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Poland's Turmoil Threatens Constitution, Foreign Investment

HE may be seeking to scuttle Poland's government of former communists, but President Lech Walesa could shatter constitutional order with his threat to dissolve parliament unless it votes to reshuffle the Cabinet.

Mr. Walesa plunged Poland into political crisis Feb. 6, telling lawmakers that Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak had to go. If the legislature did not act fast, Walesa suggested he would unilaterally call new elections.

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``History will not forgive you,'' the president told members of parliament.

Poland's governing coalition, the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), met on Feb. 7 to try to agree on government changes that would satisfy the president.

A call to court?

The two parties have had their philosophical differences over reform, and it is unclear whether Walesa's attack will unite or further divide them. But legislators from both the coalition and opposition parties say Walesa's move to call elections would be unconstitutional and face a legal challenge in Poland's highest court.

Walesa, meanwhile, insists he would ``never do anything to violate the constitution.''

An attempt to dissolve parliament could create a situation in Poland in which there are two centers of power, neither of which recognizes the other's legitimacy. A similar situation in Moscow in 1993 ended with Army tanks bombarding the Russian parliament. Walesa and other officials, however, say they will not try to involve the military in Polish politics.

The longer the political wrangling drags on, the less attractive Poland could become for inclusion in NATO and the European Union. Many Poles see joining both groups as crucial to political and economic stability after 40-plus years of Soviet control.

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And as the largest country in Central Europe - its population of 38 million outnumbering those of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia combined - Poland's disarray could act as a drag on the development of the other nations in the so-called Visegrad group.

``The domestic situation can jeopardize not just Poland, but all Visegrad members,'' said Bronislaw Geremek, a leader of the opposition Freedom Union and a vocal critic of Walesa.

For Western investors, there is a threat of another major financial problem, coming just weeks after the Mexican peso crisis. Mexico has already shaken investor confidence in emerging markets, including Central Europe.

Central European entrepreneurs say that without Western capital Central Europe will remain underdeveloped, and thus unstable for a long time to come.

``A key problem here for all countries in transition is a lack of funds,'' says Jaroslaw Mulewicz, a Warsaw businessman. ``The dimension of the need is far greater than what we first thought in 1989.''

Foreign investment in Poland had been dropping even before the current crisis. If the trend accelerates, it could affect Western markets. A lack of investment, for example, could cause reforms to stall, sending the economy into a tailspin, thus placing loans and investment at risk.

Mr. Walesa says the crisis could be defused by the resignation of Mr. Pawlak, head of the PSL, which has its roots in the communist past. Walesa accuses Pawlak of incompetence and mismanagement of economic reform.

On the short list

The president suggested that Alexander Kwasniewski, leader of the SLD, the other reconstituted Communist Party in the governing coalition, would make a suitable prime minister. Mr. Kwasniewski, who does not hold any government portfolio, has indicated he is open to the idea of becoming premier. He is also considered a leading rival of Walesa in presidential elections scheduled for November.

But Kwasniewski might hesitate to accept the premiership because the greater responsibility would leave him open to greater attack from Walesa.

Many Polish political analysts say the attack on Pawlak is merely an attempt by Walesa to increase his chances for reelection. His popularity ratings are currently sagging.

The restyled communists were able to return to power in 1993 primarily because of disunity among right-wing parties. Analysts say the Polish right has done little to get its act together, meaning the more organized left would likely do well in the next poll.

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