MOSCOW -- Soviet citizens voted Sunday in a nationwide election that marked a dramatic break with the past by giving most voters, for the first time in their lives, a choice at the ballot box.
Election Day 1989--marked by red flags flying from buses and buildings and music blaring from public squares--was, at long last, more than an obligatory trip to the polls for this Communist nation. The competitive balloting from Siberia to the Ukraine was the centerpiece in President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to reform his country’s political system by allowing individuals to have a greater say in their government.
The key race in Moscow was the citywide one, between ousted Moscow Communist Party boss Boris N. Yeltsin, who has stretched the limits of the new freedom here by calling for debate about multi-party elections, and Yevgeny Brakov, director of the ZIL automobile factory that supplies limousines for the Kremlin’s leadership.
4-1 Margin for Yeltsin
The first official results showed the anti-Establishment Yeltsin sweeping to victory. According to election officials, counts at more than half of the 1,500 Moscow polling stations gave Yeltsin a 4-1 margin against Brakov, who has official backing.
Yeltsin, who is still a member of the party’s policy-making Central Committee and a Cabinet minister for construction, nevertheless won enormous popular support in his campaign against official privileges, with thousands of people turning up at pro-Yeltsin rallies in the final days of campaigning.
Voters were electing representatives to a newly formed Congress of People’s Deputies, and based on interviews at some of the polling places, the citizens were fired up as never before.
“Everyone votes in the Soviet Union. But this year they came earlier and seemed much more excited,” said Victor A. Magnashevsky, 51, an election official at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, where three booths were operating. “People were lined up outside even before we opened at 7 o’clock.”
The newly strengthened national legislature, created under Gorbachev’s program of reforms, is to exercise supreme authority in the country.
The country’s new election process may not be perfect, Gorbachev told reporters after casting his ballot Sunday, but it “has advanced the political thought and social activity of the people, and this is what we wanted to achieve.”
That the balloting spurred debate was undeniable, even though more than 80% of the candidates for the new 2,250-member body were Communist Party members, 25% of the seats were uncontested and it seemed likely that most of the deputies would have little real power.
Candidates were discussed, sometimes heatedly, in family dining rooms as well as public meeting halls. In one Moscow polling station, factory worker Nikolai Poznikov said that after countless arguments, he and his wife Lena still disagreed about which candidate in their district was best. “But we are breathing a sigh of relief simply because we have the opportunity to disagree,” said Poznikov’s wife.
That opportunity, however, created a new dilemma: how to choose? Voters who were queried as they emerged from the polling booths often said the choice was difficult. They based their decisions on everything from serious study of the candidates’ platforms to--in the words of one 55-year-old man--"intuition.”
“He looks like a competent businessman,” the voter, who identified himself only as Vladimir, said of the candidate he supported.
As a sign of the changes in this country, a poll conducted by Moscow University showed that only 11% of the voters who were questioned considered it crucial that a candidate exhibit loyalty to the ideals of socialism.
Citizens are electing 1,500 members to the new Congress of People’s Deputies, half on the basis of one-person, one-vote constituencies, the others from ethnic or territorial districts.
A further 750 deputies have already been chosen from a variety of “public organizations” such as the Communist Party, Communist Youth League and trade union federation.
The Congress of People’s Deputies, which will have a total of 2,250 members, will elect about 450 of their number as members of the Supreme Soviet, a full-time legislative body whose chairman, certain to be Gorbachev, will be the country’s president. The congress itself will probably only meet briefly once or twice a year but retain “supreme power” under the constitution.
About 190 million of the 285 million Soviet citizens were eligible to vote in 11 time zones across the sprawling country. While the locales were widely different--from polar research stations to Soviet fleet ships and even the orbiting space station Mir--the system was much the same. Voters registered with election officials at each polling station and were given two paper ballots, one to vote for a territorial representative and the other to vote for a candidate from their smaller, local districts. Behind curtained booths, they crossed off the names of candidates they opposed.
Those curtained booths were present in past elections, but few people used them because those who did stood out as opposing the single Communist Party candidate on the ballot. Voters simply picked up a ballot and dropped it in the voting box, sometimes without even looking at it. Often, the candidate on the ballot received 99% of the vote.
“I never voted against anyone before,” Galina Feodorov, 51, a retired schoolteacher, said after casting her ballot in a central Moscow polling station. “Now we are having real arguments. Even in my family we disagreed. Life is changing here.”
A 30-year-old tractor driver named Nikolai said he too had never before voted against a candidate. “In the past, we felt helpless. Whatever we did, it did not matter,” he said. “Now, at last, we can choose.”
Although write-in votes were not allowed, voters were permitted to vote against all the candidates on the ballot. One angry woman stormed up to the chief election official at the Olympic Stadium polling station to complain: “The man who gave me my ballot said I can’t cross off all the candidates. But I don’t want any of them, and this is democracy.” She was assured that she could vote against all if she wished.
In another sign of the enthusiasm over new-found choices, some parents brought their children with them to the polls, took them behind the booths to show them how to vote and then let them drop the ballot in the locked wooden boxes.
Under the constitution, election commissions are given 10 days to finish counting ballots, and because all counting is by hand, it is likely to take that long in a number of places. But the first results from districts in the capital were coming in late Sunday night.
The Yeltsin-Brakov contest represented for many the struggle between the party conservatives, in the image of Brakov, and those pushing for change, such as Yeltsin, who is under investigation by a Communist Party commission for some of the reformist ideas he espouses.
An informal exit poll by 21 foreign news organizations of 2,156 voters showed Yeltsin leading by 80%. But about 16% declined to reveal whom they favored. “This is democracy and that means secret ballots, doesn’t it?” asked one woman.
The Yeltsin-Brakov race was not the only one to generate passion. Other races were also hotly contested, particularly in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where underdog Communist Party candidates faced popular nationalist leaders.
The campaigns also were viewed by many Soviets as their first chance to voice complaints about poorly stocked grocery stores, shoddily made consumer goods and inattentive public officials.
“My communal flat is overcrowded and in disrepair, and so I chose the candidate who said he would improve our apartment buildings. If he doesn’t do it, then I will kick him out,” vowed a 65-year-old Muscovite who would give only his first name, Ivan.
THE CHANGING SOVIET GOVERNMENT In a dramatic break with the past, 190 million Soviet citizens were eligible to vote by secret ballot Sunday to elect a Congress of People’s Deputies as part of a process to provide the country with a reshaped Parliament with real executive power. The election process is part of reforms initiated by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and adopted last year at a special plenum of the Soviet Communist Party. In those districts where no candidate gets more than 50%, runoff elections will be held. The new Soviet government will be structured like this:
CONGRESS OF PEOPLE’S DEPUTIES
Voters were electing 1,500 members to the legislative body, joining 750 members already chosen. Each of the 2,250 members will serve a five-year term. The congress will generally meet only once or twice a year but will retain supreme power under the constitution. The congress will elect its chairman, who will be “the highest official of the Soviet state” and act as president. The new president (almost certain to be Gorbachev) will be limited to two terms of five years.
750 seats elected on the basis of one-person, one-vote constituencies.
750 seats elected on the basis of ethnic and territorial constituencies.
In addition, 750 deputies have already been chosen from a variety of “public organizations,” ranging from the Communist Party, Communist Youth League and trade union federation to the Soviet Women’s Committee, Academy of Sciences and Union of Writers. Each group met to elect its quota of members. (Gorbachev was elected a deputy from the Communist Party’s allocation of 100 deputies).
THE SUPREME SOVIET
A 450-member, full-time legislative body will be chosen from the ranks of the Congress of People’s Deputies. This will consist of two chambers of equal standing. While each chamber will have its special responsibilities, most legislation will require the approval of both to be adopted; where there is a prolonged deadlock, the proposals will be referred to the Congress of People’s Deputies.
The Soviet of the Union will be drawn from the deputies elected on a territorial basis and from the public organizations, taking into account the number of people in each Soviet region or republic.
The Soviet of Nationalities will be drawn from the deputies elected from national-territorial constituencies and from the public organizations according to a formula ensuring representation for all ethnic groups large enough to have autonomous districts.
PRESIDIUM OF THE SUPREME SOVIET
When the full Supreme Soviet is not in session, the presidium can act for it on many matters. The presidium will be headed by the chairman of the Congress of People’s Deputies and will include his deputy, the chairmen of the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities, chairmen of the Supreme Soviets from the country’s 15 republics and other Soviet officials.