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Pole vault

Where the liberalization of Poland's communist system will lead in the weeks and months ahead is impossible to know.But for the moment the Poles again invite the world's awe of their courage, determination, and political skill. The party congress in Warsaw has profoundly shattered the stereotype of such meetings and is certain to have far- reaching consequences not only in Poland but ultimately throughout the Soviet bloc. In a nutshell, the proletariat is finally in charge.

Those who studiously watch Eastern Europe would never have believed such democratic reforms possible in a one-party communist state. For the first time in 30 years the delegates nominated plural candidacies for the Central Committee and voted by secret ballot. They also elected the party leader instead of having him chosen by a small group at the top. The Central Committee, in turn, threw out most of the old members of the ruling Politburo and brought in 11 newcomers, including four workers.

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With consummate political sensitivity, moreover, the Poles managed to elect a party leadership with a careful balance of liberals and conservatives but strongest in the moderate center. They thus responded both to the reformers at home and to the concerns of their ever-wary Soviet neighbors. The Kremlin was only lukewarm in its congratulatory message to party leader Stanislaw Kania, whose position is now strengthened. But, with the Polish communist party still in control, it apparently is prepared to live with the unprecedented changes.

It will be a while before the dust settles and the full import of the political upheaval is understood. All that can safely be said now is that there promises to be considerably more grassroots control of the party's central bodies. The large majority of Central Committee members are workers and about 20 percent are farmers. The question is how the massive party and state bureaucracy -- the "apparatchiks" -- will respond to this new proletarian leadership and whether in fact it will be able to rule.

Party reform is one thing but, for all its incredibleness, it may turn out to be the easiest part of the Polish renewal movement. The next overriding challenge will be to get the party, government, and people working together to lift Poland out of the virtual economic stagnation in which it now finds itself. This will require a thorough going program of economic reform -- which will have to run the gauntlet of the Solidarity trade union organization as well as of parliament.

It will also require persuading the Polish people that they are in for a long period of austerity and that they cannot look forward to better times, even several years down the road, unless they put their shoulder to the wheel.Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski sobered his countrymen when he told the congress that prices of food, coal, and housing would have to be hiked more than 100 percent and that wages had to be frozen. Threats of more strikes, shortages of raw materials, fuel, and food, a huge foreign debt, falling farm and industrial production -- these are the stark realities of a beleaguered land.

How much hardship are Poles willing to take? If consumer shortages lead to protests and social unrest, this could have unpredictable results politically. The West can only hope that the deepening democratization of Polish life will enhance Poles' confidence in their government sufficiently to instill a new spirit of cooperation, discipline, and hard work. Without it, the experiment in worker democracy could come to an end. Knowing how much they already have achieved, the Polish people surely will find the inner resources needed to keep that experiment alive.

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