself, to bring the total congress membership to 2,250.
Serious Threat to Party
Only in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where some nationalist candidates ran on platforms demanding independence from Moscow or even advocating secession from the Soviet Union, was there a serious threat of widespread party defeats.
And Gorbachev, questioned about the increasing calls for a multi-party democracy, argued against taking pluralism that far.
“The existence of this or that number of parties is not a solution of the problem,” he said. “I think the key to releasing the potential of our socialist society is in discovering the different interests of the people and then harmonizing them, either on the basis of consensus or of a majority; that is democracy and political openness.”
Not Commit Stupidities
He also urged caution in breaking too radically with past Soviet practice. “We must not commit stupidities, try great leaps forward or overreach ourselves,” he said. “We must not put the people’s future at risk. We have seen attempts at leaps forward both in the East and in the West, and we have had them here, too, and we know what they lead to. If we are capable of learning from history . . . then we must act as we are acting now.”
But the apparent emerging victory of Boris N. Yeltsin, a member of the party’s policy-making Central Committee, who ran a strongly critical, anti-Establishment campaign for Moscow’s prestigious citywide constituency, also showed the temper of the times.
“I must win, and I will win,” Yeltsin told journalists after he voted Sunday after a campaign that built upon popular impatience with a perceived slowness in change here. “I am not against the party, and the party is not against me. But I am against individual comrades and against the (bureaucratic) apparatus, and they seem to be against me.”