WHEN Poles sent 29 parties to parliament in last October's first postwar free elections, the predictions were of political disaster: Factionalism would paralyze parliament; forming a governing coalition would be impossible.
In the five months since then, these doomsday forecasts have not come to pass. But the government is anything but stable.
One Western diplomat in Warsaw sums up the situation by saying that lawmakers and government are simply "muddling through."
"Poles are good improvisers," he says, "but improvising doesn't solve problems."
A key test for the government will be this year's budget proposal, which it presented to the Sejm, the powerful lower house of parliament, on Monday.
Prime Minister Jan Olszewski says he will resign if the Sejm fails to pass the budget. President Lech Walesa could dismiss the Sejm and call new elections if it fails to pass a budget within the next three months.
Josef Orzel, a member of the Sejm in the prime minister's party, Central Alliance, accuses the prime minister of "blackmailing" the Sejm by threatening to resign over the budget. Of course the prime minister's tactic works, Mr. Orzel says, because lawmakers are genuinely frightened by the prospect of having to build a new government or having to face a new election.
Jan Bielecki, former prime minister and leader of the Liberals, says it is time for Prime Minister Olszewski to stop "playing games."
The government coalition led by Olszewski is an odd alliance of Christians, middle-of-the-road economic reformers, and left-wing farmers.
Together, the coalition controls about 30 percent of the Sejm. This forces the prime minister to scrounge for votes every time he needs support for a government initiative.
Mr. Bielecki says the prime minister's government "is close to collapse" and must forget past differences and forge a broad coalition.
"The government is really counting on broadening the coalition," says Marcin Gugulski, spokesman for the government. The ad hoc system of vote gathering, he says, simply isn't reliable.
A broader coalition is especially important if the government expects to implement the drastic cuts required by the budget, Mr. Gugulski explains. The government will seek special powers from parliament to make these cuts, but this can only be granted through a two-thirds majority in the Sejm.
The government is already talking with the Democratic Union, the largest party in the Sejm, to bring it on board. The Democratic Union is home to many key post-Solidarity personalities, including Tadeusz Mazowiecki, another former prime minister.
Skeptics of a broader coalition abound. Deep personal differences divide the people involved in the talks.
Orzelp says he doubts the prime minister is serious about forming a broader coalition.
By opening its arms to its rivals, some skeptics say, the government is liable to lose its present partners. The Democratic Union and the Christians, for instance, are like fire and water.
Besides, the Democratic Union says it will only consider a coalition if the Liberals, the country's most free-market reformers, are also invited to join. But if this happened, the farmers in the government would bail out because they directly oppose the Liberals.
The fact that the Poles were able to form a coalition government out of the mishmash of parties in parliament is an accomplishment in itself, say political observers here. They also give the government and parliament credit for focusing on high-priority issues (such as the budget crisis), instead of being distracted by tempting side issues (such as legal treatment of former Communists).
Lawmakers say they are surprised by the degree of cooperation among parliament's 18 political party groupings.
"In many cases I've been pleasantly surprised," says Wieslaw Chrzanowski, speaker of the Sejm. Mr. Chrzanowski, who is respected as an impartial mediator in the Sejm, admits that fear of political collapse is driving cooperation.
The threat of political chaos is quite real.
This month the Sejm unexpectedly rejected the government's economic program. Earlier, the finance minister had resigned to protest the program, which he considered too inflationary and a brake on reform.
The defeat of the economic plan convinced the government that it needs to broaden its coalition. Bielecki criticized Prime Minister Olszewksi's leadership, and is joined in his criticism by a wide political spectrum as well as several Western diplomats.
"The economic situation is getting worse. If you cannot improve the standard of living, then you have to show clear vision, give a clear perspective, give yardsticks and targets [for improvement]," Bielecki says.
But the government is not doing this. The prime minister has admitted publicly that he would not have taken on the job if he had known how drastic Poland's situation is. He has reportedly come close to tears when speaking about the economy.
"How can people be motivated when the prime minister appears and says it's really a catastrophe?" asks Zbigniew Janas, a member of the Sejm and of the Democratic Union.