Poland Steps Backward

September 22, 1993

The Polish voters did not on Sunday elect a return to communism, dictatorship and a command economy. What they sought, rather, was something like Western European social democracy. But they did this by giving power to politicians who used to be Communists. This was not an election to end all elections, but a traditional democratic response of voters in hard times, blaming those in power and throwing the rascals out.

That's a shame, because the "shock therapy" of Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka's government, following free market and austerity mandates of the International Monetary Fund, was working. Poland has Europe's fastest growing economy and plenty of growing pains. Some 15 percent of the work force lacks work. Inflation is down, but only to 35 percent. The average worker makes $200 a month, and does not buy the luxury goods abounding in shops for the new rich. And so Ms. Suchocka's Democratic Union won only 11 percent of the vote. An anti-Communist group that President Lech Walesa threw together got about 5 percent.

Campaigning to maintain the principle of reform, but to slow it down, brought Alexander Kwasniewski's Democratic Left Alliance in first place with some fifth of the votes. He is an unusual old Communist minister, in that he is under 40 and comes from the reformist wing of the party. Second place goes to the Peasant Party, which was the tame "non-Communist" party of Communist days. Those two groups will take over Poland's transition to capitalism and may harm it. They cannot restore communism and will not try. The election came, symbolically, two days after the last Soviet soldiers of occupation left Polish soil.

So the old Communists who got nowhere in Poland's first two free elections won the third. It is symptomatic of voter disillusion with capitalist reform in Eastern Europe. This happened in Lithuania last year. It is possible everywhere. Romania and Bulgaria are inching toward the free market under socialists who used to be Communists.

No matter how tough things are, the Communist era was not the good old days except for the ruling few. What is heartening about Poland and the prospect of a Kwasniewski government, however, is universal acceptance of the outcome and faith in the democratic process to contain the new rulers.

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