THE results of the first freely contested general elections in Poland proved both confusing and disappointing, but they should not give cause for panic prophecies. Communism is not about to make a comeback, the state is not about to descend into an intolerant dictatorship, and the far-reaching economic transformation will not collapse in a populist anti-market groundswell.The Polish elections have produced a fragmented parliament, as no party won more than 12 percent of the vote and 29 parties entered the lower House. As a result, it may take several weeks before a viable governing coalition can be forged. President Lech Walesa will have to nominate a prime minister who is acceptable to the widest possible number of parties. This will prove problematic, given the personality struggles and mutual recriminations that accompanied the splintering of Solidarity during the past year, but the task is not impossible. If he fails, then new elections will have to be held and the electoral law may need to be amended to raise the percentage threshold for parliamentary representation and encourage coalition building. The new government will need to include at least five of the new parties. Its core will consist of one of three groups: the Democratic Union led by former premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki; the Liberal Democratic Congress, grouped around the current premier Krzysztof Bielecki; or the Center Alliance led by Mr. Walesa's adviser, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Walesa's threat to nominate himself as prime minister may be a scare tactic designed to shock the leaders of the larger parties to come together and select a compromise cabinet. This would prevent concentrating too much power around one individual and help to delineate the contours of presidential, governmental, and parliamentary authority. The coalition will also have to draw on compatible ideological partners from the smaller parties. Some promises may also need to be made to special interest groups, whether peasants with a more protectionist agrarian agenda, pro-Solidarity parties seeking to prevent large-scale unemployment, or Christian Democrats with a traditional Roman Catholic social policy. Such pledges may slow down the fast-paced economic reform program but they will not reverse it. The breakup or closure of dozens of state plants may be delayed or staggered, but not abandoned. And the government may be willing to increase its budget deficit to provide a more effective safety net for the pauperized sectors of society, but it will not restore a state welfare economy. MOST of the larger parties are committed to a market economy, even if they have differing prescriptions on the methods and speed of its implementation. It is imperative that the new cabinet includes competent finance, economic, and industrial ministers who have the confidence of Western creditors and investors. Even if bold reformer Leszek Balcerowicz is replaced, the essence of his marketization program must be preserved. Even if adjustments are made in the speed at which uncompetitive industries are liquidated, the new government simply cannot abandon the direction of its industrial policy or place obstacles in the way of private enterprise. Despite headlines in the Western press that communists are making a comeback, the facts do not confirm it. Ex-communists, styling themselves as Social Democrats, maintain a core of supporters among the former nomenklatura and old-party loyalists. They were less successful in appealing to workers and farmers traumatized by the economic changes; their stigma has certainly not worn off and they are unlikely to be included in any future government. Some balance is therefore needed in assessing Poland's perils. Czechoslovakia has a larger and more popular Communist Party which finished second in last year's elections, but the chances of a Leninist restoration in Prague remain extremely slim. A bigger danger in Poland, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, is the specter of a frustrated population susceptible to populist and radical nationalist rhetoric. The election turnout was under 45 percent, a figure that may go unnoticed in the West, but which causes some consternations vis-a-vis the East. Clearly, the enthusiasm and euphoria has subsided, but predictions of mass unrest must be tempered with rational assessments over the reasons for abstention from the ballot. The population is preoccupied with difficult economic conditions and is confused or disenchanted with much of the political bickering during the past year, but it is not about to storm the barricades. Public apathy must be countered through the mass media, education, and involvement in local government; through the creation of parties rooted in large constituencies; and through signs of economic improvement for all. Otherwise, benign apathy could turn malignant. The Polish experience will be instructive for other states making the unchartered transition from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist democracy. There are no easy prescriptions or clear signposts on how to complete the process, and even Poland's bitter economic medicine may need some additional ingredients for sufficient social stability to be preserved. In the meantime, the skills of coalition politics and the art of compromise will need to be mastered so that the broad center can govern, maintain the reform program, and avoid the pitfalls of leftist or rightist extremism. The West must not throw up its hands in despair but uphold its commitment to Polish democracy and speed up the country's entry into European institutions.