In keeping with the current trend in Eastern Europe, former Communists win the elections in Poland and in the process virtually eliminate the Solidarity Party from the political scene.
THE victory of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in Poland in the general elections held in the last week of September is in tune with the current trend in the region. Elections held in the Baltic republics of Lithuania and Estonia have also resulted in victories to Centre-Left parties over anti-communist right-wing parties that had come to power in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Poland, the Solidarity Party has been virtually decimated. It polled around 6 per cent of the votes, which means it will have no representation in Parliament. The former Communists, now rechristened the SLD, won 41 per cent of the vote.
In Estonia, Arnold Ruutel, former secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, has been voted President in the elections which were also held towards the end of September. In Lithuania, a coalition of Left parties has been swept to power. Algirdas Brazauskas, a former head of the Communist Party, is now the Prime Minister and the most popular politician in the country.
Poland's most charismatic politicians today are Alexander Kwasiniewski and Leszek Miller - both leaders of the Polish Communist Party during the Soviet era. Kwasiniewski is the President of the country and is having an extended honeymoon with the electorate. The September 23 elections saw Miller become Prime Minister. Kwasiniewski and Miller were instrumental in remoulding the former Polish Communist Party into a social democratic organisation. The SLD has been inspired by Tony Blair's New Labour in the United Kingdom and the French and German Socialist parties.
All these former Communist leaders have been pragmatic in choosing their career options in the post-Soviet era. They gained considerable experience as specialists and economic managers during the Communist era. They willingly forsook the Marxist ideology and embraced market economics after the collapse of socialism. They are now among the most avid supporters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and proponents of full membership for their countries in the European Union (E.U.). The avowedly anti-Communist leaders who preceded them failed in managing the economies of their countries as they lacked the necessary managerial and political skills.
THE Solidarity Party, born out of the Solidarity Resistance movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has been devastated by the election results. The movement, encouraged and funded by the West, particularly by the American Central Intelligence Agency and the Vatican, had played a crucial role in precipitating the collapse of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. Their leader, Lech Walesa, became the President of Poland in 1990 with his party in control of the government (Frontline, December 7, 1990). But the popularity of Solidarity, along with that of its main supporter the Catholic Church, started waning soon afterwards.
By the early 1990s the former Communists were on the comeback trail. Walesa was increasingly being perceived as an incompetent and boorish figure. Solidarity itself soon started splitting into factions. Corruption scandals involving senior Solidarity leaders including persons close to Walesa, further dented the image of the party. Walesa was defeated by Kwasiniewski, the founder of the SLD, in the presidential election of 1995. The former electrician made a pathetic attempt to stage a comeback in the presidential election last year. His popularity rating is now consistently in the single-digit category.
Before the recent elections, the political front that the Solidarity Party had set up with the right-wing parties underwent yet another split. That proved fatal for the anti-communist front. The Freedom Union, a front led by Bronislav Gerimek, managed to win only 3 per cent of the votes, which left it unrepresented in Parliament. Other parties that did reasonably well were the Centre-Left Civic Union and the Peasants Party, which won 13 and 10 per cent of the votes respectively.
Before the elections, the SLD was expected to win a comfortable majority in Parliament. However, voter apathy caused a low turnout on September 23 with only 46 per cent of Poles casting their votes. Pollsters had predicted a 52 per cent share of the votes for the Centre-Left. But eventually the SLD found itself short of an outright majority; it is now trying to form an alliance with either of the two Centre-Left Opposition parties.
A disconcerting feature of the electoral outcome is that some extreme-Right and xenophobic parties such as the Law and Justice Party, the League of Polish Families and the Self Defence Party, won a sizable chunk of votes - each of these got more votes than the Solidarity Party. These parties, supported by sections of the Catholic Church, are against Poland joining the E.U., and they claim that such a decision would sound the death-knell for the country's rural economy and its traditional way of life. The Peasants Party and the Self Defence Parties have the influential farmers' lobby behind them. Only about half the population of Poland is said to be in favour of the country joining the E.U.
Polish farmers had managed to avoid collectivisation under socialism. The majority of the farmers are small landholders. More than half of the two million farms consist of less than five hectares each and farming is labour-intensive. The government wants to undertake reforms in the agricultural sector in order to increase productivity and put the country on an equal footing with other E.U. members. Farmers fear that they will end up joining the growing ranks of the unemployed if Poland becomes a full-fledged E.U. member. Under the Solidarity-led coalition, unemployment rose to 18 per cent, and economic growth is predicted to be around 2 per cent this year. A deficit of $ 5 billion is projected in the coming budget.
The SLD led by Miller has also been strongly in favour of Poland joining the E.U. Miller is now a strong supporter of the free market and the NATO military alliance, of which Poland is a part. To underline his continuing support for these policies, Miller has appointed people who have gained the confidence of Washington and Brussels to key posts in his Cabinet. Marek Belka, the new Finance Minister, is a favourite of Western financial institutions.
The new Foreign Minister, Wlodzimierz Cimosszewicz, is expected to guide Poland into full membership of the E.U. But before that the new government will have to build a stable coalition. The anti-E.U. parties will also make a last-ditch attempt to keep the country out of the E.U. The issue had become a hot potato during the elections. One of the likely coalition partners of the Democratic Left is the Peasants Party, which is not too favourably disposed towards Poland being a part of the E.U.
Miller's priority is to accelerate Poland's entry into the E.U., a goal he shares with the former Solidarity-led government. The new Prime Minister will have to chart his course with political astuteness as Poland is going through one of its worst economic crises since non-Communists took power in 1990. In order to balance the budget, Miller may have to launch an austerity drive immediately. He is also under pressure from the E.U. to hasten the pace of privatisation. Until last year, state-owned firms accounted for one-third of the sales of industrial goods and employed one-third of the industrial workers in the country. Last year the government estimated that there were 170,000 excess workers. The E.U. wants Miller to end state subsidies to public sector companies and make retrenchment of labour easier.
Miller, a former member of the Polish Communist Party's Politburo, will now have to prove that he is truly a believer in the free market economy.