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Poland: Constitutional Debate Shapes Politics

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 26 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Poland's Parliament this week has opened a debate on a new constitution to institutionalize changes brought about with the collapse of the Communist system of government.

The debate is heavily political, reflecting the incipient campaign in preparation for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. But it also threatens to deepen the existing cleavages between groups and parties, signaling the possibility of a major reshuffling of Poland's political scene.

Poland's current Constitution is a Stalinist-era document enacted in 1952, and repeatedly amended during recent years. Two post-Communist parliaments attempted to write a new document. Both failed.

Finally, after more than three years of work, the left-dominated Parliament managed to prepare a new draft. It was put together during months of incessant debates, quarrels and discussions. It constitutes a compromise reached by four main parliamentary groups: the ruling post-Communist and Peasant coalition, and two parties which evolved from the old Solidarity movement.

The draft clarifies relations among the Government, the President, and the legislative brance. The relatively murky description of these relations in the current texts has given rise to major political infighting for power during recent years.

The draft provides the right to popular legislative initiative when supported by 100,000 signatures, and guarantees a review of bills by a fully independent Constitutional Court.

In the area of social rights, the draft says Poland's citizens should have access to free education and health care.

And it recognizes fundamental human and moral values by invoking God as the source of "truth, justice, goodness and beauty," but also giving equal right to those "who do not share the belief, but derive these values from other sources."

The draft has been strongly criticized by various right-wing groups for alleged leftist orientation (lack of rooting the economy in free-market processes), for neglect in recognizing the rights of labor organizations in influencing the Government (the right wants the charger to enshrine the role of a tri-lateral commission of government-employers-employees as an organ standing above other institutions), and for the absence of a clear condemnation of the old Communist regime.

But the most important, indeed fundamental, focus of the right's criticism is the alleged failure in the draft to assert the predominance of religious values over all institutional aspects of political and social life.

The right-wing critics have insisted that Poland's constitution must specifically recognize the primacy of "natural law" over man-made law, that it should start with a ringing invocation of God and that it should take Church teaching as the basis for social intercourse (guarantee of life from the moment of conception, and so on). The right has prepared its own version of the constitution, contrasting it with the parliamentary draft.

Current leader of the Solidarity labor union, Marian Krzaklewski, has emerged as the main spokesman for these views. But he has won support from many minor Christian and rightist groups and, above all, from the Catholic Church.

Solidarity has, during recent months, put together a coalition of these minor parties in the preparation for the parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall. This coalition has recently emerged at the top of various public opinion polls, although it has been closely trailed by the post-Communist leftist party.

Yesterday, Krzaklewski spoke to a joint session of Poland's Parliament. It was thought that he could propose amendments to the parliamentary draft. But he ruled out any compromise.

"Poland has always founded its system of values and its constitutional law on Christian values," Krzaklewski told the session. And he demanded that both the parliamentary draft and the right-wing proposal be present to the public to decide in a referendum. "There is little chance of finding a national consensus," Krzaklewski said, adding that it was unlikely that this could occur "even in the years to come."

The Parliament is certain to reject this view. It is expected to approve its own draft within weeks. It will then be sent to the President for approval and, after he does it, it will be presented to a national referendum.

Krzaklewski's address might have been prompted by immediate political considerations; he seems to believe that the nation will support his coalition against the one dominated by the post-Communists. But it also heralds an emerging new division within the country, a division of those who support a secular Poland, and those who prefer Poland rooted in religious Christian values and traditions.

Both the eventual constitutional referendum and the subsequent parliamentary election could make this division lasting.