MOSCOW, JUNE 21 -- The Soviet Union today carried out its first experiment with multi-candidate balloting in scattered districts across the country during local elections that tested other themes of Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for "democratization."
Although voters in only 5 percent of the election districts were given a choice at the ballot box, the elections of local councils and district court judges around the country took place under a variety of other new conditions that the official press widely hailed as a break with past practices.
"The departure from old, overly rigid procedures for advancing candidates . . . sets apart the character of today's election practices, resulting in the increased involvement of the people," the government newspaper Izvestia said in an editorial today.
The most significant experiment involved multi-candidate lists, a practice already in place in several East European countries and announced here in April as a result of political reforms pushed by Gorbachev.
The experiment is taking place in 76 districts around the country. No multi-candidate list was offered in the city of Moscow, and the only election under way in the Moscow region is in an area closed to foreigners.
Before Gorbachev came to power more than two years ago, the Soviet Union had tried to give greater credence to the role of elected government officials. Those elected today will serve on 52,000 different councils, or soviets.
But the power in the country remains firmly in the hands of the ruling Communist Party. So far, suggestions to make the selection of party officials more democratic -- which were aired publicly by Gorbachev last January -- have not been adopted.
In the experimental areas, election districts were consolidated and voters were able to choose from a list of candidates that exceeded the number of available positions.
At the No. 5 polling station in Moscow's Krasnopresenski region, where Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, voted today, election committee chairwoman Tamara Zuikova noted that changes in procedures had made the candidates more accountable and had given voters a greater chance to voice their preferences.
Today, only one name per political office was on the ballots given to the 1,850 voters in the district, but during the nominating stage, two or sometimes three names were presented to the designated "work collectives" charged with picking the candidates, she said. "Before, it was always one. As a result, this time we are seeing new people and younger people."
According to official predictions, today's election will result in a dramatic 80 percent turnover on the 800-member mossoviet, or city council. Sixty percent of the city's 9,970 deputies to regional councils will be changed, according to Zuikova.
In Moscow, city officials have also pushed candidates to meet with voters and organize festive "meet-the-candidate" gatherings.
"Now the voter is able to take the candidate by the arm and take him home, show him poor facilities for children, repair problems, whatever. Then later, he can say, 'You saw this with your own eyes, what is your platform?' " Zuikova said.
One voter coming out of the Krasnopresenski region No. 5 election station today echoed the view that procedures this year have brought the candidates in closer touch with their constituencies.
"They came to our apartment block, and listened to our complaints," she said. "Before, they only went to factories and enterprises. This time, we feel as though the candidates will be the servants of the people."
However, several voters privately expressed dismay that multi-candidate lists had not been available in their areas, contrary to their expectations. If adopted, this year's experiment will go into effect nationally during the next round of local elections in 2 1/2 years.
Another innovation this year protects the privacy of dissenting voters. Before, a curtained booth was provided for those who wanted to add comments on a ballot or replace the candidate's name with a write-in candidate. But the booth was set apart from the rest of the voting area, and dissenting voters had to break ranks with others in line and walk conspicuously to the booth.
This year, all voters have been encouraged to walk through the curtained booth on their way to the ballot box. "Psychologically, it is completely different," said Zuikova, although she noted some voters today still insisted on bypassing the booth and dropping their untouched ballot in the box.
Top Soviet leaders, shown voting at their local precincts on national television tonight, took their ballots straight to the boxes.
Zuikova cautioned against expecting any upsets when returns are counted later tonight. "It is very unlikely that any of the candidates will not be elected," she said. "There may be more votes against them, but these people have proven their worthiness."
Election day in the Soviet Union has always been an occasion for citizens to press officials with complaints and gripes. Since the emphasis has always been on mustering maximum turnout -- usually 99 percent -- the voter's only resource in a single-candidate election is to withhold his or her vote.
To get out the vote, local election committees recruit "agitators," whose job is to visit voters, discuss the candidates with them and urge them to vote. On election day, the agitators are charged with tracking down wayward voters.
According to the news media and reports by Soviet citizens, this year's candidate meetings were more open and frank than during other elections, in keeping with the tone set by Gorbachev.
Candidates, particularly incumbents, were challenged with questions about issues such as supplies of vegetables, transport, sports facilities, garbage and kindergartens.
On June 12, voters in the Ramyenok region met with Moscow party leader Boris Yeltsin, one of Gorbachev's key allies on the Politburo and a candidate for the mossoviet. According to Moscow's evening newspaper, hundreds came to the meeting and Yeltsin spoke at length in response to several "sharp questions."
In articles leading up to the elections, the Soviet press has described this election -- the first since Gorbachev took over -- as an endorsement of perestroika, or restructuring, as the reform efforts are called.