NO country has a better anticommunist record than Poland. The Solidarity movement was the most important opposition group in the communist world before 1989; it led Poland and its neighbors to freedom in that grand year. Now the tables have turned. On Oct. 13, two parties with communist pasts formed a coalition to govern Poland. Having decisively won elections in September, the Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasant Party will have a huge majority in the Polish parliament. People who served in governments that imprisoned Solidarity leaders will soon be re-acquainted with the privileges of power.
How did this happen? It was not a surprise when former communists were recently elected to run Romania and Lithuania. That old apparatchniks govern almost every republic of the former Soviet Union attracts no attention. In such cases, former communists have few political rivals. But Poland is a special case. Years of Solidarity created experienced, anticommunist politicians. Unlike other East-bloc voters, Poles had real alternatives. They chose former communists anyway.
Moreover, while most of the post-communist world is suffering through a depression, Poland's economy is booming. Growth is 5 percent yearly - the highest in Europe. The move to consumer capitalism is rushing ahead. Economic reforms created a new middle class; this new class was the hope of new political parties. But even small businessmen voted for the communist SLD.
Since Poland had the best chance for a clean break from communism, the victory of socialist parties might seem to prove that communism will become the dominant force in the region's political culture. But the truth is otherwise: Poland's shift to the left proves how much things have changed, not how much they have stayed the same. Few Poles voted for the SLD because they felt they had been better off under communism. Rather, polls show the government had lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Polish voters behave much as do their counterparts further west. That they decided that four years of Solidarity was enough may disappoint; but it is not cause for alarm.