WORLD

A STUNNING VICTORY

IN THEIR FIRST FREE ELECTIONS IN 45 YEARS OF COMMUNISM, POLES VOTED MASSIVELY FOR REFORM

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 19 1989
WORLD

A STUNNING VICTORY

IN THEIR FIRST FREE ELECTIONS IN 45 YEARS OF COMMUNISM, POLES VOTED MASSIVELY FOR REFORM

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 19 1989

A STUNNING VICTORY

WORLD

IN THEIR FIRST FREE ELECTIONS IN 45 YEARS OF COMMUNISM, POLES VOTED MASSIVELY FOR REFORM

On their way from the polling station on Warsaw’s Ludwika Pasteura Street, Anna Kozowicz and Groiyna Goteszewska smiled and laughed over the novelty of it all. The two women, both university students in their early 20s, had just celebrated Poland’s first free elections in more than 40 years by casting their first-ever votes. Both Kozowicz and Goteszewska said that they voted for candidates supported by the oncebanned trade union Solidarity, although Kozowicz admitted, “I do not know much about their program.” But she added, “If they are opposed to this government of ours, that is good enough for me.”

After the government announced the stunning results of the June 4 election, it became clear that millions of Poles shared that view. Because of a pre-election accord negotiated with Solidarity, the ruling Communist coalition was guaranteed a majority of seats in the country’s legislature, the Sejm. But Solidarity

won all but one of the 161 seats that opposition candidates are allowed by the rules to hold in the 460-seat Sejm. Solidarity also won 92 of the 100 seats in a newly created Senate, in which there are no restrictions on membership by party affiliation. And in a humiliating rebuff, voters defeated 33 of 35 top Communist candidates— who were running unopposed for the Sejm—by crossing their names off the ballot. Among the defeated candidates: Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski and seven other members of the ruling 17-member Politburo. In fact, the magnitude of the Communists’ defeat raises I the likelihood that, if the govi ernment keeps its promise to x allow a completely open elec-

tion in 1993, Poland will elect a new, nonCommunist government. The results, conceded Politburo member Marian Orzechowski, “are certainly bitter for my party and must make us think very deeply.”

In fact, those results thrust Poland’s already turbulent political scene into further turmoil. Following the defeat of most of the 35-member “national list” of top Communists, the Sejm does not have the full number of deputies required by the Polish constitution. As a result, government officials were forced to turn to Solidarity to help them out of the crisis. Meeting in Warsaw, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa sat across the table from Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, the interior minister who signed the arrest order for him when the government imposed martial law in 1981. After seven hours, the two sides announced that a new round of elections for the 33 vacant seats will be held on June 18. But although Rakowski and other defeated Politburo members are expected to run again, they have suffered such severe political dam-

age that it is not clear whether they will regain their former authority. Said a Warsaw-based Western diplomat: “You cannot exactly call yourself the people’s choice after that kind of embarrassment.”

Still, Solidarity officials reacted to the election results in subdued fashion—at least for the record. “We cannot call this a victory,” insisted Walesa, who was not a candidate. “It just shows that society declared in favor of reforms.” Walesa and other Solidarity officials said that they will co-operate with the government in

discussing such matters as economic reform. But Solidarity rejected public overtures from the Communists to participate in a coalition government. Said Walesa: “We did not fight for seats [in the cabinet] for ourselves. We fought for a different system of wielding power.”

In fact, many Poles say that Solidarity would be ill-prepared to play a leading role in government. The factor that most unites Solidarity’s supporters is a dislike of the government. On other issues, the members—who range from the trade unionists who founded Solidarity to supporters of a Western-style free-market economy—are markedly divided. Organizers concede that Solidarity faces increasing internal disagreements over its direction. “More and more,” said Michal Radlicki, a member of Solidarity’s national election organizing committee, “we have our own political problems.” Some voters supported Solidarity despite

open confusion over the group’s long-term aims. Marek Giedz, a 26-year-old businessman in the city of Grodzisk, said that he did so “even though I am not sure I trust them.” Added Giedz: “What we need is an open-market economy, and I cannot be certain that these trade unionists will give us that.” Many of Solidarity’s policy positions are unclear or unknown. Because Solidarity does not have formal status as a political party, its candidates officially ran as independents. That situation, coupled with the strong depth of antigovernment feeling, meant that voters gave little attention to specific issues. In fact, said Jerzy Urban, the government’s information minister, “on economic terms, we consider that there is little difference between Solidarity and us.”

One issue on which both sides agree is the need for substantial improvements in the standard of living for Poland’s 38 million people. Shortages in housing and services require the average couple to wait more than a decade to obtain their own apartment—and a similar period for a telephone line. Meat and some vegetables are expensive and often in short supply. And with inflation averaging more than 60 per cent annually, Poles living on fixed incomes have serious trouble meeting basic needs. Miacheslaw Chekowski, a 64-year-old mechanic, received notice last month that his rent will increase by 45 per cent on July 1. Said Chekowski, who must retire next year: “I do not know how I will survive on a pension.”

Still, the amount and quality of Polish food supplies and consumer items are markedly better than in the neighboring Soviet Union, where such items as meat, sugar, soap and matches are now rationed in most areas of the country. Poland’s comparatively better situation is partly a result of the flexibility that its leaders have already demonstrated on economic matters. The country’s economy is arguably the most Westernized of any of the Eastern Bloc nations: Poles are permitted to operate businesses, own private property and trade in I American dollars, and they can travel relatively easily to the West. Henryka Rutskowiego Street, in Warsaw’s downtown core, has so many private shops that locals have dubbed it “Poland’s Oxford Street”—a reference to the famed shopping thoroughfare in London. Western diplomats estimate that between $3 billion and $5 billion in U.S. currency is in private circulation in Poland. As a result, Western businessmen say that Poland has one of the most favorable investment climates of Eastern European countries.

Poland’s willingness to experiment with both electoral and economic reforms led some Warsaw-based Western diplomats to express sympathy for some defeated Communists. One diplomat described Rakowski, the prime minister, as being “no more of a Communist than Maggie Thatcher.” Said the diplomat: “These people paid for old Communist sins.” But in the first free vote in 45 years of Communism, many Poles clearly decided that ringing out the old is a necessary step to beginning anew.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Warsaw

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH