The next stage of Poland's crisis will be shaped by people like Wanda Dabrowska.
A 43-year-old supervisor from a Warsaw light bulb factory, Dabrowska will take her place tomorrow as one of 1,964 delegates attending an extraordinary congress of the Polish Communist Party. Together they will elect a new party leadership, confirm the democratic reforms that have taken place over the last year and attempt to chart a course for Poland.
In any Communist-rule country, party congresses are looked upon as landmarks of political and economic development. As the supreme authority in a Communist Party's decision-making structure, a congress is required to endorse a new five-year plan, to draft a program, or to change the statutes under which the party is run.
Usually, congresses are carefully stage-managed affairs designed to provide an international platform for the leadership and rally the national behind the party line. Delegates are selected for their loyalty and years of diligent service. The speeches are couched in numbing bureaucratic jargon.
This congress is different. First, it is an "extraordinary" congress, the first in the 60-year history of the Polish Communist Party, taking place outside the regular five-year congress cycle. It is being billed as a means of restoring the party's morale and capacity to act, which were shattered by the massive workers' protests of the past year.
Second, the election procedures before and during the congress are quite different from those normally used in the Soviet Bloc. At each stage of the campaign, elections for leadership posts have taken place by secret ballot, with a genuine choice of candidates. It is therefore impossible to be sure of the outcome.
The personality and attitudes of Wanda Dabrowska, however, provide some clues. Like the overwhelming majority of delegates, she belongs to the party's moderate center and is attending her first congress. Despite last year's strikes, she has remained a member of the official trade unions but favors a policy of compromise toward Solidarity, the independent trade union federation given government approval as a result of the strikes.
As a housewife, she finds everyday life increasingly difficult and is exhausted by the need to stand in line for long periods to buy almost everything, from meat to cigarettes.
If she gets a chance to speqak at the congress, Dabrowska says, she will concentrate on the concerns of working women: poor housing, lack of nursery schools, and above all the desperate daily struggle to find food. But, while she recognizes the problems, she has few new ideas to propose, other than cutting down on waste and working more efficiently.
Dabrowska refuses to disclose how she will vote in the elections for the new Central Committee, the 250-member policy-making body of the party. But it is fair to say that the people she elects are likely to be in her own image: isolid, anxious to put "democratice norms" into party life, worried about what is happening in Poland, but neither very imaginative nor confident of finding a short-term solution to the crisis.
The predominance of middle-of-the-road delegates is likely to ensure the reelection of Stanislaw Kania as the party's first secretary. His position was strengthened by Soviet criticisim of his leadership last month and now seems secure.
According to a report published last week by a group of intellectuals known as DIP, only 5 pcercent of the congress delegates can be classified as "radicals." At the other extreme, the hardline faction in the party is represented by perhaps 10 percent of the delegates. This leaves the remaining delegates in the fluid center, open to influence both from the party leadership and their own constituencies.
Dabrowska said she would like to see most of the present 11-man Politburo reelected. But she added that she would be keeping in close touch with her own basic organization. She will supply the 1,000 or so party members at the Rosa Luxemburg Light Bulb Factory with accounts of the congress and seek their advice on voting.
Under the old system of selection from above, the delegates were chosen to reflect the breakdown of ordinary party members by age, sex, and occupation. The new procedures -- allowing party members to vote for delegates of their own choosing -- made it impossible to engineer such exact representation, with the result that the proportion of worker-delegates has fallen sharply from 45 percent at the last congress in February 1980 to only 20 percent this time. Only 5 percent of the delegates are women, far fewer than at past congresses.
Traditionally about a third of the delegates have attended a previous congress but this time, only 6 to 7 percent have.
While 35 percent of ordinary party members belong to Solidarity, the proportion among the congress delegates is only 21 percent.
It is still unclear to what extent the congress will contribute to leading Poland out of its political and economic crisis. The DIP group, which has made many accurate forecasts in the past, is pessimistic on this score. It paints a picture of a party so preoccupied with its internal problems that it is unable to effectively lead the nation.
The crux of the crisis is the economy. In the words of the DIP report, the "intolerable difficulties of everyday life" have created "a social psychosis" in which people feel paralyzed. It is as though the nation is in a state of suspended animation waiting for something to happen, but not sure what.
Ever since it was proposed last September, the extraordinary congress has been viewed as a turning point in the Polish crisis. Once it was reached, the argument went, the party would pull itself together and take the initiative. Politically, this hope may be justified since a stronger, more consolidated party is likely to emerge from the congress.
During the months of waiting, however, the economy has deteriorated. The lines grow longer and the patience of ordinary people grows thinner. Economic reform is talked about, but little has been done. The final preparations for the congress coincided with the first signs of serious protests over food shortages.
Even the delegates are not over-optimistic. As Dabrowska remarked: "I certainly don't think the congress will settle everything. The most we can hope for is that it will mark a start to solving our problems."