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Poland: Local Voters Favor Big Parties

Prague, 26 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Poland's two largest political groups, the Solidarity-led center-right coalition (AWS) and the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), have emerged victorious in recent local elections. The radically nationalist and conservative Catholic groups were the main losers.

The State Electoral Commission said last week (Oct. 23) that AWS won more than 16 percent (10,613 of 63,765 seats) of the vote for local councils, municipal governments and regional as well as provincial legislative assemblies.

SLD won almost 14 percent (8,840 seats), with the populist Social Alliance (the Peasant Party, the Union of Labor and the Pensioners Party) gaining about 7 percent (4,583 seats), the centrist Union of Freedom about 2 percent (1,146 seats), the nationalist Patriotic Movement 0.4 percent (256 seats) and the conservative Catholic Polish Family mere 0.2 percent (151 seats).

The turnout in the 11 October balloting exceeded 46 percent, much more than expected and higher than the level (34 percent) during local elections four years ago.

The elections followed a sweeping administrative reform which reduced the number of provinces from 49 to 16 and shifted decision-making power on local issues away from the central government and toward provincial, district and communal bodies. The reform was presented by both politicians and the media as effectively dismantling the communist-era centralist method of government. It is to be fully implemented in January 1999.

The victory of the two largest parties was widely expected. They presented the largest number of candidates, commanded better resources and were best organized.

Particularly impressive was the SLD's showing. The Leftist group won more votes than it did in the last parliamentary elections and increased its presence in the local administrative and legislative bodies.

The unexpected loser was the Union of Freedom (UW). The party was largely responsible for formulating Poland's so-called economic "shock" strategy which successfully introduced free market operations into the country's economy. It was also instrumental in pushing local government reforms through the parliament. But the UW was apparently seen by the voters as arrogantly technocratic and responsible for the pain inflicted on the large sector of the population during economic changes.

Most important, the vote affirmed a popular rejection of the extremist groups, whether nationalistic or religious, showing that their constant clamor for recognition has failed to win even a respectable modicum of popular support.

It is still unclear which party or group of parties will actually take over the levers of power in particular provinces or regions. The final determination will develop through a variety of different local coalitions.

It may be expected, however, that the AWS will tend to replicate in most cases its national government coalition with the Union of Freedom, while the SLD will look for cooperation with the populist Social Alliance.

But it is already increasingly apparent that Poland's politics are gradually moving toward a kind of polarization of parties and groups through the evolution of two distinct blocs: one based on the Solidarity-led center-right, the other on the post-communist dominated center-left. This trend had already emerged in the parliamentary ballot last year. The local vote has further confirmed that tendency.

All this may have a major impact on the presidential election in the year 2000 and the parliamentary election in the following year.