Poland has always been inordinately proud of itself and its long tradition of democracy, hallmarked by the enactment of the Constitution of 3 May 1792, the first written constitution in Europe.
Since 1989, eerily resembling the actual operations of the pre-Partition noble assembly, politics in Poland have more closely resembled a three ring circus - or a grudge match, complete with full-fledged fights breaking out in the Sejm.
With too many parties, strong interest groups and a series of coalitions, it is remarkable that Poland has advanced so quickly and relatively smoothly through the transitions period. However, it is with this latest political crisis that it has truly demonstrated its political maturity.
The UW (Freedom Union) and its leader, Leszek Balcerowicz, deserve kudos for demonstrating a refined and well executed political power play. By walking away from the coalition, the UW has essentially left the senior coalition partner, the AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action), twisting in the wind with the options of either bending over backwards or playing by the UW's rules or waiting it out and praying for a merciful death.
The AWS will now be hard pressed to run anything reminiscent of an efficient government, and all roads seem to point to early elections, more than likely in April 2001, which they are bound to lose.
30 months ago, the UW entered as a junior partner into a coalition with the right of centre AWS, itself a coalition of rightish parties. To call the partnership uneasy would be kind, but despite all the problems the government managed to ride out strikes and protests to implement unpopular social reforms and gain Poland's pole position in negotiations for EU accession.
While the UW would not stand much of a chance of winning a parliamentary election alone, rarely polling above 15 percent support, at least its support is consistent and it has managed to entrench several of its members in key cabinet posts and direct policies along its own platform. Additionally, several of its members are highly visible and respected in international circles.
The march toward the EU
Among them is Leszek Balcerowicz, who is largely credited with saving the Polish economy by dragging it into the free market system through a series of austerity measures, or "shock therapy" economic reforms, from 1990 to 1992.
On the whole, UW policy reflects its leader's harsh pragmatism: EU integration full steam ahead and public discontent be damned. Public discontent-particularly in respect to four key social reforms implemented within the spheres of health care, education, social security and municipal administration, and meant meant to sweep away the remains of the pre-1989 Communist system-was vocal and translated into declining support for the government and EU accession.
A Demoskop poll, conducted last autumn, showed that Poles thought the reforms ill-prepared and indicated that 80 percent were critical of the health care reform in particular, which introduced elements of a free market to the formerly free health care system.
By September 1999, nine months after implementation of the reforms began, public opinion polls showed that support for the pursuit of EU membership had fallen to 55 percent, as compared with 64 percent support the previous year and 70 percent two years earlier.
This resulted in steadily dropping support for the AWS, and Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek in particular, which hit record lows in every subsequent poll.
A CBOS (Public Opinion Polling Centre) poll taken in early September showed that 64 percent of respondents were critical of the man and his administration.
No way out?
The UW has managed to deflect the majority of this popular discontent, although they have firmly supported the harsh reforms deemed necessary to bring Poland in line with EU membership criteria. On the other hand, the Prime Minister, whose several offers to step down have been rejected, has had to endure the brunt of the public's wrath.
He is now going to remain stuck in his position because a new prime minister would require approval by a parliamentary vote, which now the AWS does not have enough deputies to secure. The primary charge leveled repeatedly against Bużek is weakness - that he has been unable to keep his AWS in check.
Several bills have been stalled in the lower house because a common course of action could not be agreed upon, and a no-confidence vote on Treasury Minister Emil Wasacz a few months ago, where 74 AWS deputies signed a motion calling for the minister's dismissal, did little to inspire confidence.
The one thing that all parties do seem to agree on is the goal of EU accession; the problem is how to go about doing it. In this matter, fiscal policy is the key. The UW gave the AWS a detailed list of bills in March, submitted by AWS deputies in the Sejm which, according to the UW, would harm the Polish economy.
The AWS is thus in a difficult position and has been largely left to hang, knowing that its popularity has dwindled to a record low of about 15 percent, compared with 40 percent currently enjoyed by the opposition.
A number of AWS deputies feel the need to try and court the public and start back-tracking on some of the more austere programmes, notably next year's proposed belt-tightening budget and tax cuts. These measures were proposed by Balcerowicz and are, of course, supported by the UW.
The UW's greatest advantage is its internal stability and unity, along with the prominence of several of its members. Illustrative of the almost disproportional power they wield is the incident early last November when Balcerowicz's threats to resign over delays in tax legislation caused the zloty to fall to a record low.
Political incorrectness - and deftness
The US-trained Balcerowicz has often courted unpopularity in the pursuit of principle and has frequently been accused, even by his own UW, of placing ideological rectitude above political pragmatism. A close aid commented that Balcerowicz "is a politician good at getting things done in extreme circumstances... [but] he is not so good when things are normal because he does not seek a consensus and he doesn't like to compromise."
He was mentioned as a candidate for recently vacant top jobs at the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But his pragmatism, so far, has been paying dividends.
Even with its mere 59 votes in the 460-seat parliament, the UW is politically in a better position than the AWS, which now controls 186 votes. The AWS is going to be spending its remaining time in power (by most accounts the longest it is expected to last is until next spring when the president will be able to dissolve it if, as is likely, it fails to pass the 2001 budget) fending off no-confidence votes and bargaining for backing on every legislative measure.
Meanwhile, the UW is free to criticise government action (or inaction), court the opposition,
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Analysts have been quick to assert that the coalition's collapse has rendered ambitions for an EU entry date of 2003 impossible. "It's the nail in the coffin for 2003," said Jacek Kucharczyk, an analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs, a private think tank. "We were already lagging behind and now the chances of catching up have gone completely."
As Central Europe's largest economy,
So it seems that the UW is emerging from this political skirmish with a strengthened hand. It has managed to withdraw scot-free from the most unpopular ruling government since 1989, leaving its former coalition partner holding the proverbial bag, and will more than likely manage to manoeuver its way into the next government.
The opposition has already stated that it will continue to implement those policies necessary to hustle Poland along the path to EU integration, and in almost any political grouping that will emerge, UW policies, and more than likely personnel, will play the leading role.
They have managed to become synonymous with stability and pragmatism, within and outside of Poland. It is certainly an admirable and clever stratagem for a minority party and one surely demonstrating a deftness not often seen in even the most established of Western democracies.
Joanna Rohozińska, 17 June 2000