152. The 1997 Parliamentary Elections In Poland: How Much DÉJA VU?

By
Krzysztof Jasiewicz

Observers of Polish Politics may feel a strong sense of déja vu. Like the historic election of 1989 which precipitated the collapse of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, Solidarity emerged victorious from the parliamentary elections of September 1997, a showdown between the former Communists and the Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS). The AWS, a coalition of the trade union "Solidarity" and several minor parties, won decidedly, with 33.8% of the votes and 201 of the 460 seats in the Sejm. The post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) finished second with 27.1% of the votes and 164 seats. A distant third was the Freedom Union (UW) party, dominated by the former Solidarity intellectual elite, with 13.4% of the votes and 60 seats. It was followed by the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), the 1993-97 coalition partner of the SLD (7.3% and 27 seats), and the Movement for the Rebirth of Poland, another party with Solidarity roots (5.6% and 6 seats). The remaining two seats were won by the Silesian Germans, exempt from the 5% threshold as a national minority. Among those who didn't clear the threshold was the leftist Labor Union (UP) with 4.7%.

The electoral history of the young Polish democracy looks like a roller-coaster: Solidarity won by a landslide in 1989, only to lose badly in 1993, and then wins again four years later. Conventional wisdom attributed the 1993 defeat to the hardships of economic reforms and the longing for the social safety net of the bygone Communist era. But if that was true, what accounts for the remarkable comeback in 1997? The answer is simply that none of the elections have been about the economy.

During its four years in power, the SLD/PSL coalition sailed smoothly, avoiding major collisions with public sentiment, in part by deferring decisions on controversial issues like health care and pension reform. It got credit for improved conditions in the Polish economy: climbing economic growth, shrinking unemployment, and decreasing inflation rates. While many experts argued that this was nothing more than the positive effects of Leszek Balcerowicz's "shock therapy" of 1990-91, the public remained indifferent to this interpretation, as indicated by opinion polls and voting behavior.

If a party in power loses an election, it usually can blame no one but itself for failed policies and ill-conceived electoral campaigns. But the SLD increased both its share of the popular vote (from 12.0% in 1991, to 20.4% in 1993, and to 27.1% in 1993%) and its actual number of supporters (from 1.3 million, to 2.8 million, to over 3.5 million, respectively). But it was not enough to win, even against a foe which did not particularly gain in popular support. Remarkably, the absolute numbers (4 million plus) for AWS in 1997 were comparable to the combined vote for the parties, now constituting the AWS, when they ran independently in 1991 and 1993. This might run counter to factual reasoning, but data collected in post-election surveys and public opinion polls strongly suggest that pro-Solidarity sentiments have remained relatively stable throughout the 1990's.

What, than, accounted for the change of government in Poland? The most obvious factor is the stunning defeat of the SLD's coalition partner, the PSL, which fell from a 15.4% share in 1993 to a mere 7.3%. This political party of Poland's numerous peasants and farmers (arguably the only true, class-based party in Poland and perhaps in Central Europe) suffered mostly from the failure of its leadership-particularly its now-former Chair and two-times Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak-to recognize that politics in a democracy is more than the art of personal intrigue. The SLD's gains were erased by the PSL's losses, and the old coalition was doomed.

Another obvious reason was the return of the many parties, factions, and splinter groupings typical of the Polish political landscape in the mid-1990's to the Solidarity umbrella. After the humiliating defeat in the 1993 election-when the parties of the so-called right, most with Solidarity roots, ran against one another and won only a handful of seats in the Sejm despite collecting about 40% of the popular vote-they overcame their personal animosities to field a joint slate of candidates.

Both the PSL defeat and the Solidarity reunification should be viewed as elements of a broader process of re-polarization in Polish politics. Ever since the establishment of the new democratic regime, the political field in Poland has been defined by two, major cleavages which cut across party lines. There is a socio-economic division between neo-liberal, free market/free enterprise policies and state interventionism in the economy with a welfare state-type social policy. An ideological split exists between confessional and secular visions of political order and is closely entwined with opposing stands on the issues of decommunization and assessing Poland's Communist past. Unlike Western Europe, the language of Polish politics defines the latter cleavage as the left-right dimension.

The socio-economic cleavage, no matter how deep and important for shaping government policies, remains a poor predictor of voting behavior. Pro-reform and pro-market oriented groups can be found among the constituencies of all the major parties as can proponents of a tightly-regulated welfare state. It is ideology, not economy, that defines the voting behavior of millions of voters.

This, indeed, is déja vu. If there has been a see-saw effect in Polish electoral politics, it is the oscillation between polarization and fragmentation. The political polarization in Poland throughout the 1980's, reflected in the outcome of the 1989 election, ran along precisely the same ideological cleavage that re-emerged in the mid-1990's. Then came the fragmentation of 1990-91, from which the left side of the political continuum recovered much sooner. The post-Solidarity right remained fragmented even after the sobering defeat in 1993. They failed to agree on a common candidate in the 1995 presidential election, dividing bitterly over the assessment of the incumbent President and former leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa. The post-Communist left, without slightest hesitation, supported its leader, Aleksander Kwasniewski.

From this point on, the momentum shifted towards polarization. Voters, unmindful of politicians' wobbling, rushed to join one of the two major camps. Those of Catholic and/or anti-Communist orientation rallied behind Walesa, while Kwasniewski garnered more support among voters with secular views and a willingness to disregard the issue of Poland's Communist past. This polarization has characterized Polish politics since the 1995 election.

The AWS emerged in the wake of this election (narrowly won by Kwasniewski), re-assembled with surprising political skill by Marian Krzaklewski, Walesa's successor as Chair of Solidarity. It confronted the SLD/PSL coalition for the first time in the May 1997 constitutional referendum, opposing the draft accepted by the Sejm for ideological reasons, labeling it "Soviet," "Stalinist," and "foreign." It lost this standoff by a slim margin (45% to 53%).

The AWS victory in the September election was the result of two factors. First, the narrow defeat in the referendum mobilized the AWS constituency. Second, the constitutional referendum was collectively supported by the SLD, the PSL, and the Freedom Union and Labor Union parties. In the 1997 election, however, these parties ran independently, splitting the popular vote. In addition, the three latter parties lost support due to the growing polarization of the polity. Like the 1995 presidential election, the leading contenders benefitted from a bandwagon effect, with many voters chosing at the last moment to vote for either the AWS or the SLD, even if it was not their first choice. This pattern of sophisticated voting particularly hurt the Labor Union party, which did not clear the 5% threshold, as well as the PSL, which lost votes to the AWS and the SLD. The centrist Freedom Union party's losses were not that dramatic because of its relatively stable support from the old Polish intelli-gentsia and urban professionals-the nucleus of the emerging middle class. In general, electoral mechanics worked in favor of the ideological extremes and against the parties of the moderate (or indifferent) center.

This polarization augurs potentially danger because it weakens the political center and promotes extremist, radical attitudes over moderate ones. The new government needs to build a broader consensus to promote reform policies which may cause real, if only temporary, hardships to many segments of Polish society. But both the AWS and the SLD seem to have adopted the attitude of rejecting a priori any ideas promoted by the other side. Shifting public attention toward ideological issues (such as the question of sexual education in primary and secondary schools) has exacerbated polarization, redefining politics as a zero-sum game, in which the old Soviet principle "kto kavo?" becomes the norm of political behavior.

There are reasons for moderate optimism, however. The negotiations that created the only viable coalition (between the AWS and the moderate Freedom Union as a junior partner) were long and painful, but the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek (a moderate leader of the Solidarity branch in Silesia) and Deputy PM Leszek Balcerowicz (of the UW) has worked relatively smoothly and effectively, despite being 15 seats short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto. President Kwasniewski has already demonstrated a willingness to use his veto to satisfy left-of-center public sentiment (i.e., sex education) or to protect interests of the SLD (and his own) constituency (i.e., pension privileges of the former military and police functionaries). This situation forces the coalition to seek broader consensus on the issues by coopting the PSL, assuring President's approval beforehand, or by striking a deal with the SLD (as is likely to happen in the case of local government reform, which is strongly opposed by the PSL). Altogether, the actual distribution of power promotes bargaining over confrontation and may help to shape the political process along the patterns prevailing in consolidated liberal democracies.

Krzysztof Jasiewicz spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on February 12, 1997.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant