POLITICALLY crucial elections to local parliaments, originally scheduled for this fall, will be postponed until February 1990, official sources say. Officials are offering two explanations for the delay, which has not yet been publicly announced. Firstly, the mandate of regional parliaments and local councils (soviets) does not expire until early next year. Secondly, a new draft law on local parliaments will have to be discussed in the fall: This makes elections before next February ``physically impossible,'' a correspondent for the government newspaper Izvestia, Mikhail Kushtapin, told the Monitor.
The real explanation for the delay is probably simpler: Following their dismal showing in the March 26 parliamentary elections, regional party organizations have been lobbying for more time to prepare for the local elections. Defeat on March 26 was deeply embarrassing for party officials. But failure in the local elections could be politically disastrous.
Victory by independent candidates in the local polls could marginalize the Communist Party organization.
The soviets are currently little more than rubber-stamp bodies. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has called for the new soviets to be given real power in the day-to-day administration and long-term development of each region. Defeat for the local party boss would also probably mean the loss of his job: At last June's 19th Communist Party Conference, Mr. Gorbachev called for local party first secretaries to run for office as chairman of the appropriate soviet. If they were defeated, Gorbachev hinted, they would have to resign their party post.
The anger generated by the March 26 defeats was eloquently expressed in speeches made by a number of regional party leaders at a Central Committee plenum last week. The speeches, one party official said later, were remarkable for their tone of ``despair: They betrayed a sense of personal tragedy'' - the awareness of once all-powerful party bosses that the political world as they knew it was rapidly coming to an end.
One regional leader, Alexander Melnikov from the far northern oblast (region) of Komi, told Gorbachev that many city and district party officials would not run in local polls ``because there is 100 percent certainty that they won't be elected.''
Gorbachev apparently did not mention plans to postpone the elections in a meeting with newly elected deputies from the Moscow region held on Wednesday. But he created a favorable impression on some of the more skeptical and independent-minded deputies during the 3-hour session.
Some new deputies, for example academician Andrei Sakharov, have recently expressed the fear that the first session of the new congress will be manipulated and dominated by party leadership. Gorbachev, however, reportedly told the deputies that they would be closely consulted about the preparations for the new congress. There would, he promised, be ``no secrets of the Kremlin palace'' in planning for the session, which will open on May 25.
The first suggestion that regional elections should be postponed came from the Baltic republic of Lithuania in February. The Communist Party leadership there feared that the fall elections would result in the election of a republican congress of deputies dominated by the independent movement Sajudis.
The movement officially calls for the maximum possible autonomy within the Soviet Union, but many Sajudis activists do not try to hide their dream of total independence. The party's nightmare is that a Sajudis-controlled Lithuanian parliament would vote to secede from the Soviet Union, provoking a major and possibly fatal confrontation with Moscow. The March 26 elections to the nationwide congress probably deepened the Lithuanian leadership's forebodings: Sajudis candidates scored a near clean sweep of the republic's seats.
In February the Lithuanian leadership's concern seemed little more than further confirmation that the Baltic republic was an area of exceptional political turbulence. Now, however, the Lithuanian nightmare has come to haunt regional party leaders across the country.