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Poland: President Supports Government Reform

By Bogdan Turek and Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski have given his support to a plan of changing the way Poland is governed, in a decision certain to affect the country's politics and likely to influence reforms in other countries in the region.

Addressing a nationwide television audience yesterday, Kwasniewski said that he agreed to let the center-right government postpone local councils elections from June until September, effectively delaying the constitutionally mandated date of the ballot, and defying his leftist political allies.

The government has said that the postponement will greatly help its plan for a sweeping decentralization of powers and funding, saving funds and bringing Poland close to the European Union standards.

The plan envisages replacing the current administratively weak 49 provinces with 12 strong and better-funded ones. It also provides for setting up some 300 mid-level, locally elected administrative units, operating between local self-government councils and provinces. The new setup is designed to strengthen the powers of the locally elected governments, giving them considerable authority in introducing changes in health care, education and many other fields. It also transfers major spending prerogatives from the central government to the provinces and local councils. The plan will have to be approved by Parliament. It is tentatively scheduled to go into effect January 1, 1999.

The left-wing opposition, consisting of former Communist and peasant parties, has strongly opposed the postponement and criticized the reform plan as poorly prepared. Kwasniewski was a junior minister in the last Communist government, and subsequently served as top leader of the post-Communist party.

Kwasniewski's announcement came after he held a series of meetings with government officials, leaders of all political parties and representatives of various local self-government bodies.

Kwasniewski said that he made the decision "with difficulty," because it ran against the wishes of his political supporters. But, he hinted that his choice might have reflected an apparent understanding reached by various groups that major decisions should, in the future, involve both supporters and opponents of the current government, particularly enhancing the standing of the presidency.

The planned reform, Kwasniewski said, "provides an opportunity for joint activity and cooperation between the opposition and the coalition, between the government and the president, it expresses the joint desires of those who are concerned with this reform."

Until recently, Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, a long-time anti-Communist activist, have found it difficult to work together. This may change somewhat now.

By giving support to the government plan, Kwasniewski may have disappointed his leftist supporters. But, this disappointment may be only temporary, because at least some of the leftist groups have already accepted the principle of administrative reform, merely arguing that it should be implemented in a slightly different form than that proposed by the government. The post-Communists had proposed a bill to create 17, rather than 12 provinces, for example.

There is little doubt, however, that Kwasniewski has won points among the centrist groups and local government activists. This may become politically important at the time of the next presidential elections. Kwasniewski is almost certain to run for a second term.

The prospective changes in the Polish administrative system could also influence reforms in neighboring countries. Eight years ago, Poland embarked on an ambitious program of economic reform, introducing market rules. Those changes were heralded then as revolutionary. They have influenced similar changes in the regional economies.

Today, Poland is once again embarking on an unprecedented major administrative reform aimed at bringing the country closer to Western models. Many other countries in the region aspire to integration with Western Europe. Some of them are in dire need of changes in the way they are governed. The Polish reformist drive is certain to be closely watched by others.