In a Surprise, Solidarity Poised to Retake Power
'Who was a Communist?' is still being asked
The pendulum has swung back: In parliamentary elections Sunday marking another phase in the maturing of Polish democracy, the right-wing Solidarity bloc AWS has moved decisively ahead of the postcommunist SLD, which has governed since 1993.
Though the final vote count won't be released until tomorrow, AWS appears to have won a surprising 34 percent of the vote versus 27 percent for the SLD. AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski is expected to be asked to form a coalition government. The process could take several weeks.
The independent trade union Solidarity was the moving force behind Poland's emergence from one-party Communist rule in 1989. But by the 1993 elections, Solidarity and its anticommunist allies had collapsed into such a state of disarray and infighting that the SLD, with only 20 percent of the vote, was able to form a government with the support of the farmers' party.
The election results demonstrate the new maturity with which conservatives were able to mount an effective campaign.
The campaign has also made clear that Poland has two political agendas: one of the head and one of the heart.
The agenda of the head consists of issues on which there is broad consensus across political lines: the desirability of Poland's entry into NATO and the European Union, and the need for more privatization and economic development. The differences on these issues have mostly to do with nuances and pace.
Even if the AWS fails to form a coalition and the SLD manages to do so, says Bronislaw Geremek, a respected member of the centrist UW, "the people will be different. But the policies will be the same.... This campaign is not putting in doubt the general direction of Poland."
The agenda of the heart has to do with issues of political ancestry: The main divide is between those parties with roots in the Solidarity trade union and those with roots in the Communist Party.
"Where were you - literally or figuratively - when the tanks rolled in on Dec. 13, 1981, when martial law was imposed in Poland" by the Communist government is the implicit question.
The theme came up in conversations with voters: Jadwiga, a warehouse manager moonlighting at a flea market, said she would vote for AWS, "I don't fully trust them, but I'm not going to vote for communists," she said.
"If this were a normal country, like France, for instance, I would probably be a leftist," said Ewa, a university student from outside Warsaw, whose parents are farmers. "But here, the SLD is too much connected with the communist past."
CZAREK, a young professional interviewed in the Warsaw neighborhood of Ursynow, said of the issue of the SLD's communist connections, "It is important for the older generation who lived through this time. But young people don't feel what other generations lived through."
Michal Strzeszewski of the CBOS polling institute says communism "was always synonymous with the Russian empire, something imposed by the Red Army. There was not an indigenous communist party here." He adds, though, that Sunday's election "may be the last where the historical line may be decisive."
Below this main divide, there are other divisions, often within parties and blocs, to the point that the terms "left" and "right" are of only limited usefulness.
The Solidarity bloc AWS, for instance, though "right wing," has a strong social-welfare program. The SLD, despite many veterans of the old Communist Party within its ranks, takes a more free-market approach.
Beyond that, Polish politics has been bedeviled by personal antipathies between individuals whose political agendas should put them on the same side.
A number of observers, including Professor Geremek, saw the Roman Catholic Church taking a lower profile during the election.
"The abortion issue has vanished from the agenda," says AWS official Andrzej Anusz. A newly liberalized abortion law has been held unconstitutional and may therefore have to be abrogated.
Nonetheless, the Polish right is fervently Catholic, and last Sunday, as on other election-day Sundays since the fall of communism, parish priests urged parishioners to vote for right-wing parties.
"We're going AWS because religion is very important for us," says Mirek, a young military officer and surgeon, out on the streets of Warsaw's old city with his wife, Anna, an economist, and their two small children.
For so many years during the Communist period after World War II, the church was a kind of preserver of "eternal Poland," as Tadeusz Iwinski, an SLD member of parliament, puts it.