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Vol 2, No 29
4 September 2000
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The Serious and the Ridiculous
Wojtek Kosć


The deadline to submit the 100,000 constitutionally required signatures that warrant the official registration of presidential candidates in Poland was Friday, 25 August 2000. Of the initial 21 contenders, eight did not even come close to that number. Those that did, however, brought their supporters' signatures without much publicity, except for the acting president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

But Kwaśniewski had good reason to put on a little show. His electoral committee gathered over 1.7 million signatures, whereas his closest rival, Andrzej Olechowski, had only about 200,000. Of course, in the eyes of the State Election Commission, both figures are in a certain sense equal, as the Commission only checks the first 100,000 signatures. However, the numbers do tell something about the chances of each candidate. Or, in other words, they indicate the gap that Kwaśniewski's main rivals must close in order to compete. In fact, Kwaśniewski losing is almost out of the question, and this begs asking if anyone will even make it to the second round.

No real contenders

As for now, according to the recent polls, the answer is no, with turnout expectations around 80 per cent (compared to just over 60 per cent five years ago). Kwaśniewski enjoys 64 per cent support, Andrzej Olechowski has ten per cent, Marian Krzaklewski has eight per cent, Jarosław Kalinowski six per cent and Lech Wałęsa has three per cent. The rest can count on three per cent or less, at best.

The presidential race, however, is not only a race between personalities, even though that aspect of candidates is played up in their campaigns. Behind each candidate stands a political party or group with a specific worldview. And, while there will be only one winner, those who lose may just as well do good for the political formations they represent — especially if they manage to do well at the polls. Therefore, a look at the competitors gives quite a comprehensible and complete picture of Poland's political life.

Judging by the course of the presidential campaign, it is clear that only three candidates are serious when they speak about their programs for the next five years: the acting president and his two main opponents — Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS) leader Marian Krzaklewski and the difficult-to-describe Andrzej Olechowski.

It has been a tough year for Krzaklewski so far, as he has had to struggle in the Sejm with his party's own MPs, who have often shown a lack of discipline. He has also had to cope with a coalition crisis that eventually led to its breakup anyway, playing behind-the-scenes games with the AWS main parties that did not quite see him as a joint AWS candidate. But he finally established himself as the right-wing presidential hopeful, risking unpredictable political calamities that loom every time new polls are released.

The eight per cent he can now count on would be a disaster for a man who, not that long ago, led his party to a victory in parliamentary elections. Moreover, such a poor result could threaten his position as AWS leader and even endanger the AWS itself, as those who saw him as an unfavourable presidential candidate may gain new ground for criticism.

Playing the populism card

The difference is that such criticism may be effective this time. Notwithstanding those obstacles, Marian Krzaklewski is leading a lively campaign and seems confident in his success. Apart from the usual repertoire of promises — that, by the way, are common and cliché for all the candidates (who act as if those who vote suffer from amnesia), he strongly plays the general enfranchisement card — an act with much popular, if not populist, appeal, cooked up by AWS in July. Under this plan, it is projected that around ten million Poles will get apartments, land and privatization vouchers for free.

Treating Aleksander Kwaśniewski as his main political and ideological opponent, Krzaklewski seems to have overlooked the threat of Andrzej Olechowski, who is currently ahead of him in the polls. Olechowski, who is the former minister of foreign affairs and was a Communist Party economic expert at the Round Table talks in 1989, makes a colorful figure and, surprisingly for many, quite a credible presidential candidate, even though it is hard to state who constitutes his political camp in the campaign.

He is supported by a faction of the AWS, led by Maciej Jankowski and by the Freedom Union — though it has yet to be made official — whose leader, Leszek Balcerowicz, said recently that he would vote for Olechowski. In ads that are run on Polsat TV, Olechowski is presented as a man with concrete ideas and a candidate for liberal circles that would probably vote for a Freedom Union candidate, if there was one.

Olechowski has repeatedly stressed that he is a candidate that should not be associated with either the AWS or the Social Democrats. When asked which candidate he would support in the second round, if he did not make it there, he replied: "First I'll tell you what candidate I won't support. I won't support Aleksander Kwaśniewski." It is very likely that he will not support Krzaklewski, either.

With his calm, steady campaign, Olechowski makes a good impression in the media, especially when many celebrities and businessmen have openly voiced their support for him. Among business circles he gets as much as 60 per cent of the votes.

However, he is far from being a candidate for the masses. Even Krzaklewski is closer to them and will probably get more votes than Olechowski in the end.

Another serious campaigner

Polish Peasants' Party (PSL) candidate Jaroslaw Kalinowski is also running a serious campaign, but his chances are slim. He obviously knows that he cannot compete with the three major contenders, and, under a disguise of a presidential program, he is drumming up support for his party, which suffered a significant drop in the polls, as well as further establishing himself as its leader.

His campaign is directed mainly at PSL's electorate, ie farmers. So it is not surprising that Kalinowski makes appearances at village festivities, and, when he came to Warsaw last week, he gave a speech at the Main Agricultural School (SGGW). He is fourth in the polls and the last of the candidates campaigning seriously, whatever their primary goals may be; be they becoming president or strengthening the position of their parties.

Also, all candidates seem to be conducting fairly moderate campaigns, wisely avoiding discrediting their opponents. They all know that negative campaigning will do them no good, and, beyond that, Kwaśniewski, with his comfortable lead, has no reason to run an aggressive campaign.

Enough is enough

Sadly, Lech Wałęsa does obviously not know when to say "Enough!" He is running on behalf of the fading magic of his past and the equally bleak prospects of his party, the Christian Democrats of the Third Rzeczpospolita. His confident remarks that he is "sure of victory" sound pathetic to both his opponents and those who supported him in the 1990 presidential elections. Wałęsa, who lost five years ago to Kwaśniewski by only 1.5 per cent, is likely to get a mere three per cent of the votes. His recent trial and subsequent acquittal by the Lustration Court did not change his position at all.

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The remaining eight candidates bring more color than anything else to the election. The only exception is Janusz Korwin-Mikke, leader of Real Politics Union, whose fiery speeches make people smile, but not vote. However, there is still a great deal of work ahead for him, if he wants to equal Screaming Lord Sutch. His evergreen ideas (this is his third presidential election) are to bring back the death penalty and introduce an income tax of three per cent for everyone.

Every now and then, however, such contenders do make headlines. Andrzej Lepper, leader of farmers' trade union Samoobrona, was arrested two weeks ago, but he did not hesitate to make a little show of it. His supporters sang patriotic songs about how Polish people are repressed (obviously, by the European Union) and brought him bunches of flowers. General Tadeusz Wilecki also caused a little uproar two weeks ago, when he praised Hitler's housing policy.

Breaking tradition

Significantly, in this year's presidential elections there is — apart from the traditional fragmentation on the right wing (with Krzaklewski, Wałęsa and Wilecki all running, as well as Jan Łopuszański, who is running under an anti-EU flag, and Jan Olszewski, who claims Poland still needs rebuilding) — one extra candidate on the left. Piotr Ikonowicz of the Polish Socialist Party paints himself as a true alternative for those tired of economic and political transformations. Just as his right-wing counterparts, however, he will be lucky to get more than one per cent of the vote.

The 2000 presidential campaign has only begun, but with the way votes are likely to be cast, it is doubtful whether it will be as sharp as five years ago. The acting President has nearly sealed his bid for a second term. His two closest rivals can only hope to reach the second round, which would at least save them from embarrassment. But, in real terms, without strong parliamentary support, there is little a president can do. So, the whole campaign boils down to personality.

Another sign of the times is that voting for this or that candidate is slowly ceasing to be a choice between what is left after Solidarity or Communism.

Wojtek Kosć, 1 September 2000

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Germany's Radical Right

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Slovenian Political Heat

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Polish Presidential Election

Mel Huang
Estonian Military Confusion

Delia Dumitrica
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Czech Media Privitisation

Sam Vaknin
Feudalism and Communism

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the best-selling Hungarian author

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Hungarian Corruption

Andrew James Horton
Yugoslav Film

Delia Dumitrica
Hungarians in Romania

Andrew Stroehlein
Czechs and Germans

Sam Vaknin
Post-Communist Disappointment

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