Polish impasse: regime can crush dissent - but cannot spark support

There is no end in sight to Poland's political deadlock. Five months after most of the martial law restrictions on private life were removed, there is still scant evidence of any real reduction of tensions between the government and the bulk of the people.

The government has yet to regain much credibility among the governed. The workers have yet to go back to work in any meaningful way. The result is a sullen impasse.

The regime has the power, as events here May 1 and 3 showed, to crush dissent in the streets - and does not hesitate to use it. This use of power can achieve the immediate ends of tight control. But it may also prove counterproductive in the long run.

''What shocks a lot of people most,'' says a Pole of great political experience, ''is not the use of batons in an incident here and there, but the 'overkill' in parading such a show of force to intimidate and prevent a demonstration of any kind.''

Both the government and supporters of the banned Solidarity union claim success for their rival May Day parades.

The authorities took heart because they managed to muster millions for their official marches in cities throughout the country. The opposition cited pro-Solidarity demonstrations that flared in a score of Polish towns.

But much of the turnout for the official parades resulted from weeks of unremitting propaganda pressures in and out of the workplaces . . . and the fear of the possible consequences of noncompliance. The opposition could claim that although its shows of open support were comparatively small (with notable exceptions), they still added up to many thousands of people ready to brave any risks to demonstrate continued allegiance to the outlawed union.

Then, too, many Poles stayed home in a gesture of continued disaffection with the government and its policies.

Indeed, the antipathies of rulers and ruled are mutual and intense. An eminent academic here describes this as a ''them'' and ''us'' attitude that thwarts any rational, joint approach to Poland's awesome problems.

After more than two years of total disarray, the Communist Party itself seems to have been steadied somewhat. Its dominant role is again strong enough for the rump parties allied with it in Parliament to be allowed a superficially broader role - although only a few resolute, independent members of Parliament actually speak out.

But today there is no talk of the kind of ''power sharing'' with trade unions and other branches of society that was promised before martial law.

Instead, the authorities are looking to old, orthodox communist forms to mobilize mass support. That means carefully restricted unions for the workers, and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's new front organization, the Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth (PRON), for the population at large.

Neither the new unions nor PRON has wide popular support or a genuinely representative character.

Although PRON claims to have attracted 600,000 active participants since its formation last summer, it has yet to gain significant support among Poland's most respected noncommunist figures, or any approval from the Roman Catholic Church.

Similarly, the new unions, according to the latest official figures, have been registered at more than 11,000 enterprises. But their total membership is still fewer than 2.5 million. At its height Solidarity had some 10 million members out of a labor force of 12 million.

By official admission, moreover, young people are not joining the new unions. The Polish news agency spoke recently of the ''unsatisfactory involvement'' of key workers like technicians, foremen, and shift leaders.

The Oct. 8 labor law limited unions to individual enterprises until sometime next year. But difficulties in dealing plant by plant on wages and other issues have forced the authorities to advance this next stage. Unions are being allowed to federate nationwide immediately on a basis of occupation.

Miners, metalworkers, and engineering unions are already linking up. But it is unlikely that even this can have much appeal to the workers while the government continues to balk at any kind of Solidarity involvement, even without the name.

It is still more doubtful that the regime would be ready to countenance a Walesa role in them, although he is back at work in the Gdansk shipyard. He has just repeated his proposal for talks aimed at national conciliation. This time he is citing the stalemate implicit in the May Day clashes as proof that talks are needed urgently.

He has also said the present union rule - despite its various restraints - could be ''workable'' while possible amendments to it were being worked out. But the authorities continue to dismiss him as ''the former chairman of a trade union'' and an ''ordinary Polish private citizen.''

It is an ostrich attitude. The public acclaim accorded Walesa wherever he goes, the backing of the underground (even though it is more militant than he), and the tacit support of the Roman Catholic Church all show that he remains the symbol of the hopes raised throughout Poland in August 1980.

The authorities alone refuse to acknowledge this - although the energy expended by official news media and spokesmen to denigrate him serves only to confirm it.

Clearly, any renewed dealing with him would reawaken Soviet displeasure. The leadership here had diminishing leeway with Moscow before martial law and has had considerably less since. ''Liberal''-looking solutions of Poland's problems, moreover, would seem unlikely to commend themselves since the deterioration in East-West relations.

But how long the government can afford to cold-shoulder the whole idea of the Solidarity movement is not clear. There obviously is a need for flexibility on the part of the union opposition, too. Old divisions and arguments continue to weaken the union front both above and underground. The gap between the ambitious ideas of some of the union's leaders and geopolitical reality is still visible.

Of Walesa's support among workers and the public at large there is no doubt. And the underground can clearly count on far more sympathetic support than the numbers of its actually active members.

Weakness in the center is an old Polish problem - the failure of politicians, and Poles generally, to compromise on issues for the sake of a middle road. It seems truer than ever today, given the authorities' disavowal of Solidarity's existence.

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