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Poland: Analysis From Washington -- A Return To A Different Future

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The victory of former Communists in the Polish parliamentary elections on Sunday is only the latest in a series of such electoral triumphs in the former Soviet bloc. Some have seen this development as presaging a return to the past, but increasingly analysts argue that it points to a very different future.

The Democratic Left Alliance -- which is led by and consists largely of former communists -- won 44.9 percent of the vote in Polish parliamentary elections, a figure that will guarantee the group a majority in the lower house of parliament and that will give it the right to form a government.

What made the Polish outcome especially striking was the simultaneous electoral collapse of Solidarity, the group which led the fight to overthrow the communist system there but which in the current elections failed to attract enough support even to qualify for a single representative in parliament.

And just as has been true in this and other cases when former communists have won elections after being out of power, including the recent victory of Arnold Ruutel in Estonia or Algirdas Brazauskas in Lithuania earlier this year, this victory of the left in Poland has led some to see these results as presaging a restoration of communism.

Such predictions are almost certainly wrong.

First, the parties have genuinely changed. There are undoubtedly some in the new left parties founded after the collapse of communism who would like to restore the arrangements that existed prior to that time, but they are an ever smaller minority. But more important, the parties of which they are members now are fundamentally different than the communist parties of the past.

In many respects, the Communist Party was very much a party of a new type. It was not interested in electoral success, it did not acknowledge the right of other parties to exist or at least to compete for power, and it was organized in such a way that it largely swallowed the state rather than competed for influence in it.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, some of the old communists withdrew from political life, but those who wanted to remain politically active have largely adapted themselves to the new reality. Consequently, the parties that they have formed are more like those they are competing with than the organizations of which they used to be members. And that has no small effect on the behavior of their memberships.

Second, the system has changed. In a competitive democratic environment, the communists have had to compete. And to do so effectively, they have had to adopt programs and push ideas that will attract the largest number of voters. They cannot, in cases where they have been out of power and then returned, rely on the power of the state machine to ensure their victories.

The leaders of these parties understand that even if they wanted to go back to the past, the economic and political changes in countries where the return of ex-communists to positions of the most senior leadership has taken place make it difficult if not impossible for them to pursue that goal either openly or even covertly. Indeed, in spite of their own views, many of these ex-communists may be forced to behave more democratically than some of the nationalists.

And third, the reasons parties of the left have returned to power have less to do with a desire to form any dictatorship of the proletariat than with popular concerns about the need for increased social welfare spending in countries that have experienced economic difficulties.

This third reason is certainly the most significant. All too often in the post-communist countries, leaders of the center and right have pursued economic policies that have resulted in the short term in economic hardship for the population. They have often done so at the urging of Western governments who believe that only such radical changes can serve to make the return to communism impossible.

But political parties who carry out such programs can hardly expect to gain popular support from those who have suffered economically as a result, unless the parties involved are able to mobilize the population for nationalistic or other reasons. And if other parties, including those of the ex-communists, espouse social-welfare programs to help the population, the latter are more likely to attract support.

Parties led by former communists often have been in the best position to exploit popular anger at governments and parties that have ignored the immediate needs of the population not only because they have always had a redistributionist ideology, but also because they have a tradition of better organization.

The victories of the ex-communists then do not point to any complete return to the past but rather to a future in which parties of the center and right will need to do a better job in elaborating policies and programs that will attract the population to their side even as they pursue broader reforms.

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