PARIS — IT'S not easy losing an election. The Polish Communist Party struggled to learn this bitter lesson last weekend at an emotional Central Committee meeting. At the meeting, President Wojciech Jaruzelski stepped down from the post of party leader. His self-proclaimed goal is to be the President of ``all Poles.'' That will be a difficult task, impossible if he remained leader of a discredited political organization.
In June, the Solidarity opposition crushed the Communists at the ballot box, winning all but one of the freely contested parliamentary seats. Communist Party leaders running unopposed failed to obtain the necessary 50 percent approval to keep their seats.
``We expected to lose, but not by that much,'' Jerzy Kozminski, an advisor to the Council of Ministers, admitted afterward. ``We were shocked. Then as we realized what it meant, we became scared. Now we're struggling with what to do. It's an entirely new situation.''
Poland's Communists aim to transform themselves into a West European type of social democratic party.
Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski was named party leader at the weekend meeting. Mr. Rakowski handed in his government's resignation when the new parliament was seated last month. Solidarity was relegalized under his premiership.
Rakowski ``is above all pragmatic,'' says Aleksander Kwasniewski, a Central Committee member. ``His task is to lead us away from the old ideologies, even if that means splitting the party.''
The need to move away from old ideologies is pressing. Nationwide, the proportion of party members under 25 has declined by 90 percent in the past decade and now totals less than 25,000.
Mr. Kwasniewski, himself a rising party star, foresees purging party hard-liners at a special full party congress scheduled for this fall. Party reformers under Rakowski then would try to form a coalition with Solidarity's social democratic wing. The hard-liners, meanwhile, would fall back into a type of Stalinist fringe party.
``Solidarity sooner or later will split into its Social Democratic and Christian Democratic components,'' Kwasniewski said. ``We will become natural partners to the Social Democrats.''
President Jaruzelski indicated at the weekend meeting that he wants his trusted aide, Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak to become prime minister. Mr. Kiszczak negotiated the spring round-table talks which led to Solidarity's legalization. Along with Rakowski and Jaruzelski, he would like the opposition movement to join in a grand coalition.
Any government faces the unenviable task of dealing with Poland's economic crisis. As of Aug. 1, food prices are being freed and worker unrest could mount.
Solidarity doesn't want to take responsibility for such painful measures and remains suspicious of party intentions. The party still controls half a million apparatchiks in government offices, in factories, and on state farms. It controls the Army and police. Until this tight grip over power is loosened, Solidarity leaders say they cannot consider any formal cooperation with the Communists.
``By resigning as party leader, Jaruzelski has taken the first step of separating the party from the state,'' says Andrzej Machalski, a Solidarity senator. ``But there must be many, many more steps.''
How these steps are taken will be crucial to the future of reform in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, the region's other reform leader, the Communist Party is suffering from a similar ideological crisis. Young members are turning in party cards, while an aging elite tries to create a more attractive vehicle.
Early results are not promising. Youthful Protestant pastor Gabor Roszik crushed a party candidate in a by-election this month, winning 65 percent of the vote. He became the first independent candidate to enter parliament since the communists took power in 1947. Like his Polish counterparts, Hungarian party president Rezso Nyers responded to the loss by saying a coalition with the opposition was ``possible and desirable.''