For more than a year, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has wanted a strong popular mandate to give new momentum to his program of political, economic and social reforms, to overcome the conservatism of the Communist Party and government bureaucracy and to involve the whole country in what he regards as a strategic and historic undertaking.
The boost he received from last Sunday’s hotly contested parliamentary elections appears to have given him all that--and much more.
Reform-minded deputies, some of them remarkable in their qualifications, others with unmatched popular support, appeared from still sketchy reports Wednesday to have been elected by the score to the new Congress of People’s Deputies.
At the same time, government and party officials perceived as the “brake” on perestroika, as Gorbachev calls his reforms, were voted down in equal numbers--even when they faced no opposition other than grass-roots anger over everyday complaints.
Mandate With Leverage
Gorbachev now has not only the mandate for reform that he wanted as leverage against conservatives within the party leadership, but he also has the elements of a new political system for the country.
Under constitutional changes adopted at Gorbachev’s urging last year, the Congress of People’s Deputies will exercise “supreme authority,” outranking even the party’s Central Committee. It will elect about a fifth of its 2,250 members to a new Supreme Soviet, which will become a full-time legislature, and its chairman, certain to be Gorbachev, will be the country’s president with broad executive powers.
The point, Gorbachev had declared, was to create new political structures that would promote reform, break through the barriers raised against it and institutionalize the process of democratic change.
Although many of the newly elected deputies, a third of whom will come directly from the party, the Communist Youth League, the trade union federation and a variety of other organizations, are from the party’s vast apparat , the elections liberated them to speak, for the first time, for their “constituents"--a new concept here.
Bolder, Faster Actions
This will allow Gorbachev to move his agenda for reform out of the party, and its still secret deliberations, when he meets resistance there and into the public forum of the Supreme Soviet, where the pressure is likely to be for bigger, bolder, faster actions.
“Voters did simply not vote, like it was earlier, but they really made a choice, giving their preference to candidates whose election platforms they liked,” the Communist Party newspaper Pravda commented Wednesday. “In choosing people’s deputies, the country voted for perestroika. “
But many of those firm supporters of Gorbachev’s reforms, in fact, defeated official party candidates, and many deputies whose support Gorbachev expects in the new parliament were elected on equally strong anti-Establishment platforms.
“The situation is quite paradoxical--voters believed they could support Gorbachev and perestroika by voting against the candidates of his party and for its critics,” a Soviet political scientist commented, asking not to be quoted by name. “People thought they could strengthen Gorbachev’s hand by eliminating people they saw as the enemies of reform.”
Gorbachev now has a number of immediate political options, according to Soviet observers, and is likely to use all of them in varying degrees:
-- He will certainly replace many of those regional officials who failed to win the required popular vote of confidence, and he will probably put younger men with a more open approach in their place with orders to resolve outstanding local grievances.
-- He will probably reorganize the central party structure further, cutting away at the bureaucracy on grounds it has alienated the party from the country and trying to remove conservative opponents who have kept his reforms from reaching the people.
-- And, adopting a bit of the style of Boris N. Yeltsin, the radical populist who captured 89% of the vote in a citywide Moscow constituency, he will undoubtedly try to establish active links between the leadership and the people through the newly elected deputies on the hottest issues, such as official corruption and the bureaucratic privileges.
With 76 runoff elections scheduled for April 9 and complete reruns scheduled for May in 199 districts where voters rejected the candidates outright, the party has a chance to recover many of its losses before the Supreme Soviet.
Clearly Rocked Leadership
Last Sunday’s stunning protest vote, directed at party officials at virtually every level, clearly rocked the Kremlin leadership, posing the difficult task of mobilizing the quite evident support for perestroika and of reconciling it with the people’s equally evident alienation from the party.
In Leningrad, for example, the regional party secretary, Yuri F. Solovev, who is also an alternate member of the party Politburo, was defeated although he was running unopposed when 130,000 voters scratched his name off their ballots in a grass-roots movement with little organization. That compared to 110,000 who accepted his candidacy.
The depth of the anti-Establishment sentiment was also evident in the unprecedented and numerous defeats of senior military and naval commanders, notably in the Far East, the north and at several other key headquarters areas. In some cases, the generals and admirals were beaten by junior officers, colonels emerging as a young Turks movement; in others, the commanders were simply struck from the ballots.
In the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and especially Lithuania, strongly nationalist candidates were elected but with probably a greater commitment to perestroika than that of many party candidates.
Hurried analyses are under way at the party’s headquarters here and in research institutes around the country to assess why so many official party candidates--perhaps a quarter of those who had been officially nominated--were defeated, what factors contributed to the leftward shift and what immediate steps can be taken to restore the party’s authority.
The elections created, as Gorbachev had hoped, a new political culture, one in which the people would become engaged in a political give-and-take, in which officials would have to set out their goals and answer for their actions, where there would be open debates about previously taboo issues and where all this activity would generate the energy needed to pull the country out of its prolonged crisis.
“These new deputies will act as a kind of counterbalance to those who have been resisting perestroika, " Nikolai A. Shmelev, a radical economist, commented. “Many of them are completely independent people with their own programs. They are not going to keep quiet once they get into the Supreme Soviet.”
As Gorbachev had hoped when he set the reforms in motion, the apathy and cynicism of the past quickly disappeared as people began to feel that they would have a real voice in their future. Thousands of people came forward to participate in the elections, either as candidates or campaign workers.
But no one was prepared for either the scope of the protest vote or the political sophistication that enabled people to vote down senior party officials with a minimum of organizational effort.
And this appears to have left the leadership, even Gorbachev, a superb political tactician, in a quandary on how to assess the elections and how to use their results.
Although they are the first contested national elections since the earliest days of the Soviet state, they have been reported with an unusual economy of space in the official news media.
Commented one senior Soviet journalist who specializes in party politics: “We have told ourselves, over and over, that the party and the people are one, and however hollow we thought these words, we never suspected that the gap was so great. In some places, there were specific grievances, in some there were protests against party bureaucracy, but in others it was a rejection of the party and its platform.”