MOSCOW -- Voters in selected areas of the Soviet Union Sunday chose local officials in experimental multi-candidate elections, a key element of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies.
Only 100,000 of the 2.3 million seats to 52,000 local councils nationwide are being contested under the multi-candidate ballot experiment.
The remainder will be filled by unopposed candidates, many either handpicked by the local Communist Party leadership as in past elections or survivors of unofficial multi-candidate primary races held by the local party organization.
The multi-candidate elections are taking place in newly enlarged districts set up throughout the country and selected especially for the experiment. Radio Moscow said voter turnout was 'very high'.
'The people are giving a vote of confidence to the current restructuring of the national economy and the process of expanding democracy and openness,' the Radio said.
Earlier in the day Gorbachev cast his own ballot at the House of Architects polling station on Moscow's Shchuseva Street, which was draped in red bunting and Soviet flags.
After voting, he spoke with poll workers and made a brief statement to reporters in which he accused the United States of failing to follow up disarmament talks with action.
When it came to internal affairs and opposition to his reform policies, however, Gorbachev remained silent as reporters fired questions at him.
The Soviet leader did not get a chance to participate in his own reform. His voting area had only one candidate and was not part of Sunday' experiment. There were no experimental polling areas in the Moscow region.
The 2.3 million representatives elected Sunday will serve on local councils at factory, village and city district level. Such local elections take place every two and a half years. The local councils are the foundation of the government administrative structure.
Another reform introduced in Sunday's poll was the assurance of a secret ballot. Dissenting voters in past single-candidate elections were forced to vote in a separate corner of the room. Voters who did not wish to alter their ballot simply dropped it into a box.
In Sunday's poll, all voters entered a booth where they could either leave their ballot unmarked, thus voting in favor of a candidate, or pencil in a 'no' to oppose the candidate.
'Psychologically this makes a big difference. People were intimidated before by having to go off to the side if they wanted to vote against a candidate. This is a big improvement,' said Danava Zoikova, an election official at the Shchueva Street polling station.
Although the Soviet constitution allows for multi-candidate elections, the practice has never been followed.
But last January at the Party's Central Committee Plenum, Gorbachev advocated the new election procedure as a way of getting citizens more involved in government by providing a choice and making representatives more responsive to the people.