RADOM, POLAND -- On the desk of the governor of the Radom region, there are four hot-line telephones, all of them connected to the not-quite-dead totalitarian past.
One line goes to Communist Party headquarters in Radom, another line is connected to the commander of the security police, the third line is linked to regional government headquarters in Warsaw, and a radio phone allows the governor to keep in touch with all of these in case of a riot.
For more than four decades, when these telephones rang, local officials and people in Radom jumped. But after today, when Poland extends its democratic revolution by holding local elections throughout the nation, the rules by which Radom is run will no longer be phoned in from on high. In the first totally free vote since World War II, autonomous local government in Poland is to be reborn today. About 50,000 local councilors are to be elected to run 2,348 city, town and village councils.
These local officials will have independent power to raise taxes, spend money and regulate community affairs. As part of a decentralization program, ownership and control of about one-fifth of government property will be transferred overnight from Warsaw to local councils.
Perhaps most importantly, the election will give voters their first chance to flush out local holdovers from the previous regime -- the so-called nomenklatura. Some of these holdovers, unaffected by national parliamentary elections last June that led to Poland's Solidarity-run government, are said to have used their lingering power to frustrate national policies and line their pockets.
"That's why Sunday's elections have such breakthrough significance -- we ourselves will choose those who will govern in districts and towns," Adam Michnik, editor of the Solidarity newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote last week. "We will remove the incompetent, compromised, mafia-entangled people of the old nomenklatura."
Here in the Radom region, an area of central Poland where orchards and dairy farms surround a gritty city of machine-tool factories and leather tanneries, the teeth of the nomenklatura continued to bite in the past year despite all the international fanfare about democratic change in the capital.
For instance, five heads of departments in the city of Radom created a private company called Rad Invest and awarded it municipal construction contracts. The company kept its profits high and overhead low by using city workers and tools, according to local engineers.
In the outlying district of Jedlinsk, 12 acres of public land that had been planned as a site for a community center for old people were sold privately last October for the equivalent of $18.95. After today's election, the local prosecutor is expected to look into who among the nomenklatura may have been responsible.
Polish newspapers have reported hundreds of similar deals across the country. There also is evidence of efforts by the nomenklatura to sabotage local support for the national government.
Village clerks in this region, for instance, have not told local farmers of a major change in land law, according to Bohdan Marciniak, who is in charge of local government reform in Radom. The January change allows farmers to retire on government pensions without having to turn over their farms to the state, as had been required under the Communist government.
Marciniak said that village clerks, accustomed to taking possession of land, refused to disseminate information about the new law. "It was easy to make all of the changes at the top, but the entire evil and unfair exploitation of people was hidden at the bottom," he said.
One measure of how little has changed at the local level is a count of bureaucrats still working in Radom's regional administration building. Marciniak, a Solidarity appointee from Warsaw, is one of only two new employees among 500 holdovers. After the election, Marciniak said, at least 200 people will be fired and the number of departments will be halved.
Despite the importance of today's election, there appears to be significantly less public interest and significantly more voter confusion than before last year's semi-free parliamentary elections -- a vote in which the Communist Party was guaranteed a large number of seats.
This time, there is little doubt that Solidarity candidates will dominate the elections. About a quarter of the candidates nationwide are running under the Solidarity banner -- about three times more than those allied with any other party or coalition. Newspaper polls indicate that Solidarity candidates may win about 50 percent of the contested seats.
But Solidarity, which came into being and gained its huge popular following as a movement in opposition to the Communist Party, is no longer a unified force. A major fault line has emerged between its government wing, which is implementing harsh free-market reforms, and its labor wing, which is struggling to represent workers who are victims of those reforms.
As result of the five-month-old economic program, real incomes in Poland have fallen by nearly 40 percent and about 400,000 workers have lost jobs. Up to a million layoffs are predicted by the end of the year.
Last weekend, a crippling railway strike was begun by workers demanding higher wages. The walkout, which has idled trains across the Baltic coast region, marked the first major labor challenge to the government.
Talks aimed at resolving the strike were reported yesterday to have collapsed. Signs of a possible solution had emerged briefly when workers removed blockades on several railway lines and strike leaders from the coastal city of Slupsk traveled to Warsaw for the first time to join in negotiations with the government. But the talks broke down within hours. The official news agency PAP said strike representatives walked out after the government refused to discuss their pay demands.
In Radom and in a number of smaller towns around Warsaw, Poles appear at least as interested in complaining about Solidarity-caused hardships as they are in discussing how today's election might get rid of the nomenklatura.
"I will vote for Solidarity because we can now talk freely in this country. I care about that. But there is no interest in these elections because people are thinking about how to make ends meet," said Zbiegniew Wysmulek, 62, a retired truck driver who supplements his small pension by selling plastic lawn chairs on the sidewalk of his hometown, Pruszkow.
Polls suggest that between 50 and 60 percent of the electorate will vote today. This compares to a turnout of 62 percent in last year's parliamentary elections, which set the stage for the Soviet Bloc's first non-Communist-led government.
A number of new parties are trying to capitalize on confusion about what Solidarity now stands for. Perhaps the most important among these is a coalition led by the Peasants' Party, a prewar party that, after years of subservience to the Communists, has emerged as leader of a conservative and nationalistic political grouping. If the coalition does well today, it may emerge as a major force in next year's parliamentary elections.