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Poland draws back from brink of crisis as workers triumph

"The victory we wanted," Lech Walesa called it. The jubilant crowd outside the Supreme Court cheered lustily, and all of Poland breathed again after a week of deep tension.

The court had just reversed the lower court ruling that brought the country to the brink of a political crisis far worse than the economic paralysis of the midsummer strikes.

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Lech Walesa, the extraordinary worker-cum-natural labor leader, won two victories when the Supreme Court said the lower court had exceeded its powers and removed the political clause it had written into the Solidarity union's charter. That clause specified the leading role of the Communist Party in Polish life.

One Victory was for the new free and independent trade unions: By this decision they are firmly established as a movement unique in the history of Soviet and East-bloc communism.

The other victory was for the country at large. It was, and remains, hard- pressed by the consumer shortages of an economic situation that, as everyone knows, it going to get worse before it can begin to get better.

They at least have a better chance now. If the Nov. 10 decision had gone the other way, no one could foretell the political consequences, though rulers and ruled were obviously very aware of the possibilities as the day approached.

Today would have seen the start of new nationwide strikes that Solidarity had planned and prepared with almost military precision.

Immediately following the judgment, however, the strikes were canceled. Poland began to relax and feel more at ease than at any time since the crisis started piling up at the start of the year.

It was also a personal triumph for Mr. Walesa, whose name has become a household word in Poland. He more than anyone else contributed to Solidarity's successful struggle to preserve the sense and the letter of independence in its charter.

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Mr. Walesa is not a socialist, but he stands all-out for workers' self-management and genuine participation in economic and social policymaking.

"I am a trade unionist, concerned with all the interests of the workers," he told this writer in a 90-minute interview a few days before the Supreme Court hearing.

It was he who kept negotiations with the government going to the very last hour in search of a compromise, when union militants would have been ready to call it a day and take a simple strike decision.

That did not mean he was yielding ground on the issue of deletion of the offending political wording in the union charter, but that he wanted to keep the door open to agreement. That sentiment had also been evident in a major speech by party leader Stanislaw Kania.

Asked if he counted himself a "liberal," Mr. Walesa told me: "My job is to try and keep a balance. Sometimes I have to cool hotheads and at others I must encourage the timid." He succeeded admirably.

Communist regimes claim their courts to be a fully independent judiciary. But since it is rare for a judge not to be a member of the Communist Party and laws are framed from an ideological standpoint, the point has its own ambivalence.

Shortly before the Supreme Court hearing, there was widespread fear that it would merely send the case back to the lower court, which would have lit the strike torch right away.

But well before that a constitutional lawyer told me it would be quite possible for the senior court, under law, to rule that the lower court judge exceeded his competence.

The trouble could have been averted at the outset by leaving the explicit political commitments under the Constitution to be put into a separate appendix, which is what has been done now.

The deciding factor finally was the obvious solidarity of the workers and the continued sympathy with them -- despite its fears -- of the population at large.

In the end of the government had absolutely no option but to accept the realities and accept a legal way out of its dilemma.

This way, Mr. Walesa has promised, it can count on Solidarity's backing for the better work effort essential if economic recovery is ever to begin.

The immediate problems are daunting enough as the country faces a winter that weathermen are predicting could be the severest of the century.

Daily the papers highlight some new dismal aspect of shortages ranging from food, shoes, and textiles to rural public transport systems that lack batteries and tires as well as hot-drink facilities and even gloves for drivers.

Solidarity's victory had brought Poland a calm that it its best guarantee of being left alone to solve its difficulties, including the political ones.

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