Grim Outlook at Polls for Poland's Solidarity

By Peter Finn, The Washington Post, Sunday 2 September 2001; Page A23

WARSAW—The economy that was the pride of Eastern Europe is slumping. The government, battered by corruption charges and the defection of some of its leading figures, is paralyzed. And Poland's unhappy voters are in the mood for a house cleaning in parliamentary elections later this month.

So strong is that mood that the governing Solidarity Electoral Action center-right coalition is facing not just defeat, but obliteration. Remarkably, the derivative of the founding party of Polish democracy may end up with no seats in parliament, according to opinion polls.

“We shall pay very dearly,” said Andrzej Wiszniewski, head of Solidarity's election committee, who makes no pretense about his party's single electoral goal in the Sept. 23 vote: survival. Technically a coalition, Solidarity needs to secure 8 percent of the vote just to get into parliament; it is polling between 6 and 7 percent.

“We will lose power,” said Wiszniewski, minister of science in the government. “But I am an eternal optimist, and I can’t believe we will be out of parliament.”

The immediate beneficiary of Solidarity's likely collapse is the Democratic Left Alliance, the communist successor party that has transformed itself into a disciplined and moderate left-wing party that supports NATO and European Union membership. One of the party's founders, Alexander Kwasniewski, was easily reelected to the presidency last year and control of parliament would hand the Democratic Left Alliance, or Social Democrats, all the levers of power in Poland.

But this election is less about the winner, a foregone conclusion, and more about the coming shakeout on the center-right.

In recent months, two new parties have emerged on the right, and they are threatening to permanently supplant Solidarity as the only viable alternative to the Social Democrats.

“We think we are creating the modern right in Poland,” said Andrzej Olechowski, a founder of the new Civic Platform, who came in second in last year's presidential election in which the Solidarity candidate was trounced. Legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who broke with Solidarity and ran on his own ticket, got 1 percent of the vote in the presidential election, a humiliating result and one that gave the lie to the notion of riding on history.

“We believe most of our following, and our future, is in the growing Polish middle class,” said Olechowski, a quintessential post-communist who has admitted passing on information to the old communist secret police, but went on to become a Solidarity foreign minister.

Civic Platform, which was created at the start of the year, is already polling between 15 and 20 percent.

Combining economic liberalism and social conservatism, it is drawing defectors from Freedom Union, a Solidarity affiliate that abandoned a coalition with Solidarity last year.

To the right of Civic Platform is Law and Justice, a group created a couple of months ago by twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Lech Kaczynski was a popular justice minister in the Solidarity government until he was fired by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek after a dispute between his ministry and the intelligence service.

It is already outstripping Solidarity, with 10 percent of the electorate supporting it, according to polls.

Buzek's government has also been buffeted by a series of corruption scandals in recent weeks. The deputy defense minister was fired after one of his assistants, suspected of soliciting bribes, was arrested as he reportedly attempted to flee the country with four different passports in his possession.

The telecommunications minister was fired for alleged “irregularities” in the award of cellular phone licenses that may have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

For years, Solidarity, uneasily uniting economic liberals, trade unionists, nationalists and Catholic conservatives under an anti-communist banner, has been a study in internal rancor. Buzek's government, which united three parties with roots in Solidarity, continued that tradition.

It botched the introduction of a series of major reforms in health care and education, with the severest critics of its efforts emerging from its own ranks. The reforms, Olechowski said, may benefit Poland in the long run, but they created the impression of a government that didn’t believe in its own policies.

At the same time, economic growth slowed this year to 2 percent from a high of 7 percent in 1997, and unemployment rose to 16 percent. Foreign investment fell by nearly 50 percent this year. And public confidence in the government soured to the point of contempt.

Now “we can expect the long dominance of the post-communists in Polish political life,” said Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, a professor of sociology at the Institute of Political Studies here. “The coming elections will be a bitter lesson for the right here, and it may finally force them to unite.”

But not, he thinks, under a renewed banner of Solidarity. The grand old hero, spent as a political force, may revert to its original identity—a trade union.