WORLD

Poland chooses its path

In its first brush with democracy, Poland’s Party Congress opted for reform

Peter Lewis July 27 1981
WORLD

Poland chooses its path

In its first brush with democracy, Poland’s Party Congress opted for reform

Peter Lewis July 27 1981

Poland chooses its path

WORLD

In its first brush with democracy, Poland’s Party Congress opted for reform

Peter Lewis

After toiling for nearly a year to halt the ground swell of change in Poland, the nation’s Communist Party last week came to nibble at the exotic fruit of democracy itself— and found the taste disturbingly sharp. Delegates to the party’s Ninth Congress, summoned to Warsaw to draw up a crash program to pull Poland out of its economic morass, attended first to politics by kicking the cobwebs from the party’s stalled machinery. In an unprecedented move in Eastern Europe, the party delegates—themselves freely chosen for the first time—elected their officials by secret ballot. The result, announced Friday night, displayed a certain vindictive glee: seven members of the previous 11-man ruling politburo were pitched from office by failing to win election to the party’s Central Committee. One was Polish President Henryk Jablowski, another was an ambi-

tious hard-liner, Tadeusz Grabski, who only a month ago had strongly challenged party chief Stanislaw Kania for the leadership. With Grabski out of the way, the 54-year-old Kania easily won a fresh mandate.

The Congress, originally scheduled to last five days, lost so much time in figuring out a procedure for elections— “Democracy is unchartered water for us,” apologized Congress spokesman Wieslaw Bek—that by the weekend it had yet to get around to what Poles saw as the meat: the party’s much-vaunted

economic recovery plan. But in resolving political problems straight away with the election of a leadership committed to change, the Congress made sure that eventual changes would not fall victim to the type of infighting between hard-liners and moderates that had recently paralysed the party.

Poland’s present economic miseries were very much in mind, however, as the Congress unwound behind closed doors in Warsaw’s towering Palace of Culture and Peace. Streaming to the rostrum in the Congress hall, speakers among the 1,955 delegates pleaded with the party to take urgent steps to resolve a crisis that has brought a 15-per-cent drop in national income and mind-boggling food shortages. “Today our children are forgetting the taste of sweets; tomorrow they may go hungry,” cried Henryka Kubiak, one of the more than 100 women attending the meeting.

To most Poles, Kubiak’s warning was far more relevant to life in Poland today than the arcane deliberations on procedure that marked the first days of the Congress. For them, reality is wondering literally where the next family meal is coming from. And the fact that the situation springs not from want of

money but from the lack of anything to spend it on makes it no easier to endure. The few goods that stray into stores are snapped up, leaving the tardy shopper with only tea and seasonable vegetables to buy. Even the black market, where prices soar to five times the store rate, can no longer guarantee a steady supply of goods.

On the whole, one finds that Polish society has held together remarkably well against the strains of recent months. Not only does the fire brigade still answer the phone but the state, despite the party’s loss of power, has continued to tick over quietly by itself, acting as a brake against chaos. Poles claim that one blessing of the crisis has been a noticeable tightening of family ties in response to uncertainty. The suicide rate is down by half. But there has been a tenfold rise in emigration by middle-class Poles whose skills serve as a passport to the West. This prompted Congress delegate Albin Szyszka to declare last week, “If we do not carry our reforms we will lose our finest minds to emigration.”

The reforms envisaged by the party are geared to putting the economy back on its feet in three years. But if they

succeed they could also overturn a number of shibboleths of Communist society. It leaked out in the early stages of the Congress that the party wanted to fire workers in unproductive branches and shift them to jobs in mining and other exporting industries.

But the process of making the labor market respond to the economy’s needs is certain to create unemployment, undermining the tenet of full employment so cherished in Communist-ruled countries. Equally, the leadership let it be known it was thinking of announcing an immediate 50-per-cent rise in consumer prices to reduce the crippling bill Poland pays for subsidizing food and housing. The move could work minor wonders by offering incentives to Polish farming and industry to raise production. It also happens to depart from the Communist practice of cushioning people from material want, and sets Poland timidly on the road to a market economy.

The leadership emerging from the Ninth Congress will find itself strengthened not only by its fresh unity but also by the growing consensus that firm government is needed. One firm backer of the authorities’ attempts to pick up the pieces will be Solidarity union chief Lech Walesa, who sees tougher government as the only bulwark against the Soviet Union and a credible guarantee to Poland’s impatient creditors in the West.

The party’s first test could come even before it winds up the Congress. Dockworkers on the Baltic announced last Friday that they would begin an unlimited strike this week to obtain better working conditions, while the Polish airline LOT declared it would ground its planes indefinitely from this Friday if the government persisted in refusing to allow its staffers to choose their own boss. Both conflicts strike to the heart of issues that arose from the turmoil created by last year’s strikes—worker management and the right of laborers to strike, if need be, to make the Gdansk agreements stick—and the way the government handles them will serve as a pointer to the future.

The authorities, however, need to tread carefully. Last week’s Congress may have succeeded, thanks to its democratic nature, in shoring up the party’s position in the public eye but the leadership could blow the credit overnight. “To govern properly the party will need to base its rule in future on an alliance with the forces of reason in the church, Solidarity and worker management,” declared party luminary Mieczyslaw Rakowski, in the only speech at the Congress to truly electrify the delegates. He seemed to indicate this meant staying at the wheel but heeding the backseat driver’s every word.