Democracy the loser in Polish elections

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

By Peter Annear and Sally Low
in Wroclaw and Warsaw

A failure to resolve, or even to seriously address, underlying factors in Poland's political, social and economic crisis was the foremost outcome of the country's "first free elections" since World War II. The fragility of the new parliament — which may be unable to create a government — advances the long-term slide towards a non-parliamentary authoritarian regime headed by President Lech Walesa or some other candidate.

Walesa wanted a weak parliament, if not a subordinate one, and that is what the October 27 contest produced — an absolute majority for those who abstained.

PAP, the government news bureau, commented that the 43% turnout in cold gloomy weather resulted from disillusionment with current politics and Poles' difficulties in identifying with any of the great number of competing parties, a total of 63 electoral lists. Former dissident and left-wing Solidarity leader Jozef Pinior told Green Left Weekly the abstention also reflected a conscious decision not to take part.

A vote against the effects of capitalist reform is the most plausible short description of the parliamentary ballot, which was not the first but the fourth post-1989 election here, after the Senate election in which Solidarity took 99 of 100 openly contested seats, the presidential election won by Walesa, and local council elections.

Firstly, the high abstention rate reveals a lack of public willingness to endorse further austerity. Secondly, the splintered, low vote for the rightist parties — including the Democratic Union, placed first with only 12.1% of the vote — showed the inability of any to win a mandate for their version of reform. Thirdly, the relatively good showing of the Democratic Left Alliance (based on the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland — SDRP, the former Communist Party), which came second with 11.7%, was a vote against reform and for greater social welfare.

The low 4.8% vote for the Solidarity trade union indicated disillusion with its rightist direction. The Liberal Democratic Congress of monetarist Prime Minister Jan Krysztof Bielecki polled only 7.1%.

For months, Walesa has challenged the authority of parliament, especially for its dominant though subservient composition of former Communists who held the majority in the legislature as a result of the agreement on the transition of power. He hypocritically blamed the composition of the old parliament for the country's economic, social and political crisis.

Hence, centre stage in the campaign was occupied by the past and mainly by the issue of "decommunisation" — that is, a threatened anti-Communist witch-hunt — rather than any discussion of alternative economic and political programs. On the eve of the elections, Walesa threatened that if the new Sejm was not able to work in support of the president's program it might have to be replaced.

Referring to a miners' demonstration on the Friday before the elections, Walesa said, "This cannot be allowed. We must guarantee legal order. If this order is threatened, authorities will take all necessary steps." The miners displayed a banner reading "Small electrician, you sold out the working class. For how much?"

Walesa also claimed, "The new government, once it is formed, will focus on matters especially painful for society".

Jacek Maziarsky from the Centre Alliance, the party closest to Walesa, charged that a stable government and program able to get Poland out of the crisis would now be hard to obtain, especially because the election consolidated the post-Communist left.

Since the popular vote did not itself remove the supposed problem of former Communists from the parliament but returned a big group of Social Democrats instead, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who leads the Centre Alliance, continued the assault: "The election result confirms the thesis that without certain forms of social restructuring — we call it decommunisation — it will be impossible to build democracy in Poland".

He also threatened that parliament might last only a few months. What meaning Kaczynski might reserve for the word "democracy" — which will be produced by a McCarthyite purge and not a vote of any kind — is now the nub of the Polish question.

Three disparate, somewhat overlapping blocs emerged from the vote:

l The post-Solidarity parties — Democratic Union, Centre Alliance and Solidarity — with 25%.

l The parties listed in Catholic Church voting instructions — Centre Alliance, Catholic Electoral Action, the Christian Democratic Party and Peasant Solidarity — with 25%.

l The post-Stalinist left — Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasants Party — with 21%.

There is no way these blocs can get together, and even within them there are divisions.

The universal weakness of the political forces was revealed the day after the election when Jacek Kuron, former dissident and now with Adam Michnik a prominent member of the liberal-rightist Democratic Union of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, met with Walesa to suggest the President become prime minister of a government of experts.

Mazowiecki announced he would form a coalition, but got no takers. He lamented the splintering of power in the new parliament and said the most important thing was for the Solidarity-bred forces to realise the magnitude of their responsibility. The phrase opens the possibility of a deal with his arch rival and former friend Walesa.

Walesa had ominously claimed a turnout of less than 70% would "show the sad fact the Poles were unable to use their newly gained freedom". Observers believe that, had the Centre Alliance pulled out all stops in the campaign, and had Walesa energetically supported it, it would have won a big, perhaps decisive vote. But the Alliance ran a lacklustre campaign and polled poorly, presumably hoping to give the presidential office executive power by default.

The Catholic-sponsored parties polled worse than might have been expected, though not for want of trying. For example, the provincial election commission in the central city of Lodz disclosed that people leaving churches after Sunday masses were instructed how to vote for Catholic candidates, an act contrary to the electoral law. Similar reports came from other centres.

Adam Michnik summed up the vote: "The scenario of hopes concentrated around the Solidarity camp has collapsed ... Together with the myth of Solidarity, the myth of Lech Walesa has also collapsed ... The political authority of the Catholic Church has collapsed."

In effect, this anaemic election campaign drew the curtain on the period that opened with the rise of Solidarity in 1980. Illusions created then and later resurrected by the spring 1989 round table talks have been crushed by the realities of post-Stalinist experience.

Election fever was certainly not evident here even in the few days before the election. In the streets of Wroclaw and Warsaw, election publicity was very low key. There was little public activity. Every night at 10 p.m., when most workers had already retired for the night, the parties, including the left, got a snatch of television time, and radio was also available.

But, said Jozef Pinior, the media campaigning was very bad, a tactic that suited Walesa. "This created a danger for the future of democracy, even formal democracy, here because it was effectively a campaign outside society.

"So it may be necessary to defend this parliament against the right-wing political parties and to defend the Democratic Left Alliance against so-called decommunisation. It is clear now that the right-wing parties will try to introduce some kind of McCarthyism here, using the fact that the SDRP is a former Stalinist party to attack not only them but all the left and progressive forces and to introduce some kind of authoritarianism."

Pinior believes the election result was a historic defeat for the left that emerged out of Solidarity: the campaign he supported, Karol Modzelewski's Solidarity of Labour ticket, polled only 2%. "Solidarity became a transmission belt between the government and the working class, and our current has paid a political price for that. It is a paradox but it is history. On the other hand, the good result for the Democratic Left Alliance is a positive sign for the future." n

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