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Food Price Hikes Heat Up Politics


EIGHT weeks ago, Poland plunged into the unknown when Solidarity swept the country's freest elections since the war. Today, many Poles are wondering whether that breakthrough improved anything. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has been elected President, with strong executive powers. General Czeslaw Kiszczak is his prime minister. And former Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski heads the Communist Party. The three men masterminded martial law in 1981.

This political lineup is made more awkward by a tough economic transition. Prices on basic foodstuffs were freed Aug. 1. The move aims to encourage peasants to produce more goods. Prices of meat and sugar immediately rose by 300 percent, while prices of many other foods doubled.

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There are no more sensitive issues in Poland than food price rises. In 1956, 1970, 1976, 1980, and 1988, increases in the price of foodsparked worker revolts. Despite a few minor strikes last week, no widespread labor unrest was reported. Solidarity leaders fear a delayed reaction when Poles return from vacations.

``Poland's future will be decided in the shop queues and not in Parliament,'' leading Solidarity strategist Adam Michnik commented on the front page of the union newspaper Gazeta. ``The new prices have created a state of shock, and empty shop shelves provoke bitterness. It is clear for all that we must react. Urgently.''

Some Solidarity advisers insist on an expensive wage indexing plan which will compensate workers for the higher prices. But others warn that indexing will fuel inflation, which already has soared above a 100 percent annual rate.

``Indexation isn't a great economic mechanism,'' admits Jan Mujzel, a member of Solidarity's round-table delegation. ``But it is the only way to calm social tensions and give us some breathing space.''

Solidarity also fears that the communists are trying to force it to share responsibility for painful austerity before giving it real power to shape policy. Following his election, Prime Minister Kiszczak invited the opposition ``to take government responsibilities'' by joining his government. The Communists offer Solidarity control of ministries with economic responsibility. This deal resembles one made last fall by then Prime Minister Rakowski. It too was rejected.

``They want to take the important ministries and leave us with the impossible dossiers such as housing,'' Bronislaw Geremek, Solidarity's parliamentary leader, said at the time. ``We could never accept that.''

But after demanding democracy and power-sharing for years, it's hard for Solidarity leaders to back away just when these goals are in sight.

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``We're receiving piles of letters demanding, `How can you win the election and then not take power?''' says Kryzsztof Sliwinski, Gazeta's managing editor. ``I don't know how long we can keep our supporters quiet.''

The ruling Communists face a similar squeeze. Within its parliamentary bloc, longtime passive allies like the Peasant Party are growing restive, with an eye toward free elections in four years. Peasant Party deputies staged a revolt last week against Kiszczak's nomination as prime minister. It collapsed after a day, but delivered a clear message: The communists had better start listening.

``After a general/president, the nomination of a general/prime minister looks like a small martial law,'' one Peasant Party deputy reportedly objected. ``A true coalition would be much better.''

A true coalition could provoke a collapse of the Communist Party. At the first party plenum since the election defeat, two of the architects of the round-table agreement with Solidarity, Jozef Czyrek and Stanislaw Ciosek, were dropped from the ruling Politburo.

``We just aren't ready to accept a Solidarity government,'' admits Aleksander Kwasniewski, a young Central Committee member. ``It's too fresh, something too strange for the party to contemplate.''

Amidst this deadlock, the most probable outlook is for bitter political squabbling. In two unprecedented actions, parliament approved the creation two Solidarity-sponsored committees, one to investigate former Prime Minister Rakowski for economic mismanagement and another to investigate the responsibility of Kiszczak for political murders committed under martial law.

``I fear the formation of a new government is going to be terribly complicated,'' Mr. Kwasniewski said. ``We need a strong government. Unfortunately, any new government is likely to be terribly weak.''

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