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In the Soviet Union, every candidate for the parliament is a front-runner

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For a man in the heat of an election campaign, Valery Saikin looks decidedly relaxed. He has the distinctive poise and self-assuredness of a front-runner as he fields questions from the press and makes a few promises about what he'll do once he takes office.

Such self-confidence is somewhat understandable, since he is the only candidate in the race and his election is virtually guaranteed. What's more, he won't have any campaign debts - the government pays for those.

The fact that he is a known communist won't hurt him in the least. After all, the Communist Party is the only legal political party in his country. And if the recent historical pattern is followed, Saikin will probably get a voter turnout around 99.9 percent on Sunday.

Those in the middle of the American election campaign - the candidates with numbed hands and the voters with numbed eardrums - might not recognize it, but the USSR is also in the midst of a campaign. The contrast with the one in America couldn't be more drastic.

Saikin, head of the Zil automotive enterprise here - which makes, among other products, the limousines that whisk Communist Party power brokers through traffic - is one of some 1,500 people ''running'' for a seat in the Supreme Soviet, nominally this country's parliament.

The word ''running'' is put in quotation marks because there is, in fact, no contest. The results are known before the voters go to the polls. And the word ''nominally'' is used because, although officially the highest legislative authority in the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet does little more than give unanimous and unwavering approval to decisions made by the Communist Party leadership.

Despite this, Soviet officials bristle at the suggestion that their elections are inferior to those in Western democracies.

On the contrary, says one official, ''We believe this system is more logical.''

How's that?

''We think the possibility of making a wrong choice is reduced because we make the choice before the election,'' he says.

Primaries and caucuses are unfamiliar to the average Russian. A bit of background is clearly in order.

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