Poles: Down but Not out Confusion and Malaise after the First Free Elections in Poland Do Not Foretell Political or Economic Collapse

Article excerpt

THE results of the first freely contested general elections in Poland proved both confusing and disappointing, but they should not give cause for panic prophecies. Communism is not about to make a comeback, the state is not about to descend into an intolerant dictatorship, and the far-reaching economic transformation will not collapse in a populist anti-market groundswell.

The Polish elections have produced a fragmented parliament, as no party won more than 12 percent of the vote and 29 parties entered the lower House. As a result, it may take several weeks before a viable governing coalition can be forged.

President Lech Walesa will have to nominate a prime minister who is acceptable to the widest possible number of parties. This will prove problematic, given the personality struggles and mutual recriminations that accompanied the splintering of Solidarity during the past year, but the task is not impossible. If he fails, then new elections will have to be held and the electoral law may need to be amended to raise the percentage threshold for parliamentary representation and encourage coalition building.

The new government will need to include at least five of the new parties. Its core will consist of one of three groups: the Democratic Union led by former premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki; the Liberal Democratic Congress, grouped around the current premier Krzysztof Bielecki; or the Center Alliance led by Mr. Walesa's adviser, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Walesa's threat to nominate himself as prime minister may be a scare tactic designed to shock the leaders of the larger parties to come together and select a compromise cabinet. This would prevent concentrating too much power around one individual and help to delineate the contours of presidential, governmental, and parliamentary authority.

The coalition will also have to draw on compatible ideological partners from the smaller parties. Some promises may also need to be made to special interest groups, whether peasants with a more protectionist agrarian agenda, pro-Solidarity parties seeking to prevent large-scale unemployment, or Christian Democrats with a traditional Roman Catholic social policy.

Such pledges may slow down the fast-paced economic reform program but they will not reverse it. The breakup or closure of dozens of state plants may be delayed or staggered, but not abandoned. And the government may be willing to increase its budget deficit to provide a more effective safety net for the pauperized sectors of society, but it will not restore a state welfare economy.

MOST of the larger parties are committed to a market economy, even if they have differing prescriptions on the methods and speed of its implementation. It is imperative that the new cabinet includes competent finance, economic, and industrial ministers who have the confidence of Western creditors and investors. …