Greek democracy has given itself a new test - transition to left-wing government for the first time in the nation's history. A key to orderly and constructive change lies in following through on these words from the victory statement by Andreas Papandreou: ''Our every step will be based on the consent of the people.''
Such an assurance was particularly welcome, because Dr. Papandreou's campaign left doubts about exactly what steps he wanted to take as leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok). With Pasok's unexpected parliamentary landslide on Sunday, he appears to begin with freedom from dependence on - and thus from pressure by - the Communist minority. He has better prospects for stable political processes than if the election had been narrower. It will be incumbent on him to convince the spectrum of voters for Pasok that he is as wise in power as he has been shrewd in opposition.
For example, Dr. Papandreou has seemed to leave various impressions to woo various parts of that spectrum. He lets the left see him as anti-NATO, anti-European Community, anti-American (though he is American-educated, has an American wife, and was for a time an American citizen). Then he lets the center see that he may be open to negotiation: on NATO, perhaps emulating France in maintaining a political if not military role; on the EC, perhaps not pulling out but calling for a referendum on whether to stay in; on the US military bases, perhaps phasing them down (or getting a better deal from Washington?) rather than demanding an American exit.
The challenge for Greece's incoming government will be to exercise the greatest prudence on such matters of relationship with the Western world. There can be mutual benefits in these relationships, and there should be mutual fairness as well. Dr. Papandreou has every right to argue, for instance, that Greece may have given up too much for what it gets out of association with the EC. But it is hard not to see Greece as a natural part of free Europe. Indeed, a recent poll found 61 percent of Greeks favoring their country's membership in the European Community - a possible hint of how a referendum might come out.
But for all the interest to outsiders in such international points, the Greek vote can be interpreted as saying less about foreign policy than about a desire for change at the top and in the everyday lives of the people. There is a questioning of the customary elitism in government, a concern about the disparities between city and country, between rich and poor, despite a strengthening economy under conservative leadership since the end of military rule in 1974. Dr. Papandreou responded by stressing such points as improved education for all, control of the bureaucracy, aid for those who have been left behind.
How much was he politicking? How much was he saying what he will now do? These are questions for a new leader anywhere. They gain weight in the context of a Socialist departure in a traditionally non-Socialist land.