TST, Vol. 8, Issue No. 24/2001
Ex-reds win elections but lack parliamentary majority

Poland faces hard times ahead
by Robert Strybel

WARSAW--It came as no surprise to anyone that Poland's ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej = SLD) won the country's latest parliamentary elections. For more than a year, public opinion polls had shown the SLD to be the unquestioned front-runner with anywhere from 46% to 52% support. SLD leader Leszek Miller could gloat briefly when preliminary estimates showed his party had won most of the seats, while his political archrivals of the previously governing Solidarity camp did not even make it into parliament.
But his euphoria quickly evaporated when it turned out that the SLD's results were considerably lower and did not give it a majority in the 460-member Sejm (lower house of parliament). A government lacking a clear parliamentary majority obviously faces rough sledding, never knowing whether the legislation it approves will be passed by the Sejm.

The parliamentary elections held on Sunday, September 23rd, produced the following results and brought six parties to the Sejm, the key lower house of parliament:

SLD-UP (post-communists + tiny leftist Labor Party) 41.04%
Platforma Obywatelska (new centrist, pro-market party) 12.68%
Samoobrona (radical farmer's group) 10.2%
Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (law & order party) 9.5%
Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish Peasant Party, former SLD ally) 8.98%
Liga Polskich Rodzin (right-wing, Euro-skeptical Catholic party) 7.87%

As can be seen above, a slim majority was shared by five other parties. The centrist, pro-market Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska = PO) came a distant second, but it was the third place won by the radical rural Self-defense (Samoobrona) group of rabble-rousing populist Andrzej Lepper that came as a shock to many. The law and order group of the Kaczynski twins (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc = PiS) came fourth, followed by the SLD's former coalition partner, the Polish Peasant Party. The smallest winner, the several-month-old Catholic, right wing League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin = LPR), was another election surprise.

Observers of Poland's political stage agreed that the September 23rd elections clearly reflected Polish society's frustration and disappointment towards the country's political elites. The large support given the ex-communists was a backlash against the weak and fragmented government provided by the ruling Solidarity camp over the past four years. Although groups such as the PO and Self-defense are politically poles apart (no pun intended!), as new groups they attracted voters hoping for a change. The support for Self-defense in particular was a slap in the face to the existing political establishment, whom the outspoken Lepper has repeatedly called "a bunch of crooks". The PiS, another new party, came to power on the wave of growing public opposition to crime and corruption. The election of the LPR shows that a segment of the electorate feels a sovereign, Catholic Poland need not be run solely by ex-communists, liberals and Euro-enthusiasts. Incidentally, it was the League of Polish Families (LPR) that won the most support from Polish voters casting their ballots in America.

Voters also showed they had had their fill of the eternally squabbling and splintered politicians of the Solidarity bloc (AWS) which failed to clear the 8% hurdle required of election coalitions. Its former government-coalition partner, the UW, regarded by many Poles as a party of know-it-all academics insensitive to the hardships of ordinary citizens, similarly failed to achieve the 5% threshold that single parties must get to enter parliament. Despite the declared intention of both the AWS and UW to "continue serving the country," both groups appeared headed for political oblivion. But undoubtedly the clearest sign of public disgust and apathy was the fact that less than of Poland's eligible voters even bothered to cast their ballots. "People voted by staying home," one Warsaw taxi driver told this reporter to justify why he did not plan to vote. "Everybody knows that it doesn't matter what they call themselves or what slogans they spout, because when they get to the trough, politicians of every coloration show that they're only interested in their own career and gain."

Former communist politburo member Miller and his comrades had pledged during the election campaign to liquidate the Senate, restore abortion on demand and undo the health-care reforms introduced by the outgoing government of Jerzy Buzek. In an effort to seduce free-wheeling younger voters increasingly tolerant of decadent, even deviant lifestyles, Miller went on record as saying his government would not interfere with "how you dress, what music you listen to or how you make love." But, in order not to alienate the more traditional electorate, Miller has been careful not to say anything disparaging about religion. And his campaign managers have been quick point out that their leader had received a good Catholic upbringing and even served as an altar boy.

But, ideology aside, the key to Poland's future more than ever before lies in the economic sphere. The recent elections were generally regarded as the least "ideologized" of those held since Poland dumped communism in 1989. With unemployment at 16%, a deepening recession likely to push that figure even higher and a staggering budget crisis threatening the collapse of public finances, the new government faces a daunting and unenviable challenge. Curbing a possible deficit of nearly 90 billion zlotys (roughly $22 billion) will undoubtedly require such painful measures as higher taxes and drastic spending cuts. But Poles say taxes are too high as it is, and there is already too little money for schools, hospitals, road repairs, social services, unemployment compensation, flood relief, national defense and many other essentials. Nearly one-half of today's Poles are living below, at or near the poverty level with no hope of improving their lot in the foreseeable future.

If things get any worse, political analysts feel people may take to the streets and stage even bigger protest road blocks and marches on Warsaw's government buildings than those of recent years. That could force ex-communist President Aleksander Kwasniewski to call new elections, possibly by spring 2002. But the turnout would most likely be even lower than on September 23rd and the resultant patchwork of parties brought to power could be even more diversified and unsuited to produce a stable government than at present. In a word, the people of Poland appear headed for trying times. And even the fortunate minority that has so far been making good in business and the professions may soon find that fewer and fewer customers will be able to afford their goods and services. It's no wonder then that Miller and his comrades immediately set about holding talks with the remaining parties in parliament to sound out to what extent his minority government will be able to count on their support.

One marginal aspect of Poland's recent elections may easily get overlooked, although it is not without certain significance to our Polish American community. The only party that made use of thinly veiled anti-Semitic slogans was the nationalist, anti-European Union Alternative Social Movement, which was all but ignored by Polish voters. It polled less than one-half of one percent (exactly 0.42%) of all the votes cast. Considering that not too long ago France's National Front, which had a similar agenda, was winning from 15 to 20% support in various elections, the Polish result is worth bearing in mind.

TST, Vol. 8, Issue No. 24/2001

The Summit Times

Copyright 2001 by Andrzej M. Salski