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Vol 2, No 36
23 October 2000
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Poland's off-centre politicsOff Balance
Andrew Cave

For those people who last looked in on Polish politics in the era of Lech Wałęsa, the recent presidential elections must have been a bit of a surprise. For Poles and political commentators the result was all too predictable. Judging by the public bloodletting on the Right and the Left's continuing consolidation in the aftermath of the election, one might conclude that Poland is set for a repeat performance of 1993, when the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) swung into power, decimating Solidarity and removing the right wing from Polish politics.

From spy to star

There was, however, one surprise result to come out the election which could deliver Poland from this fate: the reappearance of Andrzej Olechowski. Previously Poland's finance minister and prior to that a secret service spy during the Communist era, he ran as an independent candidate and came second, with just over 17% of the vote. Speculation abounds as to what Olechowski will do next and whether he will be able to sustain his recent success without the patronage of a political party.

One thing is certain: Olechowski's success has offered a real possibility for the activation of the centre ground in Polish politics. In his own words, Olechowski's success demonstrates that "the man on the street supports liberal economic solutions with conservatism in other fields."[1] Olechowski contends that the two main political groupings have failed to offer this mixture and has called on smaller centrist parties to regroup and campaign under a banner of "political competence and moderation" at the next general election.

This is not mere hyperbole from an ego swelled by a good election. Olechowski is right to draw these conclusions; it is only a shame that it has taken this long for a politician to come forward and express them. The Polish electorate is not predisposed to the polarisation of politics between Left and Right. Yet, until recently, that was the only conclusion one could draw from trends in Polish politics. In an analysis of the Polish electorate made by Aleksander Smolar in 1997, it was found that "the majority of Poles show [an] inclination towards the centre and tend to avoid the extremes, yet the two main political formations are situated far from the centre"[2]; at the same time, centre parties have become increasingly weak.

A U-shaped system

On the face of it, the two main political blocks in Poland are remarkably similar. Both rely on trade union patronage, which limits the scope of progressive economic policy and produces a U-shaped system, whereby both ends of the political spectrum are similarly bound by the protectionist tendencies of the labour movement. Political affinity in this area has forced the two main blocks to distinguish themselves on socio-cultural issues, such as religion and recent history.

Whilst religion and the socio-cultural issues connected to Poland's strong sense of Catholicism remain important, the election results demonstrated that the Polish electorate does not bring these issues to the ballot box. This is nothing new, and it is surprising that the Solidarity Electoral Action's (AWS) presidential candidate, Marian Krzaklewski, had not reviewed some history before running a negative campaign focused on Catholicism and his opponent's Communist past.

When people voted down the last Solidarity government in 1993, it was largely because they opposed the idea of government meddling in social issues such as abortion. This does not mean that these issues are not important to the Polish people; however, it does suggest that the Polish electorate is considerably more sophisticated than its politicians.

And just because the two main blocks in Polish politics put forward union-friendly legislation to the detriment of the private sector does not mean that the private sector takes a back seat role in the success of the Polish economy. In the first six years of transition, the private sector came to represent 63% of GDP, with over 2.3 million small and medium-sized enterprises starting up. The private sector has driven the Polish economy, but the increasing burden of social legislation has cut into profits and curbed growth. Poland's public sector continues to run at massive losses and is still too large, whilst the private sector foots the bill for labour laws and a welfare system that the country cannot afford.

Out of touch

The only conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that Poland's rulers are out of touch with their electorate. As Olechowski points out, evidence suggests that most Poles are in favour of liberal market reforms; an increasing number of people have shifted to the private sector and are conservative on other issues but moderate enough not to vote for candidates who use religion and history for political capital. Unfortunately, this analysis rules out all of the existing parties in Polish politics. Leszek Balcerowicz recently summed this up when he said that the Polish people have two choices: "the Socialist Right and the Socialist Left;" or a second vision which places emphasis on "equalising opportunity, especially in education" and finishes the job that was started ten years ago, namely, economic liberalisation.[3]

The second choice is not yet available to the electorate, and many people doubt that it will be by the time of next year's general election. Olechowski has thrown his own political future into doubt by rejecting the suggestion that he head a new party of the centre. Instead, he has cast himself as kingmaker by writing an open letter to the leaders of the two most centrist political parties, the Freedom Union (UW) and the Conservative Peoples League (SKL), calling on them to capitalise on his electoral success and enter into a pact to fight on the centre ground in the next election.

UW leader Leszek Balcerowicz has welcomed the proposition, but Jan Rokita, leader of the SKL, whilst receiving the suggestion "warmly," declined Olechowski's invitation. Rokita must be still holding out hopes that SKL's consolidation of conservative parties within the AWS could take hold of the levers of power by surviving next year's electoral defeat. Rokita is a shrewd politician and is unlikely to jump out of the AWS at the first opportunity, but his current stance is perhaps too optimistic and overestimates the SKL's position within the AWS.

A potent aphrodisiac

It is difficult to see how the SKL could remain part of a political grouping that may soon include the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland, a right-wing party which is against the market economy and membership in the European Union. Rokita's comments also ignore the fact that a number of SKL party members actively campaigned for Olechowski in the presidential elections.

The UW has no alternative to Olechowski's proposal. It ended its coalition agreement with the AWS earlier this year, and the UW's own party advisors have warned that the party will do very badly in the next election if it does not develop policies in areas other than economic liberalisation. The UW is rightly perceived as being the party of economic liberalism, which is fine to a point, but without the corresponding social policies the party has become marginalized. The UW needs the conservative and moderate Catholic flavour of the SKL to broaden its electoral appeal.

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Olechowski has no need to create a new political party as some people have suggested. Poland's political system has evolved too far to support the emergence of a brand new party. The component parts of a centre alliance already exist in the form of the SKL and the UW. The SKL was only established after Jan Rokita left the UW in 1997, together with most of the party's conservative wing. Since its formation, the SKL has been busy consolidating Poland's conservative parties, the members of which may not be overly enthusiastic about getting into bed with the Freedom Union. But the UW is looking for a new leader, and electoral success is a potent aphrodisiac for any political marriage.

Jan Rokita has also pointed out one further problem with a centre alliance; it would contravene the Constitution, which states that only political parties and not alliances can stand for election. It would not be too difficult to get around this rule, and if a credible alliance or coalition could be assembled, it would stand a good chance in next year's general election.

The position of the SLD seems unassailable at the moment. But this is as much a reaction against the current government as it is support for the SLD. The leader of the SLD, Leszek Miller, is hugely unpopular, and it is only a matter of time before the electorate recognises that voting for the SLD will put Mr Miller in the prime minister's post. If this can be combined with the momentum of Olechowski's recent electoral result, the centre of Polish politics could re-emerge as a major political force.

If political leaders fail to take advantage of this opportunity, a significant part of the electorate will face a similar problem at next year's elections to the one they would have faced recently had it not been for Mr Olechowski; "nie ma na kogo głoswaç," no one to vote for.

Andrew Cave , 16 October 2000

Moving on:


1. Gazeta Wyborcza, 14 October 2000.

2. Smolar, in Wesołowski, Polish Sociological Review 3, 1997, p 119.

3.Gazeta Wyborcza, 14 October 2000.


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