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Votes for Democracy

THE last week has been a propitious one for emerging democracies. Electoral results aren't readily comparable because the countries are at such different stages of development. But the results, at the least, are hopeful. A quick rundown:

* South Africa held its first-ever multiracial municipal elections. The tally cemented the political primacy of the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela's party won majorities on governing councils in nearly all major cities and most towns. But other parties, including those reflecting white concerns, gained council seats too. Proportional-representation schemes assured that.

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These elections establish black political participation at the community level - a transformation not unlike the rise of local black politicians in the American South after the civil-rights reforms of the 1960s. Will this mean a rallying of South African resources behind the needs of the poor? Local councils make decisions about roads, water supply, sewers, and housing. But much still depends on a national plan for reconstruction and development, which remains the focus of extensive consultation and negotiation.

* Poland held its first round of presidential balloting, and Lech Walesa showed that anticommunist charisma still counts. Mr. Walesa came from the opinion-poll cellar to challenge front-runner Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist with a thoroughly modern image. They'll meet in a runoff Nov. 19 and have a televised debate before that. Both men are committed to a market economy and to a foreign policy linked to the West. But Walesa was clearly able to capitalize on public doubts about entrusting too much of the government to former Communists.

The best news from Poland was the healthy voter turnout and the largely mainstream nature of politics there.

* The embattled Caucasus nation of Georgia has a longer trek toward full democracy than either Poland or South Africa. But its voters' apparently solid support for centrist leader Eduard Shevardnadze is reassuring. Mr. Shevardnadze faces tough tasks: bringing breakaway ethnic enclaves back into the national fold and forging a working economy. He'll also be keeping a wary eye on Georgia's overriding concern: events in neighboring Russia, which next year holds presidential elections that could strike the keynote for emergent democracy.

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