Poland could remake communist history

The emergency Communist Party congress opening here today against a background of threatened new labor unrest is going to determine the future of Poland.

At issue is whether there is to be a "Polish road to socialism." In other words, a new form of Polish communism that will move the country toward a more truly open and democratic society.

Today's conference, which will vote on a new party leadership and liberalizations instituted since last summer's strikes shook this country and the whole East bloc, will also determine if Poland can extricate itself from its economic morass.

The challenge to the Polish leadership is whether promised reforms will cut deeply enough to ensure a genuinely clean break with the autocratic past.

The speed with which change has already come about is a matter of urgent concern to the Kremlin, which is always suspicious of any deviation by one of its allied parties from Soviet orthodoxy and the Soviet party's claim to a leading role in the world communist movement. The concern is particularly acute in Poland because it sits astride vital communication lines for the Soviet Union.

Moscow -- which had earlier hoped to forestall a congress touching on sensitive ideological issues and the "security" of the communist alliance -- will keep an eagle eye on proceedings. The Soviets are apparently reconciled to the conference, but not without considerable misgivings.

Any suggestion of grass-roots representation through more democratic party elections in any of the East European parties has always troubled the Soviet leaders. Poland is no exception.

The elction of 1,964 delegates to this congress on the basis of free nominations and secret ballot -- unprecedented in the East bloc -- has resulted in a congress in which 80 percent of the delegates are new.

More than two-thirds of the members of the Communist Party's Central Committee failed to win nomination as delegates from their local organizations. Four Politburo members also failed. They will attend only by virtue of their present office. (The Central Committee carries out party policy as laid down by the top ruling body, the Politburo, between congresses.) Through local committee elctions, over 3,000 former regional, town, rural, and factory party organization officials also fell by the wayside.

There are other anxieties for a Kremlin leadership perturbed that reforms in Poland will result in similar demands from other East European countries.

The projected new party statute, for instance, contains strong guarantees and safeguards against a return to the party's former autocratic methods.

It provides, instead, for democratic practices that will take it far from the conventional dictatorial working of the Soviet and East European parties.

Instead of handing down cut-and-dried policy decisions as they have done until now, the Politburo and Central Committee will have to consult with, and report to, the membership at large in a way unknown in normal communist party practice.

From now on the party leadership will have to make itself accountable to the membership at large with a built-in right for the party membership to recall the congress if the leadership is seen to deviate from established party policy.

In what could be one of its most striking examples of democratization, the Polish Communist Party might make history by electing its leader by a vote of all the delegates at one of the first sessions of today's opening congress. Such a move is entirely without precedent in the communist movement. The normal practice of all Soviet bloc parties and affiliates, including the Poles, is to have only the Central Committee handpick its leadership.

Under this practice, the committee elects the top party body (Politburo or Presidium), which then names the first secretary.

The delegates here will vote on three proposed variants:

1. The leader be elected by congress before it proceeds later to the election of the Central Committee -- a method reflecting the demand of the reform-minded majority within the party itself and among the delegates.

2. The delegates make their choice in a full delegate vote but after the election of the committee.

2. The delegates make their choice in a full delegate vote but after the election of the committee.

3. The obvious hard-line view -- that congress elects the committee which then picks the first secretary from within its own ranks.

The press spokesman, Wieslaw Bek, chief editor of the party daily, Trybuna Ludu, told a press conference Monday that the delegates' decision will be "significant" for the whole course of the congress.

There is already firm belief that the delegates will vote by a big majority for an election from the floor soon after Mr. Kania, the present party leader, has presented the main leadership report.

The possibility of rival candidates -- possibly another hard-line move to unseat him -- is not excluded. But there is almost complete confidence that Mr. Kania will be reelected with a resounding vote from perhaps as many as 90 percent of the delegates.

It will be a remarkable triumph for the man who has led the party through 10 of its most testing and stormy months in its 60-year history.

What has perhaps tempered earlier Soviet anxiety about the wisdom of calling such a congress is a feeling that moderation will prevail -- that there is no risk that Mr. Kania will lead the Polish Communist Party out of the Soviet fold.

As party first secretary, Mr. Kania has skillfully developed a centrist position that has presumably quieted Soviet fears.

"Stanislaw who?" people asked when he took over from Edward Gierek last September, so little known was he throughout the country.

Since then, however, he has steadily established himself, successfully facing down challenges from the party's hard-liners, from overzealous reformers, and Russian attempts to sidetrack reform.

In the process, he has won a remarkable consensus for his own dogged "halfway house" approach, based on a firm pledge of no reversal of the general "renewal" process and its modification only to the realities of Poland's geopolitical situation.

Politically, the situation looks more hopeful now than it has for a year. It is the economic side that daily presents ever greater problems.

One of the main documents before the congress -- "A program to conquer the crisis and stabilize the economy" -- makes for grim reading, even though it is the first open endeavor to grapple with what economists have long seen as the first prerequisite for recovery: the introduction of realistic food and other market prices.

Four times already this issue has exploded in crisis. It was the threatened raising of meat prices last September that sparked the wave of unrest that brought down Mr. Gierek as party leader and saw Poland embark on an unparalleled exercise in labor relations in the communist bloc -- the formation of solidarity , a union organization free of party control.

The question now is whether this regime can avert yet another crisis over food prices.

Bus drivers in Kutno, west of Warsaw, staged two-hour strikes to demand increased supplies of food July 13. A food protest march in Kutno is scheduled for July 16. Also, workers in an office equipment factory in Torun July 13, and employees of the state airline, LOT, said their plans for an indefinite strike next week remained unchanged.

In prior crises, the government always failed to consult and explain to the public what was coming. This government is now proceeding differently.

The 40-page program was published last weekend as a daily newspaper supplement. Solidarity and the other unions are to be brought into full consultation for agreement over the whole economic strategy.

A young housewife might remark, as one did to this writer, "New prices won't matter much because there's nothing to buy anyway."

But a virtual across-the-board doubling of almost all food prices and an admitted 55 percent increase in the cost of living for an average family is bitter news indeed for those people who are already just short of actual hunger.

"This congress has to do something," Poles tell this writer. "It is the only expectation -- that somethi ng be done."

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