It will be a while before the character and direction of the new Polish government emerge. But the obvious question raised by the dismissal of communist party leader-Edward Gierek is: Will the choice of Stanislaw Kania as his successor mean that Poland, backed by the Soviet Union, will try to undo the agreements reached with the striking Polish workers and to stifle the new national course that has been set?
Past experience in Eastern Europe should caution against prematures judgments. There already is a temptation to mark Mr. Kania as a hard-liner because of his former responsibilities as head of security affairs and party personnel. But, except for this background, there is no reason yet to think he expects to turn back the tide of reform. He played a crucial role in the Gdansk settlement and, significantly, took the lead in urging local party officials not to resort to police force but to solve the crisis by political methods. That points to an awareness of the irresistible pressures for change.
Which is not to say that the Kanila government will not do everything possible to chip away at the workers' new rights. We are bound to see now a long tug of war, over months if not years, as the new arrangements are solidified in laws and as the workers seek to batten down and hang on to every point won. The period ahead will be a difficult one. The government will have to be careful not to do anything blatant that would give workers an excuse to cry "foul" and go on the offensive again. It will also have to steer carefully between its dependence on good relations with the West and Poland's crucial position within the Soviet fold.
But the Polish communists and their Soviet mentors do seem to have read the national mood correclty. In his first speech as party leader Mr. Kania promised to uphold the Gdansk accord. He admitted the party had lost rapport with the people and needed to change its image. And in a burst of self-criticism rare in Eastern Europe, he acknowledged the crisis had been sparked by "serious economic mistakes."
Herein lies the crux of the Polish conundrum. There is a basic gap between what the workers want -- higher wages, more consumer goods, larger pensions -- and what the regime is able to afford given the poor state of the economy. Poland needs no less than basic economic reforms to overcome its difficulties. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Kania will give the reformers in the new government a chance to show what they can do. But in any case he will need to win the confidence of the Polish people to put into effect the belt-tightening and austerity which reforms would require. To do this he will have to demonstrate that the privileged party leaders, too, will pull in their belts, something to which he alluded when he spoke of the need to return to "the principles of modesty and simplicity."
The problem is that wearied Poles no longer believe their leaders. Mr. Gierek, too, started out with high promise. But while he did manage to humanize Polish life and give Poles a degree of freedom he made a mess of the economy. Mr. Kania's early candor suggests that it is not possible to turn the clock and that it is not possible to turn the clock back. That he has the confidence of the Russians is the sine qua non for any Polish leader. The question is whether Mr. Kania will do better than his predecessors in gaining the support of the people. The stakes are high, for if he fails he may create the climate for another explosion -- and next time around a not-so-peaceful one. The West can only hope that behind the face of the "faceless bureaucrat" lie the makings of a quiet and effective reformer like Hungary's Janos Kadar.