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Speaking at a Noon Discussion, Krzysztof Jasiewicz reminded his audience that it was exactly fifteen years ago, on December 13, 1981, that General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in Poland in order to suppress Solidarity. If someone had told him then that in fifteen years Aleksander Kwasniewski would be president of Poland, Jasiewicz would have said, "Oh, sure, that's quite likely. If Jaruzelski dies, and Mieczyslaw Rakowski dies, then Kwasniewski is a likely candidate for succession." If, however, someone had told him that between Jaruzelski and Kwasniewski's tenures, the presidency would belong to Lech Walesa, he would have been mystified. What has in fact happened is proof for Jasiewicz that the totalitarian model of succession has been fully replaced by the mechanisms of pluralist democracy.

At the time of the historic 1989 parliamentary vote that resulted in the defeat of the Communist regime, the Polish polity was highly polarized. But as early as 1990, more complex political orientations began to emerge. The presidential election of that year and the parliamentary elections of 1991 and 1993 greatly contributed to the development of both democratic institutions and liberal democratic politics. But Jasiewicz expressed concern that the 1995 presidential election may have contributed to reversing somewhat the development of democracy in Poland, not because of who was elected but because of the structure of the election itself and the political developments which followed it.

According to Jasiewicz, Polish politics today are best viewed in terms of two political cleavages. One is the traditional socioeconomic division between the left and the right, as understood in West European terms. In Poland this is split between those on the right who advocate a free market approach best exemplified by the Balcerowicz Plan, and those on the left who support state intervention in the economy, subsidies for private peasants and socialist industry, price controls, heavy taxation, and protective tariffs. The second cleavage pits particularistic against universal visions of the political process, social organization, and cultural values. This divide manifests itself in the conflict between an exclusive version of Polish nationalism and an inclusive, pro-Western orientation; the conflict between confessional and secular visions of the political order; and opposing stands on decommunization.

Jasiewicz sees these two cleavages as combining in different ways to yield four major political orientations which are analogous to those of West European democracies. Support for both the free market and the secular state mirrors the position of West European liberal democrats. The combination of a pro-free market attitude and support for Christian values and a confessional state produces a position close to that of West European Christian democrats. Where the emphasis on the Church is somewhat less, the political orientation is similar to that of conservatives. The combination of particularistic pro-Church, pro-nationalistic attitudes with support for state intervention creates populism, a twentieth century addition to European politics. Finally, the combination of secular attitudes and state intervention yields the socialist or social democratic orientation.

A post-election survey of eligible voters conducted by Jasiewicz revealed that support for the major contenders in the 1995 presidential race was still based on these four political orientations. Kwasniewski dominated the social democratic field; Walesa, the Christian democratic; Jacek Kuron, the liberal democratic; and Jan Olszewski and Waldemar Pawlak, the populist. But these elections also marked a major shift in polarization in Polish politics. The socialists and the Christian democrats together received over two-thirds of the popular vote. Voters with Catholic, nationalist, and anti-Communist orientations rallied behind Walesa, while Kwasniewski garnered support among voters with secular or even anti-Catholic views and a willingness to disregard Poland's Communist past.

This outcome suggests to Jasiewicz that Polish politics are moving toward what Giovanni Sartori has called "polarized pluralism," a system in which there are many different political entities, but they are so highly polarized that it is virtually impossible for them to cooperate with one another. This undermines the political center because collaboration with one faction obviates the possibility of establishing contact with others. In Jasiewicz's opinion, the structure of presidential elections further exacerbates this tendency. The president is popularly elected, requiring a majority to win. If no one gains a majority, the two candidates with the most popular votes face each other in a run-off election. As a result, voters who wish to influence electoral outcomes tend to support candidates whose standings in opinion polls indicate that they will qualify for the second round. Often this means that they are not so much supporting one candidate as voting against another. In 1995, this led to a bitter showdown between Kwasniewski and Walesa, which reflected a polarization that remains preeminent in Polish politics.

There are currently six major political actors--the socialist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), headed by Aleksander Kwasniewski; the populist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), led by Waldemar Pawlak; the Christian democratic Solidary Electoral Action (AWS), dominated by the Solidarity trade union; the liberal democratic Freedom Union (UW), the party of Jacek Kuron, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and Leszek Balcerowicz; the post-Solidarity Labor Union (UP), led by Tadeusz Zielinski, whose leadership is strongly socialist, but whose constituency leans toward liberal democracy; and the Movement for Poland's Reconstruction (ROP), a party headed by Jan Olszewski embracing both Christian democratic and populist tenets. In public opinion polls, these are the only actors that are consistently favored by at least 5 percent of respondents, the level of popular support necessary to qualify for parliamentary representation. Two of them--SLD and AWS--consistently receive between 18 and 26 percent of the vote in simulated elections. The other four pull in 8 to 15 percent, depending on which polling station conducts the survey.

These numbers did not change much throughout 1996, suggesting relatively stable voter preferences that may be repeated in the parliamentary election scheduled for no later than September 1997. According to Jasiewicz, the outcome depends primarily on the durability of the AWS. He found this coalition's major weakness to be its lack of leaders acceptable to all its parties. Neither Marian Krzaklewski, the chair of Solidarity, nor anyone else within the AWS leadership possesses charisma comparable to Walesa's. In Jasiewicz's opinion, Walesa would be a natural mentor for the AWS in terms of ideology and policy choices, but his actions during his presidency alienated both party bosses and the rank-and-file. As a result, he believes that Walesa's role both within the AWS and in Polish politics in general is yet to be defined.

Even if the AWS remains united it may contribute to further polarization during the pre-election campaign. According to Jasiewicz, this polarization would be similar to the bandwagon effect of the 1995 presidential vote. Voters may once again abandon the centrist option in order to support those actors most likely to beat an opponent whom they consider unacceptable. Regardless of the extent of such polarization, it is possible, although by no means certain, that all six of these actors will clear the 5 percent threshold necessary for membership in the Sejm. The result would be a Sejm with the SLD and UP on the left, the AWS and ROP on the right, and the UW and PSL in the center. It is also likely that neither the left nor the right will win enough seats to form a majority government. In that event, the center parties would hold tie-breaking power in any coalition. Of the two centrist actors, Jasiewicz believes that the PSL is in a much better position to become a king-maker than the UW, whose strong commitment to market reforms, political liberalism, secularism, and pro-European stance make it an unacceptable coalition partner for both the protectionist and pro-Church AWS and the populist ROP. In addition, the leaders of the UW, who led the democratic opposition to the Communist regime, might have difficulty forming a coalition with the post-Communist SLD.

Unlike the UW, the PSL is not only an acceptable coalition partner to both the left and right, but is open to forming a coalition with either one. The SLD/PSL coalition, formed in 1993, has had its difficulties, but in Jasiewicz's opinion, it is a marriage of convenience that could well last another four years. He did not rule out the possibility of closer cooperation between the AWS and the ROP. PSL positions on economic and social issues, including support for agricultural protectionism and extensive social welfare programs, are very close to those of the AWS and ROP.

According to Jasiewicz, the outcome of the elections may be determined by pre-election political confrontations. The most important of these is likely to be the constitutional referendum. Poland currently lacks a permanent constitution. A provisional constitution was passed in 1992 which regulates the functioning of the executive and legislative branches of government, but other areas, including civil rights, are still regulated by the remnants of the old, much amended, Stalinist constitution. A special committee composed of members of both chambers of the Polish parliament has worked on a new constitution. They have agreed on a draft which will probably be accepted by the National Assembly (the Senate and the Sejm in joint session) and submitted to a referendum before the 1997 elections. But extra-parliamentary actors, particularly the AWS and the ROP, strongly oppose this draft on both substantive and formal grounds. Jasiewicz is virtually certain that they will mount a campaign to reject it in the referendum, causing a major political confrontation and further polarizing the Polish political spectrum.

Nevertheless, Jasiewicz concluded on an optimistic note. Since 1990 both Olszewski and Pawlak have been in power. If they form a coalition in the future, it is clear that they will not promote further reform. Their past performance does however indicate that they will not reverse already existing reforms. In addition, the Polish economy has managed to separate itself from politics and has done remarkably well since 1990. Substantial segments of Polish society are now satisfied with their situations and hopeful about the future. This tends to minimize the possibility that economically motivated political radicalism will triumph over more moderate attitudes. Finally, the political process is constantly scrutinized by a free press. Even though it is still imperfect, the Polish fourth estate plays a significant role; it prompts politicians to consider their actions in a broader perspective that transcends narrow party interests and politics-as-usual.

Dr. Jasiewicz spoke at the Wilson Center on December 12, 1997.

About the Author

Krzysztof Jasiewicz

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting Europe’s relations with the rest of the world through scholars-in-residence, seminars, international conferences and publications. These programmatic activities cover wide-ranging topics include: European energy security, the role of the European Union and NATO, democratic transitions, and counter-terrorism, among others. The program also investigates comparatively European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including migration, global governance, and relations with Russia, China and the Middle East.  Read more