Polish Politics Begins

October 04, 1990

Poland was first of the Eastern European countries to go somewhat democratic. That leaves it less democratic than others. Its government was created by a deal, not an election. It is time for Poland to catch up and pull ahead. The period of heroism is over. Post-transition Polish politics will begin with the next election.

Lech Walesa, the charismatic founder of Solidarity trade union, has thrown his hat in the presidential ring. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the intellectual Solidarity prime minister, is expected to oppose him, and should. Out of this bitter split within a once-triumphant opposition movement, rather than from relics of 1920s parties, Poland's future politics should emerge.

This is put into place by the decision of President Wojciech Jaruzelski to step down as soon as the parliament can amend the constitution to allow an elected successor. Whether to elect that parliament before or after the next president, or simultaneously, is a major question. Democratic political theory calls for a fairly elected parliament first. The economic crisis cries out for a president with popular mandate as soon as possible. President Jaruzelski was appointed by a parliament that was apportioned among parties by agreement, after a partial election had discredited the previous agreement.

General Jaruzelski's place in history is large, but awaits definition in a more detached age. It was as a traditional Polish strong man that the armed forces chief in 1981 declared martial law, suppressed Solidarity, jailed its leaders, took over the Communist Party and declared the country saved. He was crushing the Polish soul by appeasing the Kremlin, or preserving it by keeping the Russians at bay, or both.

As the reins from Moscow lengthened in the Gorbachev era, President Jaruzelski's character changed. From 1986 on, he orchestrated the coming of freedom. He allowed Solidarity back. He conceded each defeat of the Communists, appointed Mr. Mazowiecki prime minister after Mr. Walesa refused the job and accepted Mr. Mazowiecki's dismissal of Communists from the cabinet. The general's ultimate service is to announce that he will fade away.

This denies Mr. Walesa the chance to challenge Mr. Jaruzelski. More likely it will allow Mr. Mazowiecki to challenge Mr. Walesa, who has sniped at him for indecision and other sins. Don't mourn the fracturing of Solidarity. It could not remain as government and opposition, union and management, actor and critic, for very long. The differences that divide Mr. Walesa and Mr. Mazowiecki now include how quickly to embrace market economics and how vengeful to be against Communists. As for Mr. Jaruzelski, he is 67 and enjoys enormous prestige in the army. He is going off stage when they let him, but not far away.

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