Kwasniewski the Red versus Walesa the gravedigger of Communism–the duel for Poland’s presidency is being presented as if it were the old drama all over again. Actually, though one of the stars is the same, it is an artificial revival. Pioneering Poland, a pacesetter in the Eastern European transition, is a land of paradoxes. To its anti-Semitism without Jews it adds anti-Communism without Communists. Poland’s presidential poll remains a cliffhanger. In the first balloting, on November 5. Aleksander Kwasniewski, leader of the (formerly Communist) Democratic Left Alliance, came out on top with 35 percent of the vote, followed closely by the incumbent, Lech Walesa, with 33 percent. The veteran dissident Jacek Kuron ran a distant third, capturing 9 percent of the vote. The front runners will meet again in the November 19 runoff, with the odds slightly favoring Walesa, as his anti-Communist line is expected to draw the bigger share of support that had been dispersed among other candidates. But abstentions, which at 35 percent were lower than in the previous presidential election, may rise if voters decide to cast a plague on both candidates’ houses. Much may also depend on a TV confrontation between the protagonists scheduled for November 12, thus preserving suspense. Should K the “Red” win this presidential poll, capitalism will not be threatened but consolidated. Walesa, however, had to revive the ghost of the ancien &ime to appear as the champion of the resistance, thus eliminating the fifteen other contenders. With so many participants and so much playacting, the campaign has been both complex and confused. These notes from the hustings–I followed the main candidates from Krakow, the ancient capital, through proletarian Lodz to Torun, the town of Copernicus–are designed to reveal some of the real conflicts papered over by this electoral phony war.
All That Glitters
Each time you return to the Polish capital you find it more Westernized. The feeling of déjà vu is no longer limited to very expensive hotels and the two fashionable streets with luxury shops. It stretches farther, and socially lower down. In the large Jerusalem Alleys you now find in quick succession a Burger King, another McDonald’s, a London Steak and in between Jean-Louis David, the French hairdressing chain. At the corner of Marszalkowska Street there are more dazzling images than in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Before the poll, you could see, between advertisements for cigarettes and computers, Kuron the blue-jeaned dissident, duly dressed up in jacket and tie, urging, “You trust me, vote for me!” and Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the neatly groomed president of the Bank of Poland, wooing your support with a frozen smile. (The country has no limits or controls on electoral advertising).
New commercial outlets have not yet eliminated the old. In front of the House of Culture in Stalinist Gothic there is still a vast oriental bazaar with hundreds of stalls (my discovery this time: one underground passage taken over by Vietnamese, speaking rudimentary Polish and selling knitted goods from Turkey and Taiwan). But there is no denying that the very top people with their conspicuous consumption are no longer the only ones buying goods–cars and color TVs, for example–that are quite expensive by Polish standards, and this impression is confirmed by statistics. Poland is out of its deep slump. For the past three years production has been rising and living standards have followed. This does not square with the mood of the people, who, in nine cases out of ten, assure you that the upward mobility has not been them. Take the man who told me he needed a fridge in the past because, whenever he found ham, he would buy a couple of pounds to stock up. Now he can buy two slices. Does he eat more ham? No. Then, on balance, is he better off? No, worse off, because he must work longer hours to preserve his standard. Others put the blame on rising rents and the cost of heating, on the higher cost of health and education.