On November 25 Poland will try, for the first time in its history, to elect a president through universal suffrage. Although there are six candidates, the main battle is a fratricidal duel between two leaders of Solidarity: 47-year-old Lech Walesa and 63-year-old Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister for more than a year. Much more is at stake, however, than two contrasting personalities. To help us understand the hues behind the vote, we turned to Daniel Singer, The Nation‘s Europe correspondent and author of The Road to Gdansk, and Lawrence Goodwyn, a professor of history at Duke University and author of two standard works on U.S. agrarian populism and of the forthcoming Breaking the Barriers: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland. –The Editors
There seem to be a large measure of agreement between Walesa and Mazowiecki over fundamental economic policy. That being the case, can you say what you think the contest on November 25 is really about? Is it useful, for example, to use words such as “liberal” versus “populist” to characterize the two sides?
Rumor has it that Walesa, if elected president, would appoint as prime minister Leszek Balcerowicz, his rival’s Finance Minister and author of his austerity program. This confirms your crucial point: that the two protagonists agree on the essential thing, namely, the quick road to capitalism. But if you need to attack, you may invent differences. Walesa began by accusing the Mazowiecki government of acting too slowly, yet who wants to move faster in the direction of lower living standards and higher unemployment? With his knack for feeling the mood of the people, he corrected the line: too slow in getting rid of the nomenklatura. This was and is popular because, despite the change of regime, Poles see that the same people remain in charge of their factories and offices. It is popular but purely cant–since, having forgotten the pledges of self-management and workers’ control, Walesa the privatizer has no intention of giving working people any mastery over their labor.
Agreeing on economic policy, can’t they have fundamental differences on social and political issues? Here the answer is more complex. The two camps have a different attraction: Walesa and his associates appeal to the nationalist, the ethnic, to “true Catholic Poles”; Mazowiecki and his colleagues refer to the principles of Western bourgeois democracy, with their basis in the rule of law. It is no accident that the leaders of the reborn endecja, the prewar jingoist and anti-Semitic party, should now be favoring Walesa. It would be wrong, however, to present the battle as one between left and right. The so-called lay left that Mazowiecki is supposed to represent is a figment of his opponents’ imagination. Neither side, as we have seen, is progressive in economic matters (they can at best be described as “radicals” in Thatcherite terms). And the followers of Mazowiecki do not have the courage to be lay. The men who braved the prisons of the former regime do not dare to defy the Catholic Church, the ideological master of the day. Suffice it to say that religious instruction has been reintroduced into schools by the Mazowiecki government. In short, you have a phony battle and potentially a real conflict.
It is not useful to use words like “liberal” and “populist.” As political description, they effectively conceal the social reality they are presumed to be describing. As generally employed, “populism” is a term of condescension applied indiscriminately to passing political figures rather than to self-organized constituencies. Solidarnosc emerged in Poland as a self-generated social formation, and all of its local and national representatives and advisers, including Walesa, have necessarily endured a relationship to the popular base that has ranged in tension from manageable to shaky.