Trade Unions Take On Political Opposition Role

AMID natural exuberance at the result of last month's Albanian vote, veteran members of the dissident movement found it was almost too good.

The Democratic opposition took 92 of 140 seats in the new Parliament. The former communists won only 38 seats.

One long-standing senior figure in the anticommunist movement wryly responds: "We've just ended 45 years of one-party rule. We don't want to repeat it."

Everywhere except Romania, the old communist parties have been electorally reduced to irrelevance. But alternatives have yet to emerge to challenge the center and center-right coalitions now in power and already showing authoritarian inclinations. Governments in Hungary and in Croatia, for instance, have been quick to silence the press in the face of criticism.

Efforts are afoot in Poland and Hungary to rally independents of liberal and democratic leftist persuasions as well as committed reformers of the former regimes in a "restructuring" of the left. So far it has had little impact.

Small parties abound. In Poland, for example, 29 are seated in parliament, none with a solid electoral base. Traditional divisions of left and right no longer define politics, and the dominant tone is of resurgent nationalism.

In such a political vacuum, unions begin taking on traditional party roles of criticizing the government and representing the electorate. Unions are the only means of political protest and have become ever more militant in the process.

Romania's post-communist unions increasingly ignore the "political taboos" written into the law legalizing them last year. The more assertive trade unionists speak of founding a "social solidarity" party to contest the next elections. Czechoslovak and Hungarian unions are pressing for more influence in planning economic policy prior to legislative action.

Unfortunately for governments, issues turn mostly on economic reform, how radical it should be and how swiftly and uncompromisingly it should be carried out.

In Poland, the reform program is threatened by a shaky government and fragmented parliament. Some modest upturn in economic performance has just been disclosed, but the major social tensions brought on by the Polish "shock therapy" remain.

Solidarity has split into a trade union and a separate political party. In the process it lost its popular monopoly of the 1980s. It is now greatly outnumbered by the communists' official unions, created under martial law when Solidarity was outlawed, and it inevitably comes under pressure to match the tougher anti-government line these unions can take.

No political party has found a recipe to balance partnership in setting government policy in the long-term national economic interest with the classic labor-union role as a check on government policies that strain social acceptability.

Soaring unemployment, 40 percent declines in living standards, and a 10 to 20 percent distribution of people at or below the poverty line are natural enough grist for militant tendencies.

In countries where the economic situation is most precarious, social explosions can easily occur without union encouragement. They are possible anywhere where credible political opposition does not develop to press for a broad social understanding to offset the appeal of union militancy or populist slogans.

This militancy, some liberals say, can undermine not only the basic democratic freedoms won by the revolutions, but also the transition to the economic reforms essential to their preservation.

The alternative also can be something already much talked about in Poland: a reversion to strong-arm rule which would be anything but democratic.

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