By Sally Low
and Peter Annear
The resignation of finance minister Andrzej Olechowski again signals the inability of the fractured Polish parliament to form a workable government or adopt an acceptable economic policy in the face of depression and simmering public discontent.
Olechowski resigned on May 6 after the parliament voted to uphold a constitutional court ruling in favour of indexation increases for public sector wages and pensions. The pay increases threaten a further blow-out in the already critical budget deficit.
The resignation is likely to foreshadow the collapse of the beleaguered Jan Olszewski coalition government. Prime Minister Olszewski promised to increase public spending to drag Poland out of the recession induced by the IMF-inspired shock therapy of the former government, but was forced to retreat in the face of opposition pressure. Appointed in March, Olechowski, after hurriedly meeting with the IMF, made cutting the budget deficit his overriding task.
There is now a competition as to who will control the next stage of capitalist restoration. All groups show a certain willingness to work outside of or restrict the power of parliament in order to hold power. This was highlighted during April, when President Lech Walesa and defence minister Jan Parys clashed over who should control the armed forces. Since Olechowski's resignation, Walesa has again called for constitutional changes that would grant him powers in the Gaullist tradition.
In response to the new crisis, Olszewski suggested a social pact transcending the traditional political establishment which would include the president and the trade unions.
In early April, after seven weeks of strenuous negotiations, Olszewski failed to reach agreement with the Democratic Union, the largest parliamentary party, and several other smaller parties allied with it, for them to join the government. Reportedly, the negotiations broke down over the distribution of cabinet positions.
Having failed to achieve a compromise with the Democratic Union, Olszewski has therefore turned back to Walesa, with whom the government has lately been in conflict. While he was sidelined during the parliamentary infighting, Walesa's stakes have been raised again by the new crisis.
Tadeusz Mazowiecki, leader of the Democratic Union, is meanwhile trying to organise an alternative government with his so-called "Small Coalition" of the DU, the Liberal Democratic Congress, the Beer Lovers Party and the Polish Economic Program. Although he is more openly monetarist than Olszewski, in practice the differences in economic policy would be slim.
Recognising that the recessive policies of the former government had sent large numbers of enterprises into bankruptcy, and were responsible for an unacceptable level of unemployment, Olszewski promised government support for state as well as private industry. However, because a very large proportion of public revenue is still derived from taxes on state enterprises, which cannot pay, a dramatic fall in income has fuelled the budget deficit.
Now there is no way out but a cut in government spending to bring the deficit within the limit set by the IMF, 5% of GDP. Otherwise, the IMF will end the support that allows Poland to service its huge foreign debt. Aside from cancelling the debt, there is no other solution. Therefore, whether Mazowiecki, Olszewski or even Walesa heads the government, the policy outcome will be much the same.
The situation is likely to climax with the presentation to parliament of the government's draft budget. There is no agreement on this, and the government's economic program has already been rejected.
Against the background of this instability, the clash between Walesa and the government-appointed defence minister has raised tension levels. On April 6 Parys told a meeting of the general staff of the armed forces that some unnamed politicians were plotting "to overthrow the government with the aid of the army".
Two days later, the pro-government newspaper Nowy Swiat claimed that Walesa's chief of staff, Mieczyslaw Wachowski, and Bronislaw Komorowski, a Democratic Union MP, had held meetings with General Tadeusz Wilecki, the person Walesa wants to see appointed chief of staff of the armed forces.
Nowy Swiat repeated claims that Walesa is drawing closer to generals who were prominent under the old regime. It also reported that the National Security Bureau, responsible to Walesa, had prepared plans for martial law which were to be implemented in May if parliament did not pass the budget. The theory seems to be that, in return for their support, Walesa will protect the positions of these leading lights of the old bureaucracy.
Walesa denied any plans for a coup. It is simply a matter of the state being prepared for every eventuality, he said. In the meantime, he demanded that Parys step down. Olszewski has told Parys to take a holiday.
It appears Mazowiecki is also trying to do some sort of deal with Walesa and, some say, with the army. The day before Parys made his allegations, Mazowiecki had warned that if the government were not broadened, the country would face the danger of a "quasi-democratic" initiative by the president. Then, after a meeting with Walesa, he told the press "the president doesn't foresee that the present government will last long".
On April 27 Walesa is reported to have announced his intention to become a French-style president and openly endorsed Mazowiecki, as well as Olechowski, as possible prime ministers — a blatant statement of lack of support for Olszewski.
Wieslaw Chrzanowski, leader of the Christian National Union, also said dictatorship could develop unless a broad coalition was established.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Walesa is trying to mobilise his base. His supporters in the Solidarity Network, part of the old Solidarity trade union, organised a large demonstration in Warsaw on May Day to protest against the recession, corruption and working conditions. The neo-fascist Polish National Party has also started to organise public demonstrations, particularly among farmers.
On April 22 the influential newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, edited by Democratic Union parliamentarian Adam Michnik, published a vitriolic six-page attack on Walesa. He was portrayed as a man unable to cope with the challenges of office. Former aides and advisers accused him of having surrounded himself with a team of mediocre conformists — such as Wachowski, his former chauffeur — who isolate him from the real world.
In the face of a discontented but fairly passive population, it is increasingly possible that one or two of these groups will take some initiative to further restrict democracy. It seems impossible that the current economic transformation can be carried out without recourse to authoritarian means.