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  • Poland’s Emerging Party System
  • Aleksander Smolar (bio)

Poland is one of the few unquestionable success stories among the postcommunist countries. Since the second half of 1992, it has enjoyed substantial growth in GNP, consumption, exports, and investment; the rate of inflation has been steadily declining while the inflow of foreign capital has been increasing. After a period of profound pessimism and fear of radical change, Polish society now exhibits a growing level of approval for democratic and market reforms. 1 Even the population’s sense of external security has been improving lately, despite Poland’s turbulent history and the seismic geopolitical shifts of recent years. 2

Poland now has a new Constitution that strengthens the foundations of liberal democracy. Since 1989, it has held two democratic presidential elections and three democratic parliamentary elections (not to mention the partially democratic elections of June 1989, which were followed by the rapid dismantling of the communist system). In the latest elections in September 1997, a rightist bloc known as Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) displaced the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the largest group in parliament. Jerzy Buzek of the AWS was named prime minister. Despite numerous changes of government and eight successive prime ministers, Poland’s basically pro-Western orientation in the areas of foreign, defense, and economic policy has remained unchanged. Yet these policy successes have been achieved in the midst of an extremely unstable political landscape, which makes Poland different from the Czech Republic and [End Page 122] Hungary, the two other countries in the region with which it is often compared. 3

Poland entered the period of its great political, economic, and social transformation dominated by a coalition that had formed around the Solidarity trade union. Outside this coalition there were two parties with origins in the old regime: the communists, newly renamed the Social Democratic Party (SdRP), and the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL). With the unity imposed by the totalitarian menace no longer necessary, it was not long before the new democratic conditions began to reveal the Solidarity coalition’s artificial character. The Solidarity bloc began to break up into a congeries of rival groups that spanned the political spectrum. The effects of economic “shock therapy” also played a part in this process. Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland’s first postcommunist prime minister and finance minister, respectively, introduced radical liberalization policies that benefited the economy, but at the cost of a sharp short-term increase in social tension and conflict. This era came to a symbolic end with the May 1993 no-confidence vote, engineered by the parliamentary wing of the Solidarity trade union, that toppled reformist prime minister Hanna Suchocka. The Solidarity bloc entered the new parliamentary elec-tions, held that September, in a condition of extreme fragmentation; most of the post-Solidarity parties, especially those on the right, fell short of the 5 percent threshold required to gain representation in parliament. The big winner was the Democratic Left Alliance, composed of the renamed communists and the Peasants’ Party. In the November 1995 presidential balloting, SLD candidate Aleksander KwaÊniewski, the leading strategist behind the transformation of the communists into the Social Democrats, won a runoff over the legen-dary Lech Walesa, the Solidarity trade-union leader who had led the great Lenin Shipyard strike of 1980 and had served since 1990 as Poland’s first postcommunist president.

In the majority of postcommunist lands, former communists, more or less reformed, have either remained in power or else been returned to power via free elections. Their success has been fueled by fear of the future and longing for the past. The security and predictability of old, well-understood arrangements have come to appear attractive in light of the difficulties attendant upon the tasks of state- and nation-building, to say nothing of the sense of economic crisis and state disintegration that communism left in its wake. In Poland, with its traditions of staunch resistance to communism and its politically active Roman Catholic community, the shock of the ex-communists’ 1993 return to power was strongly felt. Serious attempts got under way to build an alternative to the SdRP. In 1996, several dozen social and political...

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