PRAGUE -- The campaign leading to Czechoslovakia's election today and tomorrow has been less politics than psychology, less about the future than the past.
Although the polls show the Communists getting no more than 10 percent of the votes, everybody is campaigning against them, even Communist candidates themselves, who try to woo voters by denouncing the ruthless record of their own party. This first free election in more than 40 years is an effort to purge history, like a rite of national self-purification.
As a result, debate has been muted on the tough problems to be faced by the new parliament. These include the delicate transition to a market economy, the attendant risks of inflation and unemployment, industrial pollution, a rise in crime since President Vaclav Havel granted amnesty to 20,000 prisoners, and the structuring of a federal system that can manage the ethnic tensions between Czechs and Slovaks.
''These issues are not discussed, they are proclaimed,'' said Jaroslav Veis, a political columnist for the paper Lidove Noviny, which supports Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum. Neither the newspapers nor the 23 parties' television ads have been very illuminating. Most of the papers skew their coverage into line with the parties that publish them, and many of the ads have been little more than fun.
One for Civic Forum uses the numbers that are assigned to the parties: Civic Forum is number 7, the Communists are number 10. Conveniently, different grades of beer are labeled the same way, according to their percentage of alcohol. In the ad, a man in a T-shirt pulls a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator, takes a swig and practically spits it out in disgust. He looks at the cap. ''Number ten,'' he says. ''I can't stomach that.'' He grabs another beer, takes a gulp and dissolves in pleasure. ''Ah, a well-chilled seven. That's it -- Vote Seven.''
A Communist candidate, Josef Stank, says in a television ad, ''I kept my distance from the methods that were used by the Communists before. I know what Communist officials were doing before, and nobody can suspect me of agreeing with their actions.''
Therefore, voters have been informed more by their experience than by the campaign. ''I'm too old to know about politics,'' an elderly woman told me in Krusovice, a village about 40 miles from Prague. She hobbled away up the road, then had second thoughts, walked back, and said, ''If you want to know, I'm not going to vote for the Communists!''
Still, the Communists inspire fear. From the castle overlooking Prague, President Havel worries publicly about ''dark forces,'' an allusion to the secret police and the Communist Party apparatus, said to be engaged in threats, bribery and other secret machinations to subvert the fledgling democratic process.
During neighborhood meetings, candidates from Civic Forum warn citizens that small parties, such as the Friends of Beer, may have been created clandestinely by the Communists to draw support away from pro-democratic parties.
And Pavel Rychetsky, an original signer of Charter 77 who is now attorney general of the Czech republic, is resisting popular demands to outlaw the Communist Party and punish its leaders.
''It is a sort of witch hunt,'' he said. ''The people want to forget their own fault and find those who are guilty. The people were collaborating, but they deny it. Those who were most loyal a long time ago are now the most radical and most aggressive. And on the contrary, those of us who were not afraid to protest against Communist power these 40 years are now the last bastions of tolerance and respect toward minorities.''
A socially conservative movement has appeared, supported by some Catholic priests, that would outlaw abortion and pornography. One branch, the Christian Democratic Party, is led by a former Civic Forum member, Vaclav Benda, who says he is getting advice and money from Republicans in the United States and Christian Democrats in Western Europe. In Slovakia, whose nationalism has been awakened, the Christian Democrats are as strong as Civic Forum's Slovakian counterpart, Public Against Violence; both are polling about 25 percent, as opposed to Civic Forum's 33 percent in the Czech republic.
The result will certainly be a coalition government. Then, Havel's Velvet Revolution will have to get down to business.
The writer, author of ''Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams,'' is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.