Poland's parliamentary elections next Sunday could be a make-or-break test for Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Polish reporters accompanying the government and party leader to the UN last month insist that he made a good impression among politicians and others, including bankers, that he met in New York. He was effective, they say, in changing some American opinions about Poland and Polish affairs in the last four years.
But for the general, the more important problem just now is whether his administration and its policies have become more accepted at home. Evidence of a less unhappy public would do as much as anything to create greater acceptance in the United States and among other Western nations of the general's claims to have brought Poland back to normality.
And Sunday's elections are the test of that public opinion. Poles are being asked to approve new members to parliament, a body that in the past five years has been increasingly drained of credibility and confidence.
The new Sejm (parliament) will have 460 seats. Fifty were alloted in advance to General Jaruzelski and other top communist or nonparty coalition figures. They will stand unopposed in the current election.
For the remaining 410 seats, two candidates must run for each seat. A built-in majority is ensured for the Communist (Polish United Workers) Party. In the last house there were 261 communists. Their compliant partners, the Peasant Party and the Democratic Party, had 113 and 37 respectively.
But the dual-candidate rule is only cosmetic -- it is not really a democratic choice. This election, like any in Eastern Europe, features a single ticket with no alternative to established Communist Party policy. Every candidate had to be confirmed by PRON, the government's so-called Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth, a grass-roots social and political organization.
The only real issue in this election, then, is: How many Poles will vote?
The government is not seeking to produce the manipulated votes of over 90 percent that are common to previous East-bloc elections, this country included.
``Seventy, perhaps 75 percent [of the] vote will be good,'' one top minister told the Monitor recently.
One reason for this lower expectation is that the dwindling remnants of Solidarity's underground have called for a boycott.
The banned trade union did the same for last year's local council elections as well. On that occasion, there was also official anxiety over the size of the vote in face of this opposition, rather than over who might be elected under a system of candidate plurality.
The authorities claimed 75 percent. Predictably, Solidarity said it was much less. But it was generally accepted that the government figure was nearer the mark.
On the parliamentary level public indifference can be a much more potent factor than any boycott call. So many Poles have ``had enough,'' after years of coping with martial law (1981-83) and then with the unremitting difficulties of everyday life under a weak economy.
While Poles are voting, Josef Cardinal Glemp will be conferring with the Polish Pope in Rome. There could scarcely be anything more significant than the Polish primate's absence from Poland this weekend.
Cardinal Glemp has neither counseled Poles against voting, nor urged them to do so, as the authorities obviously wish he would.
He did, however, decline an official offer of a few seats for Roman Catholic deputies and he also discourages some prominent laymen from standing on their own initiative. Thus, for the first time since 1957, there will be no Catholic group in parliament.
For the first time in 30 years, too, the independents will be missing when parliament reconvenes. Ostensibly there were 42 in the last chamber. But only a few counted as genuine independents.
Many Poles had hoped that PRON might prove an independent vehicle for reform: in particular, that it might persuade the government to make a new election law giving voters a genuine choice.
It has, however, proved in practice to be but another government instrument, and the Communist Party's proxy for control over all candidates. Almost all of Sunday's nominees belong to PRON. And those who do not had to make a formal endorsement of its program without reservation in order to get on the ticket.
According to a survey undertaken by the government's own public opinion research center, ``at least half of society'' remains critical of the handling of the economy, and of the government and politics in general.
Jaruzelski, however, says Solidarity is no longer a political factor, that his program of stabilization is on the right course, and that he remains firmly committed to reform. He seems himself convinced that all this is gaining increasing public recognition. ``The worst is behind us now,'' he said in his UN speech.
The size, then, of Sunday's poll will be as good a barometer as is available to show how right -- or how wrong -- he might be. His best hope is that many Poles are so tired of strife that they will vote simply to favor a compromise that falls somewhere between distrust of the government and active opposition to it.
A poor turnout could have serious political consequences for the General -- and for Poland too.