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Polish parliament gains new powers

"The session adjourned at midnight." It's a long time since the newspapers here could say that about Poland's Sejm , or parliament.

But, like Rip Van Winkle, this country's legislative body is waking up after years of East bloc slumber -- and today its sessions are longer, more frequent, and more vigorous than at any time since World War II.

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Its legislative authority is being flexed over a wide array of genuinely important topics, from censorship to corruption.

Its committees are handling the work of drafting and revising bills independently of, or at least on level footing with, the communist-controlled majority in the 460-member chamber.

Its standing in public estimation has been growing ever since the workers' crisis first erupted here last summer.

Its prime minister, communist soldier-politician Wojciech Jaruzelski, is the first postwar chief of government whose appointment has evoked some real public response -- and warm at that. Since taking office in February he has survived the dangerous March general strike threat without loss of goodwill.Solidarity leader Lech Walesa still says Jaruzelski's is the only government in which the union can feel confidence.

"Deputies have really begun to feel themselves as MPs," remarks a Western diplomat of long experience here. "Moreover, constituents are looking to them to be real representatives as never before."

Says one of the 33 independent, nonparty members active in this revival: "It is quite amazing, especially when you see that [Communist] party people who were selected in our not very democratic way are suddenly waking up."

Only once before during the postwar years has the Polish parliament functioned in any relatively normal democratic sense. That was for a year under Wladyslaw Gomulka, the first at all popularly accepted Communist leader in the East European bloc. Today, almost 25 years later, the Sejm again is filling a meaningful role --to the watchful concern of Communist Party hard-liners both here and in neighboring bloc capitals, not least Moscow.

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It has become a highly critical debating forum. The government listens to its views as much as it heeds those of the now powerful grass-roots Solidarity movement.

It has already proved effective in helping the farmers reverse the Communist Party's antagonism to a farmers' union, or Rural Solidarity. It has won parliamentary, in place of cabinet, control over the important chamber responsible for detecting illegality in public life and cleaning up the corruption of the later Gierek years.

The government has turned over to it the job of finding an acceptable compromise between its own draft bill on censorship and the so-called "social" draft, which is more reformist.

All this activity is prompting a notable public response. The same, independent, nonparty MP recently received several hundred letters from his constituents after one of his speeches.

"We've never had letters on this scale before," he says. "It's impossible to answer them all. All we can do is to go to our constituencies as often as possible to let people question us face to face."

On these constituency visits MPs meet the same blunt challenges as the party leaders face every day from their own followers. But the party leaders are very much on the defensive, whereas the MPs are growing in prestige.

Nonetheless, it is not easy to be a Polish MP under existing conditions. Most MPs have full-time jobs to earn their living. But for conscientious MPs, parliament, too, is becoming a full-time job -- without a salary.

Members get only a kind of honorarium of 6,000 zlotys (about $200) monthly to cover expenses and time off in attending these prolonged Sejm and committee sessions. While they also receive a free travel pass to their constituencies, they have no secretaries to help with their postbag.

For two decades after the fading of the early Gomulka reforms, the Sejm was just a facade to put a "democratic" stamp on Communist policies in all walks of life.

Hence, after the worker-led upheavals of August 1980 some sort of a change was almost inevitable. And today the depth of change is already evident not only in Solidarity, in Rural Solidarity, in the Sunday morning broadcast of Roman Catholic mass, and in the new inquiring attitude adopted by most of the media without waiting for legal protection in a forthcoming censorship law, but also in the new vigor of parliamentary life.

The 261 Communist MPs, 113 Peasant Party members, 37 from the Democratic Party, and the 49 independents from three small Christian groups (including the 33 independents) sit under the lofty, shallow dome of a circular chamber. Demolished in World War II, the building was restored on the pattern of the original Sejm built during independence following World War I.

Despite its numerical majority, the Communist Party is not using its voting power as in the past. It knows that nearly a million of its own members belong to Solidarity and that most of them openly ignored a Politburo injunction not to identify with last month's strike threat. Instead, the Sejm's "new look" finds Communist Party members backing independent and Christian MPs in more assertive questions and criticism.

"They also begin to see themselves as representatives of people," says one of the independents. "Some cannot now be counted on automatically to follow an unpopular party line. And the leadership is clearly unwilling to have the party isolated on one side and everyone else on the other."

Candidates for parliament are still allocated by the party-controlled Front of National Unity, not chosen by the constituency. But, if the present struggle within the party for more democracy goes the reformers' way, then things like this, too, could change and parliament would be taking another step as an independent le gislature.

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