Poland's `Breather'

IT would be a mistake to interpret the majority vote for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in the Polish parliamentary elections Sept. 20 as any kind of return to Soviet-style communism. This is not a return to secret police and repression, though it does indicate the strength and influence of the old nomenklatura.

The outcome of the elections, in which the former communist SLD got 20 percent of the vote, is not surprising. Lithuania recently voted for former communists, partly because they are better organized in a time of chaos. The Polish vote is a protest over 16 percent unemployment. It highlights the fears among a population bravely marching through the most wrenching free-market reforms of any former Soviet-bloc state. The SLD simply promised pensioners and the jobless that it will slow the dizzying reforms and ensure that Polish citizens are taken care of. This isn't a new direction, it is just ratcheting down the pace of change.

The Poles should be applauded for their economic success over the past four years, including privatizing half of their markets. Amazingly, the zloty is almost a hard currency. There is no indication that the SLD, which must create a coalition out of very disparate parties, plans to stop any of the basic reforms so ably handled by outgoing Prime Minister Suchocka. The Polish people just want a bit of a ``breather.''

Western publics can read in the election the strains associated with a transition to democratic capitalism after 40 years of a command economy. Western governments ought to read into the results the ongoing need to support Warsaw, not only through International Monetary Fund (IMF) money and technical assistance, but through simple patience.

Profound change in a state cannot happen in a stable way if economic turns are not matched by a new political consensus. The disciplines of a free-market state take time.

Warsaw can draw $650 million from the IMF if it needs to. All parties know inflation must be kept down. But Polish leaders also know it is time to shape a more responsive politics.

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