POLAND'S Democratic Party used to be anything but democratic. Ever since 1944, the party served a prescribed role as a faithful junior partner to the ruling communists. It existed to give communist rule a pluralistic fa,cade, supposedly representing the country's lawyers and small private entrepreneurs. The similarly communist-dominated Peasant's Party was to represent private farmers, and the Polish-Catholic Social Union, the Christian-Social Union, and the PAX Association were to represent Roman Catholics.
But with Solidarity's relegalization and partially free parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party is taking its name more seriously.
In its first ever secret ballot, a tough, gruff lawyer, Jerzy Jozwiak, was elected party chairman this April. Mr. Jozwiak met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Roman Catholic Primate Jozef Cardinal Glemp and set the party on a more pragmatic path. His goal is to form a party similar to that of West Germany's Free Democrats.
``Our party must become credible to the electors,'' Jozwiak told the Monitor. ``We want a new formula of the coalition government with the communists.''
Before Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was elected president earlier this month, he consulted with Jozwiak and other parliamentary deputies from the Democratic Party. The conversation was not friendly. Several party members voted against General Jaruzelski and only last-minute maneuvering by Solidarity saved him.
In the past, the Communists enjoyed an absolute majority which made its coalition partners superfluous.
But Solidarity won a near monopoly in the new freely elected Senate - 99 out of the 100 seats - while preserving a relative majority by prearranged agreement in the lower house, the Sejm.
The formerly compliant allies now have leverage. To form a government, the Communists, with only 173 deputies, or 38 percent, need them. The Peasants have 76 deputies, or 14 percent; the Democrats, 27 deputies or 6 percent; and the Catholics, 23 deputies.
Some Catholic and Peasant Party delegates have come out for Solidarity. The Democrats have taken an independent stance.
``We will look for allies who support our program,'' Jozwiak says. ``We must guard our own force, become an independent centrist grouping.''
The Democrats seek a close relationship with Solidarity. Unlike the Communists, who stress the importance of the working class, Jozwiak says, ``We say the nation is only the sovereign.'' It also wants to create an independent justice system and legislate better legal guarantees for private property.
``These basic ideas are close to Solidarity,'' he argues. ``When Walesa and I met, we agreed to work together.''
But since Solidarity seems unlikely to form its own government, Jozwiak says his party probably will do better for now trying to squeeze policy promises from a Communist-led government.
These would include commitments to writing a new constitution with an American-style balance of powers between the executive, legislative, and judiciary, and setting up a powerful constitutional court. The Democrats want the post of minister of justice to promote these proposals.
``The Communists have treated my party badly in the past,'' Jozwiak says. ``In the new system of party politics, they must learn to compromise.''
The Democrats' big test will come in the next parliamentary vote, which will be entirely free.
In the past election, they won seats only by running on the uncontested ``coalition'' list. Opinions are divided whether they can survive on their own.
``Poles want nothing to do with the old structures,'' says Solidarity Senator Andrzej Machalski. ``So even though the Democratic Party certainly is trying to act in a more independent fashion, its days are numbered.''
But other observers give the Democrats a chance.
``The Democrats have a potentially strong social base,'' says Bogumil Luft, a journalist for the Roman Catholic monthly Wiej. ``They could win private entrepreneurs who are fed up with Solidarity.''
Party chairman Jozwiak says he knows he has tough work ahead. ``It's up to us to become credible by realizing concrete results,'' he says. ``Otherwise we will vanish.''