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Poland's Troubled Voters

THE chaotic election results from Poland shouldn't be taken as evidence that democracy is failing in that country - or that the communists are about to make a comeback. Political turmoil reflects the continuing, sometimes wrenching shift from a controlled economy to capitalism.The former communists and allied parties pushed their temporary advantage to its limit, garnering almost 30 percent of the vote. They played on the frustration felt by Poles who see livelihoods threatened as factories close and prices zoom beyond wages. They also got the votes of those who still have a stake in the old system and want to see some of its apparatus preserved. But it's not likely that any of the parties that won the rest of the vote are going to include communists in their coalition-building efforts. The communists' only power will be as swing voters in parliament - not an insignificant role, but a far cry from their guaranteed representation in the old legislature. The immediate question is whether the noncommunists can form a coalition among themselves. Solidarity, the organization that overthrew the old regime, has fragmented into a multitude of smaller, often warring parties. The splintered vote wasn't surprising. Poland's proportional representation system made it nearly inevitable. But the small turnout, only 40 percent, was a shock. In this Poland mirrors trends elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Hungary's most recent local elections brought out only 25 percent of voters. By contrast, earlier tallies in the region, shortly after the collapse of communism, often reached 90 percent. Poland's election is a sharp reminder of how turbulent these societies remain. Their evolution toward democracy has just begun. Party organizations and platforms are only beginning to take shape. They have to develop in tandem with economic liberalization - a process that will demand consistent support and guidance from the West.

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