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Of Lobsters and Poles | The Nation

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Of Lobsters and Poles

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Lobsters, French cookbooks assert, love to be cooked alive. Jeffrey Sachs and his like assured us in similar fashion that the people of Eastern Europe love to have their living standards drastically reduced. But whereas lobsters do not vote, Eastern Europeans occasionally do and can thus cast doubts on such sadomasochistic explanations. The Poles, presented to us as model, contented beneficiaries of shock therapy, kicked out of office the parties with that treatment and put in place a coalition Democratic Left Alliance and the Peasant Party, both clearly tied to the old regime [see "Left Turn," October 11]. Yet they did not vote for them out of nostalgia. They backed them because the two parties promised to the economy at a humane pace.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

The meaning of the Polish election was thus plain: Shock therapy and democracy cannot coexist for very long. The message was not lost on Russia's Boris Yeltsin or on his Western backers, now busy explaining in Orwellian language that dictatorship is democracy. But the experience does not end there. Now that the victorious has a new government, headed by the 34-year-old Peasant party leader, Waldemar Pawlak, pioneering Poland should soon provide answers to two other questions crucial for Eastern Europe as a whole: Will the Western financial establishment give room for maneuver to a democratically elected East European government trying to move beyond the confines of International Monetary Fund orthodoxy? And will such a government be able to stand up to international pressure if it seeks, not a third way, but the rather elusive "capitalism with a human face"?

First let us recall the results. More than half of eligible Polish voters went to the polls in September; this participation, though low by European standards, was 10 percent higher than in the previous election. The Democratic Left Alliance with 20.4 percent of the vote, took 171 seats out of a possible 460, and the Peasant Party, with 15.4 percent, 132 seats; together, with 35.8 percent of the vote, they have a majority and have formed a coalition government. Trailing behind were the Democratic Union, which includes most of the stars of the former Solidarity and the Outgoing Prime Minister, Suchocka, with seventy-four seats, and the Union of Labor, a new Party set up by former members of Solidarity faithful to its original egalitarian, working-class tradition, which got forty-one representatives. The few remaining seats were split between a nationalist opposition Party and Lech Walesa's abortive presidential party; both barely scraped through.

Out of these bare figures one can draw three main lessons, two of them specifically Polish, the third relevant for the region at large. The first is the humbling of the Catholic Church, whose moves to consolidate its power--introducing religious instruction into schools, banning abortion--antagonized a growing number of people, particularly Polish women. In the election, the three parties openly connected with the policy of the church failed to elect any representatives. This does not mean that the mighty Catholic Church has lost its political clout; it is already forging links with the Peasant party.

Equally important symbolically was the end of the saga of Solidarity. The movement, which in its 1981-82 heyday represented the bulk of society, lost much of that support after 1989, as it sacrificed its principles on the altar of quick conversion to capitalism.

However you look at the figures, the parties connected with the economic policy implemented in the past four years got something like a quarter of the total vote; this roughly corresponds to the proportion of people estimated to be either very much better off or no worse off than before. There is thus no need to argue with the panegyrists of the regime over the size of the drop in living standards or the significance of this year's recovery in production. n o figures are enough to explain the mood of the voters: 38 percent of Poles now live below what is considered the poverty level, while more than I5 percent are unemployed; both figures are rising.

What one should not forget is that Poland seemed to be particularly suited to this quick march toward capitalism. It had a predominantly private agriculture and quite a lot of private enterprise in trade. Above all, it was the only country in Eastern Europe with a real political movement emerging from the underground. Lech Walesa was not like Boris Yeltsin, the ex-apparatchik and born-again democrat. He was a genuine dissident surrounded by a host of people with a similar record. When they told the workers that there was no alternative to shock therapy and things would rapidly improve, they were believed, at least for a time. But if you can boast of a "Polish miracle" to outsiders, you cannot fool your own people--for very long. The Polish experience proves that if you want to get on with shock therapy in Eastern Europe, you must somehow, in political terms, "dissolve the people," to borrow Brecht's expression.

If there was any nostalgia for the past among Polish voters, it was for a past, however grim, in which one did not fear for one's job, for a hospital bed, for shelter. Mainly, Poles voted against the present and for the leftist opposition rather than for the many jingoist right-wing parties. They voted against uncertainty and against the arrogant power of money. Whether their votes will bring progressive solutions is another matter. To assess the chances, we must look at the two members of the new ruling coalition.

Although the Peasant Party won the premiership, the senior partner in the coalition, responsible for economic policy, is the Democratic Left Alliance and its backbone, the Polish Social Democracy, a party not easy to define. It is the direct heir of the Polish Communist party, but it has espoused the free market with a zeal that Western socialists find too fervent. Its leadership is equally confusing. Its star, the youthful Aleksander Kwasniewski, is painted as a model of the modern, Westernized politician, whereas his partner, Leszek Miller, the new Minister of Labor, is described as an apparatchik. The party more than doubled its vote, mainly among workers and pensioners. Communist Party old-timers are still predominant among the membership, particularly in the provinces, yet they do not give the impression of having much impact on policy, which seems to be shaped by what could be loosely defined as the former nomenklatura, people who had influence under the previous regime and are, therefore, making money under the new one. The key figure in the new government, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of finance, Marek Borowski, insists on continuity in economic policy, and seems to do so not solely for tactical reasons.

Hence, for a clean break with the Balcerowicz line one must look toward the Peasant Party, another very strange formation. Though it did not capture all the farm vote and gained quite a lot of support outside rural areas, the Peasant Party is essentially a class party, reflecting the paradoxes of Polish agriculture. It was, ironically, the Communist regime that insured the survival of smallholders in Poland; more than a quarter of the labor force is still working on the land. This was roughly the proportion prevailing in Western Europe in the 1950s, before the European Economic Community was set up; now the share in the West is about 6 percent, despite the protection provided by the Common Agricultural Policy. If Polish agriculture were to be submitted to the full blasts of the international market, the social landscape of its countryside would be transformed at a much faster speed. Since nobody likes to be eliminated in the name of alleged economic progress, the Peasant Party is instinctively protectionist. It is in favor of state intervention and hostile to the gospel of privatization as preached by the outgoing government. All these, however, are attitudes rather than planks in a coherent program.

Continuity or a new deal? At this stage, it is difficult to determine the prospect, though there are some hints. The new government was originally conceived as a three-party coalition, including the Union of Labor. But the talks with the latter collapsed, essentially over privatization. The Union demanded that the current policy of privatization be scrapped. The converted Communists refused, partly because they had voted for the privatization law but largely because they did not want to antagonize the international financial establishment. Naturally, the direction will become clearer if the government begins to implement its electoral pledges.

To do so, it must raise old-age and other pensions as well as expenditures on public health and education. It must eliminate the obvious biases in favor of private enterprise by lifting the special taxes affecting only the public sector (a tax on property and another tied to wage increases). The government must, at the same time, evolve a consistent industrial policy for state enterprises and decide what sort of tariff wall it will erect to shelter its domestic strategy. Will the coalition be able to withstand the strains involved in the execution of its line? Will the I.M.F. give it a chance to experiment? And, if the fund doesn't, will the government put the interests of its electorate above the commands of the international establishment?

I have some doubts about the new government's capacity for resistance. My skepticism, however, 1s linked with the basic belief that the left can only make a lasting comeback in Eastern Europe if it revives its socialist principles and adapts them to the new realities, if it returns with its own conception of property based on self-management, if it invents new forms of democracy that will give it enough popular support to stand up to domestic and foreign pressure; in short, if It opts for a third way clearly distinct from both its neo-Stalinist heritage and the new capitalist gospel.

At this stage, only two points can be asserted with certainty. The Polish government has little time to convince the people that it genuinely represents a new deal. Solidarity managed to squander a tremendous capital of good will within three years or so. The newcomers will not be given as long. If they fail, they will hand an opportunity to the jingoist right, which at the moment lies defeated and divided. The second lesson to be drawn from the Polish experience goes well beyond that country's frontiers. The march of capitalism throughout Eastern Europe is neither as triumphant nor as euphoric as it was being described by Sachs & Co. or by other servants of the establishment. They may have painted these silly pictures of success and happiness because they were paid to do so. They may have half-believed their lies, since in their travels through Eastern Europe they met only the few who can now afford to eat lobster and not the many who must tighten their belts.

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