WARSAW, NOV. 30 -- The government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski appeared to have suffered a significant political setback today as the two referendum propositions on official plans for political and economic reform failed to win sufficient voter support for legal approval.
Official figures released this evening showed that only 44 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the national referendum yesterday in favor of a government proposition for "radical healing" of the economy, while 46 percent voted for the official model of political liberalization.
Both propositions thus fell short of the legal minimum of 50 percent of eligible voters necessary for them to be regarded as binding. Although those voting in favor of the propositions outnumbered those voting against by more than two to one, the nearly 33 percent of voters who did not turn out for the referendum made a decisive difference.
The reported abstention rate and the negative vote of up to 27 percent were unprecedented under communist rule here or in other Warsaw Pact countries. Authorities have never previously acknowledged less than complete victory in an election or a turnout below 75 percent.
Officials denied that the results, which sharply contradicted prereferendum opinion polls, represented a political defeat for Jaruzelski or the broad reform plans he announced in October. Spokesman Jerzy Urban pointed out that more than two-thirds of those voting approved the government propositions, a result that he said would be regarded as an overwhelming victory by any western government.
However, Urban conceded that the vote indicated significant public opposition to the reform program, in particular to plans for doubling basic food prices and tripling rents and utility fees next year. He indicated that the government would modify its policies following a meeting Saturday of the legislature, which is formally charged with reviewing the referendum results.
Urban asserted in a press conference this evening that the Polish reform effort, which authorities here have said was inspired by the work of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, would continue. "The important thing is that a great majority of those voting voted in favor of the program," he said. "From the political point of view, this is strong support for deep and radical reform."
However, Polish and western observers here said the result was likely to accelerate an already evident retreat by Jaruzelski's leadership from both the major price increases and the more radical political and economic reforms.
Urban mentioned plans for the expansion of the private sector, gradual transfer of power from central to local authorities, and creation of a second legislative chamber as steps that had run into political opposition.
The result could also damage the overall political authority of Jaruzelski, who has emerged as the strongest ally of Gorbachev in the East Bloc -- where aging relative conservatives predominate. Propelled to power during the tumultuous legal existence of the independent union Solidarity in 1981, the 64-year-old general has seemed in firm command of the Polish party in recent years but has clearly faced conservative opposition to his new policies.
Leaders of Solidarity, which dubbed the referendum a propaganda stunt and advised Poles not to vote, said the results showed a lack of public confidence in the ability of Jaruzelski's government to carry out reforms. Asked if the implementation of austerity measures would be possible in light of the results, Solidarity chairman Lech Walesa replied by telephone: "If I were in charge, I wouldn't risk it."
A principal object of the referendum campaign, government officials said, was to mobilize the popular support considered crucial to carrying out the reforms, which are meant to end years of economic stagnation here by balancing the shortage-plagued domestic market, decentralizing management of state industries and expanding private enterprise.
In planning a needed shakeup of prices and wages, Jaruzelski's government has been haunted by the specter of workers' uprisings against price increases that have led to the downfall of three previous communist governments here. At the same time, the general has been unwilling to seek the help of Solidarity or other independent forces to persuade workers to accept austerity.
Communist officials clearly hoped that the new program of political reforms would substitute for an accommodation with the opposition or the Roman Catholic Church. The plan foresaw the granting of new powers to local government, election reforms and legalization of a moderate opposition in the form of debating clubs and other independent associations.
Nevertheless, the course of the referendum campaign seemed to bear out the predictions of critics, who said Jaruzelski and the party leadership could not mobilize society for the reforms on their own. While the detailed programs of political and economic measures won some praise from economists and even opposition activists, the public greeted the announcements with panic shopping.
At the same time, there have been signs of opposition within the ruling communist Polish United Workers' Party to the proposed political liberalizations. At a party Central Committee meeting last week, several ranking officials spoke openly of opposition to a political platform drawn up by the Politburo. The platform already had been significantly weakened in comparison to early unpublished drafts.
Several Polish observers said the referendum results announced today may offer certain advantages to Jaruzelski's leadership by allowing it the flexibility to modify reform proposals and appear responsive to both party and public opinion without abandoning key policies. Before the vote, there was widespread speculation that the government had deliberately announced exaggerated plans for price increases so as to allow itself room for a strategic retreat.
Urban said today that the vote proved the government was committed to democratic methods. "We do not consider this a defeat," he said. "The authorities wanted to make use of an authentic opinion of the people, freely expressed. The government did not expect the usual easy applause."