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.