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Voters in the Slavic heartland of the Soviet Union went to the polls Sunday in an exercise of limited democracy that pitted an array of grass-roots challengers against the vast Communist Party patronage network.

Pro-democracy groups said Sunday night that based on early, sketchy returns, they were hopeful of ousting the old guard communist rulers of Moscow, Leningrad and other cities and of creating bastions of political and economic freedom.More than a million seats in local and republic councils and assemblies were at stake in the Russian republic, the Ukraine and Byelorussia, three republics that account for most of the Soviet land mass and for 70 percent of its population.

It was the first time that the principle of competitive elections was extended to the local councils, which are being given extensive new powers to carry out, or thwart, the greater political and economic liberties approved in Moscow.

The balloting offered greater and wider electoral choices than voters in these areas have ever enjoyed, but these were not multiparty races.

Instead, seats were being contested by old-fashioned Communists seeking to cling to power, newer-style Communists seeking to replace them and people who are not party members.

Official returns were not expected before Monday, and the full outcome will not be clear until runoffs in two weeks, but opposition groups said the first reported precincts confirmed their optimism.

Returns reported by opposition poll watchers in Moscow and Leningrad showed that advocates of greater democracy were poised to win both city councils and most of the cities' seats in the Russian Parliament but only after a second round of voting.

Several leading party officials were reportedly eliminated from the running in Leningrad, but in Moscow, the Communist Party leader, the current mayor and at least one regional party secretary were said to have advanced to the runoffs.

Boris N. Yeltsin, already an opposition leader in the Soviet national legislature, was reported far ahead in his contest to represent Sverdlovsk in the Russian Parliament, a post he hopes to parlay into the presidency of the largest republic.

At polling places in Moscow, voters interviewed Sunday seemed nearly unanimous in their desire to remove the vast Communist Party bureaucracy that they blame for keeping the country poor and under rigid control, although many were bewildered about whom to trust in place of the old guard.

``If you don't know much about the candidates, you look at what they do,' said Svetlana Popova, a programming engineer, as she emerged from a schoolhouse polling place in southern Moscow.

``If it's the secretary of a party committee or the director of some bureaucracy, you scratch out the name right away.'

She was voting down the line for the slate endorsed by an alliance called Democratic Russia, which promises to goad President Mikhail Gorbachev toward full democracy and a market economy and supports slates made up of non-party candidates and dissident Communists.

``All the others are compromised in our eyes,' said Marina Prutkova, the wife of a military officer, interviewed in northern Moscow.

``Look around you. Materially we have empty shelves, and morally we have dishonesty and hypocrisy.'

A year ago, competition was introduced in elections for the national Soviet Parliament, and voters used the opportunity to enthusiastically rout many party regulars.

The turnout Sunday appeared to be much lower than that of this past year - less than 70 percent, according to unofficial estimates - reflecting confusion at the large number of little-known candidates and some disenchantment with the results of this past year's dose of democracy.

The elections fell well short of the unhindered, multiparty democracy already under way in several countries of Eastern Europe.

Rivals to the communist establishment are not yet allowed to organize as formal parties here, so they operate hand to mouth.

Gorbachev was often a target of unsparing criticism as voters stopped outside polling places to air their discontent.

``Gorbachev is still a child of the Stalin epoch,' said A.E. Kuzyakova, a 52-year-old office worker who voted the Democratic Russia ticket.

``His first years in the Politburo, he made no attempt to improve things. OK, he had no allies. But Sakharov had no allies, and we know now how he suffered for us.'

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