MOSCOW — Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev called Tuesday for a sweeping "democratization" of Soviet life, including elections by secret ballot with two or more competing candidates for senior and other Communist Party posts.
Speaking at a meeting of the party Central Committee, Gorbachev also advocated election of factory directors, farm chairmen and leaders of public organizations as part of his campaign for reform.
His surprise proposals, which have been endorsed by the 12-member Politburo, are in sharp contrast with present party practice--the election of unopposed candidates by a show of hands.
Problems of 'Absolutism'
Only a strong dose of democracy, Gorbachev said, can correct the problems brought on by years of "absolutism" and "rule by decree."
Gorbachev said that major changes are essential to ensure the success of his plans for reorganizing life in the Soviet Union--economically, socially and culturally.
"The reorganization is possible only through democracy and due to democracy," he said. "It is only in this way that it is possible to give scope to socialism's most powerful creative force--free labor and free thought in a free country."
Gorbachev made it clear, however, that he does not intend to discard the party's dominant role.
"The point at issue is, certainly, not any breakup of our political system," he said. ". . . Socialist democracy has nothing in common with permissiveness, anarchy or irresponsibility."
Nor, he added, do the changes affect the traditional channels of party rule. He said, "Of course, the principle of party rules, under which the decisions of the higher bodies are compulsory for all lower party committees, including those on personnel matters, should remain unshakable in the party."
Even so, he outlined procedures that would require secret ballot elections at regular intervals for party leaders of the nation's 15 republics as well as at the local and district level. Gorbachev indicated that such elections might even be held at the national party level "which should be open for the influx of fresh forces from various spheres of activity."
Voting and the nomination of candidates, however, would be limited to members of party central committees at various levels, not to all 19 million members of the party.
Gorbachev also proposed the election of factory and farm managers, down to the level of foremen and team leaders, as a part of new rules that link pay to production.
"Since the well-being of the collective (work force) is made dependent on the abilities of the managers, the working people should also have real opportunities to influence the election process and control their activities," he said. "Expansion of democracy in production presupposes an organic combination of one-man command and collective effort."
Without naming him, Gorbachev blamed the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev for what he called the Soviet Union's economic and moral decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In those years, he said, some party leaders became "beyond control or criticism" and others became greedy and corrupt.
'Decline of Social Mores'
"The spread of alcohol and drug abuse and a rise in crime became indicators of the decline of social mores," he said. "Disregard for laws, report-padding, bribe-taking and encouragement of toadyism and adulation had a deleterious influence on the moral atmosphere."
In one of his strongest attacks yet on the Brezhnev years, he said that "day-to-day practical activity was replaced with rule by decree, a show of efficiency and mountains of paperwork."
"Comrades," he concluded, "it is the leading bodies of the party and the state that bear responsibility for all this."
He said that a draft law on state enterprises, aimed at giving a greater voice to workers, will be widely discussed before it is enacted.
On the sensitive question of election to party posts, Gorbachev said new procedures, including the secret ballot and two or more candidates, could prevent a repetition of "errors of the past." Under the Soviet system, party leaders usually hold no top government posts but make the key decisions.
Gorbachev said that party secretaries, including first secretaries, could be elected by secret ballot at meetings of their respective central committees.
At present, the practice is to present only a single name to a party committee; that person is invariably elected unanimously.
Western diplomats suggested that adopting the secret ballot might make it possible for Gorbachev's supporters to eliminate people who oppose the reorganization program.