Hardliners, reformers escalate Polish power struggle

The fierce power struggle under way in the ruling Polish Communist Party is escalating. At issue is just how far and fast the Communist Party should reform and meet the demands of the rank and file members impatient with the party leadership.

The contest between the hardliners and the reformers is being fought at a time when the Kremlin unexpectedly dispatched its leading ideologist Mikhail Suslov to Warsaw April 23.

So far it appears that the hardliners have the upper hand. At least that is the conclusion to be drawn from the fact that those opposed to more reforms have gained a little more time by delaying the anticipated party committee meeting by a few days. The meeting, which was to have been held this weekend, has now been pushed back until April 29.

Yet the reformers, backed by the pressures from the party's grass roots, seem to be gathering momentum daily and gaining an edge over the old guard clinging to their positions in the top echelons of the party.

The fact that the anticipated meeting has been put off only for a few days reflects just how tense this struggle is.

The question as to who actually leads the Polish Communist Party is now becoming a more urgent issue than the "leading role" of the Communist Party in Polish affairs, which has all along been the nub of Soviet fears.

With the leadership as divided now as it was at the March plenum, rank and file criticism is increasing that "they are not leading." There is the feeling, for instance, that the government has failed to capitalize on the favorable response to the government's concession to give farmers their own union.

While this was widely seen as confirmation of the party's professed readiness to compromise, it also underlined the fact that with both an industrial and an agricultural union the party now finds itself faced by almost the entire active population in demands for speeding reforms. These include accelerated action to bring about a just and viable economy and a politically more democratic society. With the Russians looking on critically and with Mr. Suslov now in town it is enough to make even the reformers in the leadership cautious.

Admittedly, the situation in the country as a whole is calmer than at any time this last nine months. One feels the relief that Poland's neighbors have halted the military activity around the country's borders.

Simultaneously, hints from Washington of resumed grain sales to Russia and of US readiness to resume some kind of contact over strategic weapons are also welcomed as improving the international climate in which Poland would be an obvious beneficiary.

But, even so, Soviet bloc pressure continues. Its press maintains its highly critical view that the Polish party is yielding to its own internal pressures; that it is doing nothing to restrain the nationwide demands for ideological pluralism to curtail the role of the party and for full and equal partnership of governing and governed in all public affairs.

Even the Hungarian party newspaper, Nepszabadsag, hitherto moderate and even sympathetic, came out this week with a strong criticism of Solidarity echoing Soviet, East German, and Czechoslovak charges that the union wants political influence.

These continuing bloc attacks may be intended also to immunize other regimes against contagious Polish ideas and to squash in advance any thoughts of challenge to their own powerful ideological grip.

Russia, itself, is scarcely vulnerable. There may be some uncertainties beneath the surface in East Germany and Czehoslovakia, but both parties would seem confident and pretty well in control. The same is probably more true of Bulgaria.

Hungary and Romania could be more susceptible, the former because it is the one bloc country to have introduced the kind of imaginative economic reform contemplated -- and now thought to be imperative in Poland.

Hungary has democratized its unions to a point where the rank and file might well think to follow the Polish workers' example and push the process further.

The Romanians' problem is more acute because the country's living standards already are in many ways inferior those of Poland. With reformers in Poland insisting that there can be no going back, nor maintenance of the status quo, the Romanians are sure to feel a need to better their own standards.

This time there must be changes in the Politburo, Polish reformers say, to remove those who hinder reform and to bring in genuine grass-roots worker representation.

There must be a response to the clamor for swifter, radical implementation of the reform program and a firm date for the congress.

If that is accomplished, the next phase in Russia's watch on "socialism" in Poland will begin to emerge.

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