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Poles march to forefront of reform, but take step back

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The Polish Communist Party's leader will be elected by direct, secret vote from the floor of the congress. That is the striking element in new and essentially more democratic party election procedures adopted after several hours of tough debate in closed session at the Polish Communist Party's special congress here.

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The new procedures do not go as far as the radical reformers had hoped and expected.

But they are without precedent in Russia's communist bloc, or for orthodox communist parties anywhere for the matter.

They represent major departures from the general Soviet-East European pattern of elections to party bodies at all levels on the basis of candidates handpicked by the top leadership.

And they probably represent the limit to which the Poles can go -- at least at this juncture -- consistent with their undertakings to their Soviet ally to restore the authority and the image of their badly shaken party.

Even these decisions were not reached without a struggle revealing the deep divisions remaining between the Polish rank and file and the hard-line elements in the present party Politburo and Central Committee.

The struggle began at the start of the congress Tuesday, when the more ardent reform hopes of an immediate election of the party's first secretary ran into opposition.

It meant, of course, the reelection of the present party leader, Stanislaw Kania. It had in fact been confidently predicted that the liberals' electoral proposals would be almost unanimously adopted and that Mr. Kania would at once be returned with a vote assuring him a commanding position for the rest of the congress. It proved a miscalculation.

Not only was there predictable opposition from the hard-liners still resisting over-radical reform (with further backing from Moscow's representative at the congress.)

There was unexpected reaction also from many delegates staunchly supporting reform but obviously ready also to react for whatever reason, against anything even remotely seeming to have been prepackaged in the old cut-and-dried way.

Voting was almost equally split, with a small majority rejecting the immediate election of a first secretary and voting instead to elect the party committee first.

The vote was challenged because, it was said, many delegates were absent when it was taken. But, after another two-hour closed session Wednesday it was announced that an "overwhelming vote" had now upheld the overnight decision.

It means the congress will elect the Central Committee -- probably Friday. The latter will then propose its nominations for first secretary, and there will , it is being said, be more than one candidate put forward.

This will be done mostly for appearances, one suspects, since there still seems no challenge to Mr. Kania.

The liberals -- especially the reform avant-garde in the Polish media -- are already professing disenchantment.

It does look, in fact, rather like democracy within careful limits but there are possibly two good reasons for it.

One is the hard-line opposition "dreaming about old times" -- as one fortright speaker from the floor put it -- and the other the fact that all this is something very new and strange to a party born and reared for decades on the autocratic "centralism" of the Soviet model still upheld by Poland's allies.

Even those most committed to "renewal" seem to be groping their way, uncertain how far this exercise in democratizing party rule, both for its members and for the "socialist state" at large, may safely be taken.

Something, however, is changing. Something has already changed, as a reading of some of the first speeches from the floor of congress vividly reveals.

It is a unique experience to an observer of the communist scene from the late 1940s to hear the grass-roots representatives of a communist party get up and speak out bluntly to their own leaders. One example was a woman from a textile plant in the Lodz region.

"We are spinning around in a vicious circle of ineptitude," Henryka Kubiak told them. "We debate, postulate, write protests and resolutions, but we're not going forward.

"The ninth congress won't solve all the problems of fill the food baskets. But it must give a start to changes in our country and a strong leadership which will say: agreement, yes -- cooperation, yes -- but all to implement the socialist renewal," said Mrs. Kubiak. A gale of applause greeted her remarks.

A steelworker from Krakow, Kazimierz Miniur, warned of the danger of a party split. Renewal, he said, was threatened not only by Solidarity extremists, but by party extremlists too.

Whatever the ultimate limits prove to be, this is already a new type of party congress, with a gut reaction from the floor against even faint suggestions of stage management and policy pronouncements from the top.

The Soviet delegate, Politburo member Viktor Grishin, was given a warm reception, though he reminded the Poles of their Soviet debts and hinted strongly the time had come for them to roll up their sleeves and fulfill their trade contracts.

When Mr. Kania declared that Poland will always be a loyal member of the Soviet alliance and praised the Russians as the only guarantor of its borders and independence, he was appropriately applauded.

But the delegates heard him in silence when be criticized Solidarity's demands for workers' self-management and "ownership" of their specific enterprises.