THERE was really never any doubt that Poland's first public referendum in 40 years would be successful. Communist governments, after all, seldom hold elections that the state can lose. So it was particularly shocking that when the outcome was tallied, the vote had apparently gone against the Warsaw government. Warsaw had wanted the Polish people to support a new plan for austerity and economic modernization. But from the outset, the deeper question was whether the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski had the political will, the staying power, to carry the plan to completion.
The bold modernization program, involving price increases and a move toward a more market-oriented economy, is long overdue. That is why there is dismay about the rejection of the plan by Polish voters, who turned down two ballot questions. One question called for economic belt-tightening; the other called for yet-to-be defined democratic reforms. The first ballot reportedly gained only 44 percent of the public's support; the second gained only 46 percent. In both cases, more than 50 percent of eligible voters were required to vote in favor for approval.
Thus, the real test for Warsaw will come in the weeks ahead. Party hard-liners, who have scuttled economic and political modernization efforts in the past, might have been heartened by the unexpected outcome. But it would be premature to argue that the public opposed the modernization plan. There was much confusion over the balloting.
The meaning of the weekend vote will become clearer. Was it voter confusion? Opposition to reform? And what will be the impact of the defeat on General Jaruzelski's credibility? Some Western specialists have even suggested that Warsaw, or - at the least - significant groups within the government might not have really wanted the measures to pass, since that would mean having to go ahead with the food price increases and the danger of street turbulence. But whatever the reasons for the defeat, Poland desperately needs to move ahead with modernization to revive its economy. Will the government do so, despite the outcome?
Warsaw will probably press ahead, though at a slower speed. Doing so will not be easy. Polish workers will have to accept the many changes implicit in a less regimented economy.
Most important, Warsaw must yet find a formula by which Solidarity activists can be included within the ``Polish model'' of democracy promised by Jaruzelski. Not to do so would be to make a mockery of the weekend balloting.
Poland should press ahead with modernization, in part to ensure the fresh infusion of Western bank credits that the Polish government is so eagerly courting.