NO country has a better anticommunist record than Poland. The Solidarity movement was the most important opposition group in the communist world before 1989; it led Poland and its neighbors to freedom in that grand year. Now the tables have turned. On Oct. 13, two parties with communist pasts formed a coalition to govern Poland. Having decisively won elections in September, the Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasant Party will have a huge majority in the Polish parliament. People who served in governments that imprisoned Solidarity leaders will soon be re-acquainted with the privileges of power.
How did this happen? It was not a surprise when former communists were recently elected to run Romania and Lithuania. That old apparatchniks govern almost every republic of the former Soviet Union attracts no attention. In such cases, former communists have few political rivals. But Poland is a special case. Years of Solidarity created experienced, anticommunist politicians. Unlike other East-bloc voters, Poles had real alternatives. They chose former communists anyway.
Moreover, while most of the post-communist world is suffering through a depression, Poland's economy is booming. Growth is 5 percent yearly - the highest in Europe. The move to consumer capitalism is rushing ahead. Economic reforms created a new middle class; this new class was the hope of new political parties. But even small businessmen voted for the communist SLD.
Since Poland had the best chance for a clean break from communism, the victory of socialist parties might seem to prove that communism will become the dominant force in the region's political culture. But the truth is otherwise: Poland's shift to the left proves how much things have changed, not how much they have stayed the same. Few Poles voted for the SLD because they felt they had been better off under communism. Rather, polls show the government had lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Polish voters behave much as do their counterparts further west. That they decided that four years of Solidarity was enough may disappoint; but it is not cause for alarm.
THE political landscape has changed irrevocably. Polish communists are no longer communist. While few would defend their record before 1989, their actions since have been those of a European social democratic party. Through outside coalitions, they have cast key votes for free-market reforms. They want to continue privatization. One socialist party leader joked: ``How could we join that coalition? Not only are they communists, they're also capitalists.''
Even if antireform elements in the former communist parties gain the upper hand, they will face outside constraints. Help from international financial institutions will require further economic reform. President Lech Walesa would be happy to call new elections, should reforms sputter and the economy fall into crisis. Polish economic reforms may be slowed but are in no danger.
The elections also proved that Poles no longer fit the stereotype of the parochial Catholic. The most conservative and nationalistic parties, more or less connected to the Catholic Church, failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. Solidarity governments have brought more social conservatism than Poles wanted: religion classes in school, strict prohibition on abortion, and a Concordat with the Vatican. In choosing the former communists, Poles voted for social liberalism. The SLD opposes chauvinism and supports abortion rights, women's rights, and a division between church and state.
Ironically, the election of former communists will help the transition from communist rule to democracy. Solidarity, united by opposition to communism, fragmented into dozens of quarreling groups when it had to govern. The same fragmentation awaits the SLD, held together since 1989 by opposition to Solidarity. Once the SLD disintegrates, ideology should fade into the background. Polish voters will be free to choose parties united by a program for the future, rather than by memories of the past. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.