On Sunday, October 27–the future as I write this–the Poles will elect their two houses of Parliament, for the first time in an entirely free vote. For the 460 seats in the Sejm they will choose from among 7,021 candidates on twenty-seven national party lists and a number of regional ones in a complicated system of proportional representation. For the 100 senators they will pick among 613 contenders. Is it not a triumph of democracy? Nobody in Warsaw seems to think so. Poland is catching up with America in this unwelcome respect: Half the electorate is expected not to go to the polls. The vote may be so dispersed that it will be difficult to muster a majority even for a coalition, and that should strengthen the hand of President Lech Walesa. With Solidarity’s capital of good will exhausted and discontent rising–as unemployment exceeds 10 percent and will top 15 percent next year if the trend is not reversed, as real wages decline and the depression deepens–the market euphoria 1s over. The days when Leszek Balcerowicz, the Finance Minister and darling of the International Monetary Fund, was the Eastern miracle maker and Professor Jeffrey Sachs his successful Western salesman-those days are gone.
I went to Poland, the pacesetter in the Eastern European race toward capitalism, to see how within a few years a country is supposed to crystallize a class, the bourgeoisie, that in the West took centuries to emerge from the feudal womb. Or, to put Galsworthy into plural, I went to look at the new men of property. In the process I saw the gap between the new political parties and the 2 social groups they are supposed to represent; the extent to which some parties are artificial voices from the past, echoing a nationalism that, though reactionary, made some sense when ethnic minorities accounted for one-third of the population but now is simply absurd; the political paradoxes and economic contradictions that suggest the menace of authoritarian rule.
For Those Who Have
Superficially, it is still possible to describe the Polish miracle that wasn’t. Warsaw has altered radically, and I sensed it already at the airport, where a taxi driver grabbed me and, as I was to learn, cheated me by doubling the fare while explaining in friendly conversation that the Communists had deprived Poles of the spirit of initiative. The square where my hotel sits, on the border of the former Jewish district, once bore the name of Feliks Dzlerzynski, the Polish founding head of the Cheka, the ancestor of the K.G.B.; now it has recovered its prewar name of Banking Square. Next door, the House of Soviet Literature has been replaced by the Ameryka Bank.
Yet the starkest change in terms of symbolism was not apparent until I went to the big building at the corner of New World Street and Jerusalem Avenue. It was there, at the Communist headquarters less than three years ago, that a party spokesman insisted to me that never would a Kuron or a Michnik sit around the negotiating table. Today a flag flies from the building with the initials CBF, standing for Banking and Financial Center. Indeed, all five floors are filled with various firms, including, at the top, a Stock Exchange (or rather the embryo of one, since it quotes only ten stocks). On the ground floor a sculpture of three miners is an odd remnant of the past. The change is symbolic in another sense. Originally, the party building was to be handed to the university for its library; the government opted for the banks. Here is the sign of the new hero: no longer the Man of Iron, the proletarian, nor even the intellectual rebel; instead, the manager with red suspenders and a combination-lock attaché case.
For such people there is plenty to buy. The shopping area, around the smart New World and Krakow Suburb streets has changed beyond recognition. It is not quite Bond Street or the Faubourg St.-Honoré more at the level of Bloomingdale’s, with high-class ready-made goods by Pierre Cardin, Yves St. Laurent or Dior, and more to come. Here are foreign products at foreign prices, much more costly for the local population. A person has to wait six months for a Mercedes SEL, which costs 1.4 billion zlotys (roughly $125,000, at about 11,000 zlotys to the dollar), but that’s sixty-five years of earnings for a Pole with the average monthly wage of 1.8 million zlotys. Some Poles have reached the stage of conspicuous consumption.