S. Africa ruler attempts to shift country's political debate. Poll talk takes spotlight off sanctions, violence

South Africa's President is moving to strengthen his hand against white political opponents on the right and the left. A series of moves by President Pieter W. Botha has had the effect of shifting the South African political debate.

The President seems to have deliberately provoked speculation about when he will call a national election, perhaps to divert white attention from partisan debate and invective over black political violence and foreign economic sanctions. Discussion of a possible election has also led to speculation over who in his National Party (NP) may succeed him when he retires.

To judge from Presidential speeches given to NP provincial congresses in recent days, decisions on these questions are not around the corner.

Mr. Botha, who sparked the election speculation himself in August, scotched it Monday night by saying the earliest a poll will come is next year. Though Botha encouraged succession talk by resigning one of his party posts early Tuesday, he seems as energetically in control as ever.

NP sources say that the current concern over elections does not indicate that they are assuming the problems of political unrest and foreign economic pressure have been resolved. There is still particular concern that the NP might lose supporters to the extreme right in an election, the sources add.

But they sound confident that a reoriented party strategy of recent months is beginning to show results. Among the elements of this strategy are:

Law and order. Central to this was Botha's June 12 declaration of a nationwide state of emergency, coupled with the arrest of thousands of antigovernment activists. On Tuesday, the highest court in the land overturned an earlier legal challenge to an emergency regulation under which many of these people had been detained.

Reform through strength. Botha has reaffirmed and refined his program for ``evolutionary change'' in a series of speeches given to NP congresses during the last few weeks. He has stressed that his offer to share power with the nation's black majority, which at present has no elected voice in national government, must not be seen as ``surrender'' by the country's white minority. He has said there can be no talk of power sharing with black leaders who do not renounce political violence.

White unity. A central theme of the speeches Botha has given to NP audiences since August has been to undercut right-wing rivals by presenting himself and the NP as a vehicle for unified white moves toward talks with moderate blacks.

One NP source says this helps explain Botha's resignation yesterday from his long-held post as Cape Province leader of the NP. Botha retains the National Party leadership, and the state presidency. Chris Heunis, the Cabinet minister who drafted South Africa's cautious political reforms, will replace Botha as NP leader in Cape Province.

National assertiveness. Botha has set out to prepare his electorate for the worst-case scenario of international economic isolation. But he has said that South Africa can, and will, survive such pressures, and will not be forced into meeting black militants' demands.

The early effect of the recent NP strategy has been to throw rival white political parties on the defensive. Still, black leaders and white-liberal politicians have rejected his reform proposals as too little, too late. And white leaders on the extreme right, meanwhile, have pressed Botha to make good on his hints of an election. Under law, he does not have to send voters to the polls until 1989.

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.

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