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.
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.