AS the American presidential race goes through its seasons, blowing hot and cold, an even longer political campaign under way in the land of the other superpower is worth noting. Mikhail Gorbachev is back waving the banner for perestroika after a month's vacation. Typically, he marked his return to work with a trip to the provinces to sample public opinion. In the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk he found the immediate fruits of his labors: average citizens willing to shout their complaints at the Soviet Union's top man. Who would have expected this just a few years ago?
Their complaints, however, indicate how far Mr. Gorbachev is from the big payoff from his restructuring. People talked of empty grocery shelves, poor housing, scant supplies in grain elevators. Their leader nodded, agreed with their assessments, and promised action in the next planning session of the Communist Party, expected in the next few months.
One plucky kibbitzer shot back, ``But there's only one of you.''
Gorbachev has his political backers, of course, and a reservoir of goodwill among the Soviet public, but he also has a legion of conservative opponents. He doesn't have a lot of time. Some respected experts in the US give him a maximum of two years to show concrete results.
Meanwhile, the flaws in Soviet society continue to get an airing. Articles in Pravda and the weekly New Times recently drew attention to the plight of Soviet women - overworked, underpaid, and with little prospect of promotion or a voice in government. Gorbachev has to use the complaints, which he encourages, to help push through political and economic change - such as a planned drastic cutback in the state bureaucracy.
His political calculations are much different from those being worked out daily by the American presidential candidates. But the results of the Soviet process are as important to the world's future as what happens on Nov. 8.