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In the Soviet Union, every candidate for the parliament is a front-runner

(Page 2 of 2)

All of the candidates for the Soviet of the Union - including Saikin - are nominated by unions, work collectives, or the myriad other ''public organizations'' allowed under the country's Constitution to name candidates. Theoretically, a number of candidates are nominated in each constituency. Representatives of the nominating organizations then meet and choose a single candidate.

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In fact, the entire process is carefully scrutinized by the Communist Party leadership. Thus, Soviet officials are proud to point out that a majority of the people serving in the current Supreme Soviet - 51.1 percent, to be exact - are ''factory workers and peasants.'' A third are women, a fifth are under the age of 30.

In the current Supreme Soviet, says a Soviet analyst, only about half of the candidates are Communist Party members.

On election day this Sunday, voters will make their way to thousands of polling places and cast their votes. The voting is done publicly, and consists of merely collecting a ballot (which has only one candidate's name on it) and dropping it, unmarked, into a box. A voter can choose to spoil it or write in another candidate, but must make a conspicuous walk to a separate area of the polling place. Less than 1 percent of Soviet voters chose to do so during the last election.

Although there is no law compelling citizens to vote, they will be cajoled (some might say coerced) by thousands of canvassers Saikin says he has more than 100 ''agitators'' working in his district alone.

It has not always been that way. In the 1930s and 1940s, the turnout was around 50 to 60 percent. That, says a Soviet official, was a result of ''people refusing to endorse the Communist Party platform.''

''Now,'' he says with a touch of pride in his voice, ''practically speaking, such people do not exist.''

Some Western analysts argue that elections here are not an empty exercise. They say that the mere act of casting a ballot involves the Soviet populace in the political process, albeit in a none-too-profound manner. Other Western observers are not so charitable, saying the exercise is just a cynical attempt to give a thin veneer of legitimacy to the Communist regime.

Soviet officials hotly disagree, arguing such criticisms merely point up a lack of understanding of the Soviet system.

''Our deputies don't go with their own program,'' says a Soviet analyst. ''They all have the same program. So the choice is made on the individual's ability.''

While the Soviet government does not welcome criticism of its electoral system, it apparently feels quite free to dispense criticism of Western-style democracy.

Tass, the official Soviet news agency, notes that while half the deputies in the Supreme Soviet are workers and peasants, businessmen and bankers account for 83 percent of the United States Congress. There are no workers at all in the US Senate, Tass points out, while fully half the senators are millionaires.

Tass adds that ''much less than half of the registered electors participate in elections to Congress.'' That is because ''representatives of . . . monopoly capital'' are the true ''masters of the country.''

Western-style democracy, says Tass, is a political system ''which is more and more discrediting itself.''

On the other hand, Tass notes that under the Soviet system there is ''invariably progressive development.''