SUNDAY'S parliamentary elections are an attempt to reconcile radical reform with political stability. The new Soviet parliament, three quarters of which will be elected on Mar. 26, will provide Mikhail Gorbachev with a potential new power base: last October he had himself elected president of the Presidium of the current Supreme Soviet, or parliament, and is expected to keep the post in the new body. In theory the new parliament will debate and pass resolutions on high government policy. In practice its main role will be that of an improved channel of communications between Mr. Gorbachev and the grass roots.
One vital political question, however, remains unanswered: How far will the new parliament and Gorbachev try - or be able - to limit the political power of the Communist Party?
Reform-minded party officials describe the election as a transitional stage to a more free-wheeling form of political democracy. But at this stage, a senior Communist Party official says, the key word is ``stability.''
Every step of the current electoral process has had political shock absorbers built into it to avoid nasty surprises. Candidate selection went through two stages - grass-roots nominations, then long deliberations at a district conference. The new parliament will be chosen in two ways: 1,500 members elected directly; 750 nominated by ``community organizations.'' The latter include 100 party delegates; most of the others will be drawn from largely docile party-affiliated groups.
The new Congress of People's Deputies, which will convene within one month of the elections, is the first of a two-step process of forming a standing parliament. This permanent body will have the same name as the present largely ceremonial parliament, the Supreme Soviet. It will have about 440 members and will stay in session for six to eight months of the year.
No one has explained how it will be chosen. But a senior party official suggested that the leadership will once again put forward a list of nominees. ``Where would we be without our lists?'' he asked rhetorically and slightly ironically.
This means that even if Boris Yeltsin is elected Sunday he may not find himself in the standing parliament. And if he does, he may find that many deputies who would have joined his ``left revolutionary bloc'' did not make the cut. On the other hand, many deputies will probably be relieved to be left out: They already hold important or prestigious posts. Some observers in fact suggest that the new parliament will provide an opportunity to move some less dynamic members of the establishment out of their institutes and offices.
Those who want to become the country's first professional parliamentarians face an uncertain future: They don't know how much they'll earn, where they'll work - or where they will live.