With Boris Yeltsin triumphantly defying the establishment in Moscow, Lech Walesa guiding the Polish opposition into Parliament and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Hungarian Politburo, arguing in Budapest that his party should drop its “dogmatic wing” and strike an alliance with the country’s social democrats, it can be said that the era of Communist Party rule by divine right is over in Eastern Europe. Or, to switch to an economic metaphor, that a system of absolute monopoly is being replaced by one of imperfect competition.
The three countries setting the pace on this journey toward democracy are not following exactly the same road or advancing at quite the same speed. In the Soviet Union the principle of one-party rule is not to be questioned for the time being; in Poland the ruling party hopes to preserve power by integrating the opposition into the system; in Hungary the regime promises free elections, complete with genuine opposition parties, and expects to stay on top at the head of a coalition. We may leave to the end of the story the crucial question about the shape of the “socialist parliamentary democracy” toward which all three countries claim to be moving, and begin by examining the Soviet experience. For however important the peripheral advances may be, they will remain vulnerable as long as democracy is not consolidated at the center.
Last year, while reviving the famous slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” Mikhail Gorbachev took all sorts of precautions. He replaced the Soviet Union’s rubber-stamp parliament, or Supreme Soviet, with a smaller institution with greater powers, but took care that neither members of this new body nor its chair–that is to say, the President of the Soviet Union, a post destined for Gorbachev himself–should be elected by direct universal suffrage. Instead, they are to be chosen by the Congress of People’s Deputies, whose 2,250 members have just been elected. To make matters even safer, one-third of those 2,250 deputies were picked indirectly by such organizations as the Communist Party, the labor unions, the Komsomol (Young Communists), the League of Women and various associations of scientists and writers. The justification for having such “reserved” seats is that, in a country only beginning to learn democratic ways, the experts, intellectuals and other reformers required for perestroika might otherwise have failed the electoral test.
Voters were to disprove such skepticism. Since the rank and file of those organizations merely put forward candidates, leaving their leadership to do the actual selection and voting, the scope for manipulation in the indirect elections was tremendous. The Sakharov scandal at the Academy of Sciences was a good illustration: It took an international outcry and demonstrations by researchers in Moscow for the scientific bureaucracy to yield and give Andrei Sakharov as well as other reformers a second chance. For the Communist Party slate it was even simpler. The 641 members of the Central Committee who cast a vote had no choice: There were precisely a hundred names for a hundred deputy seats. But they could register a vote against a candidate. The usual unknown provincial candidates got in unopposed. But Yegor Ligachev, known as the leader of the conservatives, received seventy-eight hostile votes, a record. Next came Aleksandr Yakovlev, reputedly the most reformist, with fifty-nine votes against. Stalin must have turned in his grave observing the collapse of the cult of the General Secretary: Twelve people dared cast their ballots against Mikhail Gorbachev.