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Poland: Government Embarks On Decentralizing Reform

Prague, 10 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last week (Feb. 6) the Polish parliament began to debate a package of bills designed to change the way the country is being administered by increasing the power of locally elected government. If adopted, the change is certain to have a major effect on Poland's politics and bring the country in line with European Union governmental standards.

Proposed by the government, the bills change the existing structures of provincial government and create a new level of locally elected government, providing all of them with many functions of central government and giving them half of its tax revenues. The goal is to decentralize government and make it more democratic.

In the first instance, the proposed changes call for reducing the number of provinces from 49 to 12. Within the new enlarged provinces, power will belong to elected assemblies and to their chairmen, who will act as provincial chief executives. The assemblies will have final say in decisions affecting economic development and police, although they will have no right to pass laws. The new provinces are to control up to 30 percent of the income tax and a large proportion of the VAT tax raised on their territory.

The bills will also create a new lower level of government, consisting of some 300 or so "powiats" or counties. These are to administer different aspects of state welfare, including health programs and education at secondary levels. Primary schools will be the responsibility of some 2,500 municipalities. The central government will continue to set standards and basic policies in those areas, however.

Justifying the proposals, government officials argue that the decentralizing changes will make local officials more accountable to the electorate, more efficient in administering the resources and less corrupt.

The proposed package makes a radical break with the long-established practice of centralized control over decision-making on most issues affecting public life, in which provincial assemblies have been powerless, provincial administrators were but representatives of the central government and the public have been left on the outside.

Introducing fewer and stronger provinces will make Poland's administration relatively similar to the standards prevailing in some European Union (EU) countries. Poland is currently on the verge of opening membership negotiations with the EU, hoping to join at the beginning of the next century.

The proposed changes have stirred considerable opposition among various political groups. Particularly critical has been the Peasant Party, afraid of losing political patronage it currently enjoys in small rural communities and smaller towns. But the planned changes have also been attacked by some nationalist groups within the ruling center-right coalition out of fear that the creation of strong provincial regions could encourage their direct cooperation with foreign countries. The nationalists are particularly concerned about possibly growing links between Germany and western Polish provinces.

In addition, the plans have come under fire from officials in the current provinces. Some of them have already begun organizing to fight any change demoting their political and administrative status.

The issue of reform is certain to dominated Poland's politics for months to come. Its outcome is still uncertain, although the current government appears determined to push it through.

But this does not diminish the essential significance of the move. It marks the biggest administrative and political shake-up undertaken until now in any post-Communist country. There is reason to assume that if the proposed change is successfully implemented in Poland, it may serve as an example to similar government reforms in other countries of Central Europe.