Prague, 18 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Poles will cast ballots this Sunday in a parliamentary election likely to provide a political watershed, with possible implications extending beyond the country's borders.
The contest involves two large electoral alliances, the post-communist Democratic Left (SLD) and the anti-communist Right (AWS) centered on the Solidarity labor union. It involves, too, several smaller parties, the most prominent of these being the centrist Freedom Union, the non-communist leftist Labor Union, the Peasant Party, the radically nationalist Movement for the Renovation of Poland and the newly formed Party of Pensioners and Retirees.
There are also a few minor groups among the contestants, but these have little or no chance of winning any seats in the parliament. There is a 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament.
At stake there are 460 seats in the Sejm (the lower chamber) and 100 seats in the Senate. There are more than 6,600 candidates running for the Sejm and 519 for the Senate.
The electoral campaign has been relatively peaceful, as most groups maintain basically similar views on several important issues facing the country. Among these is an almost general agreement that Poland should make major efforts to join such Western institutions as the European Union and NATO.
There is also an agreement among all competitors that the country should move toward market economy, although some groups prefer that this opening be gradual and controlled while others press for a speedy resolution of such problems as privatization of state assets and modernization of enterprises.
But there is little doubt about major differences separating particular groups. These differences have tended to focus on two sets of issues: one related to attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, its mission and its teaching; and the other concerned with past political developments, in particular the communist experience.
The right-wing AWS, an umbrella group of some 30 or more small nationalist and Christian parties led by the increasingly populist Solidarity labor union, has closely identified with the church. Its leaders have consistently supported views expressed by the church officials, particularly on the politically explosive issue of abortion. The AWS also has received clear, and open, support from the church hierarchy.
The Peasant Party and the Movement for the Renovation of Poland have also aligned themselves with the pro-church orientation.
The Freedom Union has been much more restrained in its attitude toward the church's teaching. Many of its leaders and activists have supported liberal regulation of abortions and cooperated with the post-communist SLD in preparing a new constitution in which relations between the state and the church were treated in separate categories.
The SLD and the Labor Union have been seen as insisting on the separation of the church from the state, opting fo primacy of lay institutions in the legal system and the government.
More important, and politically immediately significant, is the division between those groups which are marked with vestiges of communist past and those which have always been anti-communist.
The former communists are found in a variety of groups, including many regional and trade labor unions, many state bureaucrats and a considerable number of newly rich entrepreneurs.
During the four years of the post-communist dominated government, most posts in the administration, the justice system, the armed forces and the security services have been filled by the followers of the SLD and its allies. Likewise, the SLD-led government has granted licenses for television networks to its supporters and has provided them with opportunities to profit from privatization of state companies. Political opponents of even sympathizers of other groups have been simply removed or ignored.
But these practices have reinforced the long-existing, anti-communist tendencies among large sectors of the population, turning the issue of the communist past into a major element in the election.
The recent findings of nationwide public opinion polls show SLD and AWS running neck-in-neck (29-32 percent), with the former apparently having a slight edge. They are followed by the Freedom Union (about 12 percent), the Movement for the Renovation of Poland the Peasant Party (about 7-9 percent), the Labor Union (5 percent) and the Retirees (also about 5 percent).
If those percentages do not change, Poland's new parliament will be hopelessly divided, making the formation of a stable government exceedingly difficult.