SINCE his election six months ago, Polish President Lech Walesa has surprised critics.Turning his back on populist campaign promises, the former union leader sped up a tough economic reform program - and went on well-publicized visits to Washington, Paris, and London, winning a 50 percent write-off of Poland's $33 billion foreign debt. In addition, he fought intolerance by visiting Israel and speaking out against anti-Semitism. But in recent weeks, the moderate, compromising Mr. Walesa has given place to a take-charge kind of leader: Visiting several factories on the brink of bankruptcy, he told cheering workers that Poland may need more order and "a little less democracy." Supporters say his new attitude ends a period of troubling drift. Critics say it raises the specter of authoritarian rule. Adam Michnik was a longtime leader of Solidarity and is now editor in chief of the Warsaw daily Gazeta. "Watching what my president has done in the last week, I must speak up and defend the democratic order," he says. Popular frustration over the economy apparently underlies Walesa's display of political muscle. As a result of economic reform, shops are filled with attractive goods and private enterprise is booming. But opinion polls show that Poles worry about the future. Teachers, doctors, firemen, and transport workers all have gone on strike recently. Walesa promised "everything would go well in a matter of months.... People are losing patience," says ex-Solidarity adviser Bronislaw Geremek. The immediate danger concerns about 100 state-owned factories. Since the collapse of trade with the Soviet Union at the beginning of the year, these businesses have struggled to pay their bills. If the government props them up, its reform program will be undermined. If it lets them go bust, layoffs are inevitable. "Entire towns could be wiped out," warns a Western diplomat. "These are one-factory places producing almost everything for the Soviet market, and if the factory closes, the people have nowhere to go." Rising political concerns aggravate these tough economic decisions. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October. Walesa opposed the electoral law, saying it would produce unstable coalition governments. But parliament overrode his veto. "The election will be emotional and destructive," predicts a key Finance Ministry official. "It will be framed: 'Are you for or against the economic reform?
Wooing West for help If an antireform movement wins, state intervention in the economy could increase and Leszek Balcerowicz, architect of the economic program, might be forced from office. This, analysts say, would shake Western confidence and close off financing. Another round of trade negotiations between Poland and the European Community is taking place this week in Brussels. So far, the EC has held back access to its markets in key sectors such as agriculture and textiles. "We just met with the French and they were blunt that the West is still in a recession and can't help," the finance official says. Help might come as part of a financing package at next week's Group of Seven meeting of industrialized nations in London. Officials at the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development reportedly want to bail out Poland's state-owned companies. But Washington reportedly says no, fearing loans will just delay necessary restructuring. "You can make a political case for propping up these factories, but [not] an economic case," a Western diplomat says.