Warsaw — Poland's leaders are facing a momentous decision that will be reflected in the character of their country for years to come. With military rule ended, they now must decide whether Poland will follow the route of communist dogma - or of reform - in climbing out of the present political and economic morass.
Will Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his colleagues choose to become another Czechoslovakia, stuck in a social-economic doldrum? Or will they opt to join Hungary, hard pressed economically like the rest of the East bloc but sticking tenaciously to common-sense reforms?
Very considerable conservative, hard-line groups within the party here would prefer a tough course like Czechoslovakia's. And these forces find their echo in Moscow.
But several pointers suggest that General Jaruzelski himself favors the more flexible Hungarian course; that some of the gains made when Solidarity took root here two to three years ago will be built upon rather than demolished - if only because the government is well aware of the immense social forces that still lie behind the dissolved union's leadership.
When martial law was formally ended July 21, for example, the authorities stressed continued commitment to the reformist policies put forward by the Communist Party Congress of July 1981. That was a congress without precedent among Warsaw Pact Communist parties. In some respects, it moved out in front of even the Hungarian party, which Janos Kadar long ago gave a ''new look.''
The delegates themselves ran the 1981 Polish congress. And they ran it the way they wanted to, not according to the dictates of the people on the platform. Anything cut and dried was out.
At the delegates' insistence, democratic procedures were followed. A party statute was adopted that required free nomination of candidates and elections by secret ballot; placed restraints on the old carte blanche authority of the leaders; and ensured a wide hearing for differing opinions within the rank and file.
Now, of course, ideological control and discipline have been tightened. Martial law edicts have been replaced by new laws limiting freedom of expression , union activity, and other avenues of dissent. But the 1981 statute remains the guiding document of the party and General Jaruzelski seems resolved to work within it.
Even more important, the 1981 party congress adopted a program providing for open and active public participation in national affairs. And it called for more opportunity for non-communist, non-party, and religious-believer voices to be heard in all the preliminary stages of decisionmaking. Again, Jaruzelski seems to intend to hold to this.
This openness to differing opinions was the first of several parallels drawn from Hungarian political experience. Even under martial law some Polish party leaders stressed that this was essential to any effort at national dialogue, conciliation, and cooperation.
In 1956, after its own revolt was crushed, Hungary also had to decide between dogma and reform. In 1968, Czechoslovakia faced the same choice.
In both instances, reformers were ousted by ideologically safe, orthodox leaders - men deemed more acceptable and ''reliable'' by the Kremlin than their immediate predecessors. But that's where the similarities ended. The new leaders handled their respective new situations very differently.
In Hungary, the pragmatic Janos Kadar turned ''consolidation'' onto a path of national conciliation, at least once he had reasserted Communist control. He subsequently became even a popular figure. Hungary has kept to that path ever since, with considerable success for the general welfare of the country.
In Czechoslovakia, the coldly unimaginative Gustav Husak chose stick and carrot. For a time this, too, seemed to work, for the stick was not applied too severely and the carrot was quite juicy. But in the mid-'70s the economy began to go wrong. In the ensuing years of general decline, Czech affluence and the regime's carrot both have become pretty meager.
As a result, the ideological stick was strengthened. Increasingly it is wielded against both the persistent Charter 77 (dissidents) and an ''underground'' church movement that has mushroomed to answer the strongest antireligious campaign in Eastern Europe for many years.
Anything like that campaign against religion is out of the question here in Poland. Without the goodwill of the Roman Catholic Church, the regime's hopes of recovery, economic and otherwise, would be pipe dreams.
Yet the Roman Catholic Church, too, faces difficult decisions. For it must decide how far to carry the support implicit in the Pope's recent statements here. The church has made clear that its support is conditional not only on human issues like amnesty, but also on its being granted a stronger voice in public affairs.
The Catholic Church has disavowed any interest in a political role as such for itself. But at the least it is expecting a substantial modification of the social and political discrimination that has been practiced against Catholics since World War II. It wants Catholics to be able to take posts in such fields as engineering and economics for which they are qualified. It also wants them to have a more active part in government and public administration.
A test of the government's promises on this point may come with the national and local elections due next year. Parliament is to consider a new electoral law at its autumn session.
But parliament itself is badly in need of renewal. The 1981 party congress made a clean sweep of most of the ''pre-August'' - that is, pre-Solidarity - leadership. That, in turn, was reflected in the government. But the parliament was hardly touched. It was elected in early 1980 under the old rules, with the party selecting all the candidates for a single list.
The Communist Party still rules through parliament as head of a ''coalition'' with the Peasant and Democratic parties. Recently the others have been allowed a larger role in discussions. Their leaders have even accompanied Jaruzelski on official visits to the Soviet Union and some of the East European allies.
As it is envisioned, the new electoral law would be even more important than the constitutional amendments and anticrisis measures passed last week. Local councils would be autonomous in local affairs, and it is to be virtually obligatory for constituencies or other territorial units to field a ''freely'' nominated plurality of candidates for each seat.
Electors would vote for individuals, not for a party's whole slate, and a candidate would have to poll at least 50 percent of the total vote to gain election.
There was also a lot said last week about the need to have councilmen with minds of their own watching over local interests in place of the former rubber-stamp nominees.