The Uncertain Poles

October 29, 1991

The most devastating result in Poland's first free parliamentary election in 44 years was the massive indifference of the public. Only 40 percent of eligible Poles bothered to vote. So much for the freedom to choose, the freedom for which so many Poles suffered and died under totalitarian dictatorship.

What the 40 percent wanted, or what the other 60 percent scorned, is unclear. Solidarity was weakened, shattered into fragments so that each of its off-shoot parties got less than one-tenth of the vote. The experiment in free market enterprise was set back by voters dispirited by the austerity and disruption of abrupt economic change. Discredited Communists, running under other party names, received some 21 percent of the vote. They will not be part of a ruling coalition but will be a key element in the opposition.

Of some 69 parties contesting, 19 apparently will sit in the 460-seat Sejm, or lower house. The Democratic Union -- Solidarity defectors led by former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki -- seemed to come in first, but with only 12 percent of partially counted votes, putting it a shade ahead of a party of former Communists and a little better than a party traditionally allied with Communists. A party backed by the Catholic Church hierarchy took about 9 percent; so much for the threat of a religious monolith replacing the Communists. Since several of the splinters have Solidarity origins, a coalition in broad descent from the Solidarity government is most likely.

But the confusion in parliament points to strong leadership by President Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity union leader, who pledges both to respect the results and to carry out the free market reforms to which he is committed. After two years of such reforms, two million of the 17 million Polish workers do not have jobs, and most of those who do lost more purchasing power to inflation than they gained from wage increases.

Mr. Walesa is right to stick to his purpose. Nearly a half-century of Communist tyranny, rigidity and incompetence did more harm than could be corrected in two years, but the direction of change is right. The Polish engine is starting to go. Mr. Walesa can turn the throttle up or down for the short-term amelioration of distress, but ought not to turn it off. For those who had hoped the first free parliamentary election would render his personal leadership less important, the results are terribly disappointing. Mr. Walesa is clearly more important than he was before Sunday.

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