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Poland: Parliamentary Election Campaign Officially Opens

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 19 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Speaking yesterday to a nationwide television audience, Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski announced that parliamentary elections will take place on September 21.

Kwasniewski also announced that he had signed into law a bill requiring all candidates for elective public office and senior positions in the government, judiciary or public media to reveal whether they had worked for or cooperated with intelligence services during the era of Communist rule from 1944 to 1990.

And Kwasniewski said that the elections will provide the public with an opportunity to express their view on Poland's efforts to join European institutions. "Next elections must bring a clear answer," Kwasniewski said, "not only about what each politician (does), but also about what each of us expects from Europe, and what and when one wants to give to this Europe."

Kwasniewski's speech marked the formal opening of the electoral campaign, although Poland's diverse political groups have already started widespread preparations for the contest.

Most public opinion polls have consistently found that the former communists, currently reorganized into the Social-Democratic party, which is a senior partner in the coalition government, are running neck-and-neck with an assembly of right-wing groups clustered around the Solidarity labor union. Each side has consistently attracted about 25 percent of support from nationwide samples.

They have been followed by the centrist Freedom Union, the leftist Labor Union and the Peasant Party, which is a junior member of the current coalition government. The support for each of them hovered around 10 percent.

The ruling Social Democrats launched their campaign two days ago with a press conference featuring Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who set the tone by claiming credit for Poland's economic successes during the last four years. "Changes went for the better in all spheres of social life," Cimoszewicz said, adding that "one has to be blind not to see them."

The left-wing party is well organized and disciplined. It has been supported by numerous labor and youth groups, and has enjoyed a relatively strong standing in the country's business community. The partly has adopted a slogan of reliability in policy decisions -- "we have kept our word" -- that appears designed to focus attention on specific issues, such as economic advance, unemployment or inflation that demonstrate successes, rather than more general political problems of historical and moral justice.

But those general problems provide the base for the right-wing political campaign. This is focused the combination of patriotic slogans and religious appeals, but its main thrust is on a rejection of all vestiges of communist past. In the opinion of many right-wing politicians and activists, the very involvement in the communist institutions and operations before 1989, when the old regime effectively collapsed, disqualifies the Social Democrats and their supporters from politics.

The Solidarity-led Electoral Action (AWS) consists of some 45 separate groups, with a great diversity of political programs and a whole spectrum of policy interests. It has been held together until now by a simple realization that none would be able to enter parliament and/or participate in government on its own.

But signs of potential internal conflict within AWS have recently emerged, with several groups vocally complaining about the centrally drafted lists of candidates. Some groups have complained that Solidarity is taking a disproportionate share of positions on the ballots. The union has denied this, but said that it is the strongest and the largest component of the assembly and entitled to a major share.

Several prominent centrist politicians, such as popular former foreign and finance minister Andrzej Olechowski, have recently announced their departure from the AWS, openly disagreeing about its program and the style of political campaign. Olechowski said in a public statement that the assembly is excessively populist and nationalistic.

Others complain about the AWS' close identification with and uncritical support for the Catholic Church. AWS has championed the ban on abortion, for example, with its leader Marian Krzaklewski recently declaring his support for a complete and unconditional ban on abortions.

The electoral campaign is certain to intensify in the coming weeks. But there are already serious concerns that it may narrowly focus on the infighting between those seen as maintaining lingering links to the communist regime and those advocating the final break with the past. There are fears that this type of campaign may merely exacerbate Poland's current social and economic problems by deepening rather than healing the long-existing cleavages.

Kwasniewski's reminder about the need to concentrate on political choices for Poland's future appears intended to put an accent on other, more pertinent issues. But it is far from certain whether this advice will be heeded by the public, not to speak about the politicians.