WHILE THE Polish election returns are entirely understandable, they are also disquieting. It would be a great tragedy if Poland, having endured great hardship for many years, were now to abandon its harsh but essential reforms before they have had time to improve people's lives.

Lech Walesa is an authentic national hero, and it's not hard to see why he got more votes than anyone else. But there wasn't much in his campaign, or in his previous career in Solidarity, to suggest that he is well equipped for the years of patient, intricate work required to reorganize the Polish economy. He has left the impression that his idea of democracy is a strong leader who overcomes all opposition to carry out personally the will of the people -- as he himself hears it. He's a charismatic leader, but also sentimental and erratic. It looks as though a lot of Poles voted for him to release them from the cold, unforgiving logic of the present government's reforms.

To his disgust, Mr. Walesa must go into a runoff election in two weeks against Stanislaw Tyminski, who was utterly unknown until this fall. Mr. Tyminski, an emigre who got rich in Canada and Peru, has returned to an extraordinary welcome in his native country. Without entirely realizing it, he has become a sort of allegorical figure of the West bearing a cornucopia of wealth and success for Poland. It's a poignant performance, and one that ought to make people who live in the West think carefully about the enormous hopes that the Poles are investing in their new westward opening.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who has just resigned as prime minister, is the man who has actually been carrying out the drastic changes of the past 15 months. No doubt that explains why he ran third. He had done great things for his country. He has ended the food shortages by letting the market set most food prices. He has saved his country from hyperinflation with huge budget cuts and tax increases. The currency is stable on the exchange markets, and exports are rising fast. But unemployment is up, subsidies have been cut, there's been a dire drop in living standards, and industrial production is only beginning to pick up.

That's the dilemma not only for Poland but for all of Eastern Europe. It is certainly possible to rebuild an economy, even after many years of misrule and abuse, into an engine that will reliably provide a better living for the people it serves. But the first stages of the process are unpleasant, and that makes them difficult for democracies to sustain. It looks as though Poland's road to prosperity is going to be a bit longer and more circuitous than Mr. Mazowiecki and his radical reformers had planned.