Against Walesa, Any Solidarity?

Against Walesa, Any Solidarity?

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.



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 d&eacutejà 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.

The feeling of insecurity and resentment against those who can afford it all and are opulently showing off undoubtedly plays a part in popular discontent, yet it would be wrong to attribute the malaise simply to psychological causes. The discontent rests on solid foundations. It should not be forgotten that the economic shock therapy applied by Leszek Balcerowicz brought about a dramatic drop in production and living standards in 1990. If the optimistic assumptions are fulfilled, it is only next year that pre-therapy levels will be reached. Besides, one should not stick to averages. The most striking feature of the new system is the growing gap between rich and poor. In 1989 the incomes of the 10 percent of households at the top were five times higher than those at the bottom. Four years later they were eight times higher, and top revenues may actually be underestimated. And with unemployment still standing at more than 15 percent and the jobless having to shift from unemployment benefits to lesser-defined forms of welfare after a year, poverty has spread dangerously-36 percent of the population live below the “social minimum” as calculated by the Institute of Labor, and 18 percent live below the level of subsistence.

This cannot be seen from the capital’s elegant hotels. The main victims are to be found far from Warsaw: in the northeastern parts of the country, where state farms have been disbanded and their workers cannot find jobs; in medium-sized towns dependent on one big enterprise driven to bankruptcy; in regions like Walbrzych, which relies on a mining industry that is no longer a paying proposition. It must be admitted that one may also be misled by appearances. Watching the hotels and office buildings going up in Warsaw, shops being spruced up, villas built and renovated all over, one might conclude that the building industry is booming. Actually, housing construction is now less than half its level of 1989, and less than a quarter of its record volume ten years earlier. You can now have any accommodation you wish if you have the money. Unto everyone that hath . . .

This must be kept in mind to understand the politics of Poland, or of Eastern Europe, in recent years: to grasp how the so-called Communists, thrown out the window in 1989, got back through the parliamentary door dressed up as Social Democrats, four years later. In Poland, they had the luck that their return to office coincided with economic recovery. They therefore had no need to put their promise of a new deal to the test. Indeed, with the situation improving, the electorate could add the presidency to the Social Democrats’ majority in Parliament. Echoed by the media, Walesa trumpeted that such combined power would take Poland back to the past. By polarizing the conflict, he squeezed out the center.

Requiem for a Dissident?

Krakow the patrician city, with its old monuments, is changing nature as it swallows its sprawling and polluting neighbor, Nowa Huta, the steel town built after the last war. But I am here in the old part, in the beautiful Market Square for a political meeting. The occasion is the congress of the youth section of the Union of Labor, the nearest Poland has to a Socialist Party. The youngsters, unlike the adult party, picked Kuron as their presidential candidate, and there he was together with his sponsor, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Thirty-one years ago, the two of them had challenged the Communist Party and in the meantime they had both spent years in jail as part of their uninterrupted struggle.

The youth leader, in his zeal, claimed that only inches separated his party from Kuron’s Union of Freedom. Modzelewski, with the intellectual honesty for which he is known, denied this. Ideologically, he argued, the differences are far from negligible. The problem, however, is political. The unpredictable Walesa could lean on the army for support. The former Communists are still rejected by large sections of the population, A confrontation between the two might threaten the edifice, while Kuron was a good alternative for those with democratic leanings. As the latter-in a sweater-spoke about what the left meant to him and how Poles live on a small island surrounded by a huge sea of poverty, I could not help pondering what had gone wrong with his bid.

Originally, he was to be the candidate of the center and the left, winning even votes from Kwasniewski. Then his own party picked him by the narrowest of margins and simultaneously chose as its chairman the shock-therapist Balcerowicz, quite a symbol. Kuron fell between two stools: The right flank of his own party showed little enthusiasm for his bid, and the rank and file of the Union of Labor rebelled against its leadership and picked another candidate-the ombudsman Tadeusz Zielinski. Then Kuron, after a bad bicycle fall, was forced to interrupt his campaign, which never really took off. The opinion polls told a strange tale: Trusted by more Poles than any politician, he was picked for President by only a fraction. The usually scrappy Kuron did not quite sound as if he believed In the possibility of victory. His magic clearly had not vanished with the blue jeans. The awkwardness may have been due to the difficulty of reconciling the Thatcherite Balcerowicz with the progressive Modzelewski. Listening to Kuron, I had the painful impression that, if he did badly, it might spell the end of an era, the political exit of a figure crucial for Polish politics in the last third of this century.

Walesa Rides Again

But politicians bounce back. A few weeks before the election Walesa looked down and out. A host of reactionary candidates were sharing the right-wing vote. Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the nonentity Walesa had imposed as head of the national bank, betrayed him and was leading the bunch. The Catholic Church seemed to back this lady who claimed to run the country’s finances with the help of the Holy Spirit. Then something happened or was made to happen. As Kwasniewski, attacked by the church despite his moderation, forged ahead, the alarm was sounded-the Commies are coming back! And who was better equipped to lead the resistance than the electrician from Gdansk (“the man whom the whole world knows,” proclaimed his posters)?

Lodz, the Polish Manchester, is also beginning to recover economically, and the seamstresses closed out of the big plants can find jobs in sweatshops. Walesa did not choose a huge hall for his visit to this workers’ stronghold. Just a few hundred were packed in the auditorium of the local Polytechnic, elderly and lower middle class rather than proletarian types. Their hero–fatter, puffed up, his mustache now white–was very much himself. In the five years of the presidency he had not lost his art of mixed metaphors requiring delphic interpretations (“and the ship is good and the horse is good; and victory wins but the rider counts” is a fine example). Yet he also has a plebeian shrewdness. The gist of his argument was that, as President, he wished but couldn’t grant. He put some blame on the experts, producing his screwdriver and claiming with false modesty: “I am just an electrician and a politician.” Above all he complained about his lack of prerogatives: Give me 60 percent, he intoned, and I will build a presidential system and act by decree.

The snag with Walesa–half clown and half national hero–is that nobody knows how far he is ready to go. The Polish system is essentially parliamentary and the powers of the President, though substantial, are limited. Will he move beyond them? He betrayed the fundamental interests of the workers who had made him king and then got rid of all the companions who had helped him in the betrayal. Political survival seems to be his goal, and he has a very personal conception of democracy. Experts in Warsaw are seriously debating whether he will be more dangerous In presidential office or as leader of an extraparliamentary opposition. I am convinced that without this hero trusted by the workers, the rush to capitalism in Poland would have been a more difficult exercise. The question is whether the time has not come to use other methods, and other men, for fooling the working people.

Olé, Olé, Olek

When Kwasniewski claims he was never a Communist, you can believe him. This does not mean that he did not rise in the ranks of the C.P. He even was a minister twice. But 40 years old now, he belongs to the generation of pragmatists who took the party card as passport to a career. He is a believer in the gospel of getting on. Handsome in his navy blazer, smooth and quick-witted, he plays tennis every morning. Kwasniewski would have found his way in the States too, in politics or business.

The man draws a crowd. In Grudziadz, a garrison town of 100,000, he attracted as many people as Walesa In Lodz. In Torun, where he spoke in the hall of a medieval guild, many more showed up. While no great orator, he is a good speaker, cool, with a command of the facts and the audience. He asks for a mandate to turn economic expansion into social progress and a struggle against unemployment. He turns the charge that his party will command two seats of power into an asset: Does it not work better in the States when President and Congress have the same complexion? He cannot believe that Walesa the Nobel Prize winner will not accept the verdict of the people. He presents the slight increase in income tax for higher brackets in market terms as “the price paid for social peace.” He gets applause for telling the church not to interfere in politics: Leave to Caesar what is Caesar’s. He yields nothing to party old-timers questioning him about NATO and the European Union: Neutrality is fine for Sweden but not for Poland; the latter must play in the top economic league. As he moves to sign autographs, a small band hammers his presidential hymn (the Olek in the chorus is short for Aleksander).

All this is fine for Washington, but is there anything left-wing about this alliance? When one of Kwasniewski’s lieutenants lists for me the social groups supporting him and I mention that he left out the workers, he candidly admits: Yes, we have trouble there, especially since Solidarity has toughened its line, but we will not compete with Walesa in false promises. An elder dignitary could find only one leftish feature in his party–its mild anticlericalism. (Incidentally, it is a splendid sign that it is now considered an electoral asset to attack the church in Poland, notably on abortion, though it remains to be seen in the runoff balloting how much influence local priests still have in fighting against the “unbeliever.”)

Shortly before the November 5 vote a right-wing dally, under the sensational headline “Red Spider’s Web,” revealed that Kwasniewski’s wife, and that of the Prime Minister, were shareholders in a reinsurance company favored by the government. The amount of money involved was high by Polish standards, and this may have cost Kwasniewski some votes. But the accusers clearly had an ax to grind, and Kwasniewski has never concealed the fact that he is the spokesman for managers who did well under the previous regime, are doing well now and are united by the apprehension that the other side might purge them. I only object when, In an interview, he declares that 1989 marks the end of the utopia of “socialism without deviations.” To link the party that produced the Kwasniewskis with socialism or utopia takes a great deal of chutzpah, a word that can be used in Warsaw as well as New York.

Kosher Toast for the Holocaust

Let me say plainly that for me the Jewish problem is not the center of the world. indeed, in Warsaw on this trip, taking part in a small symposium on Poles and Jews, I argued that the subject had vanished because the Polish Jews, though unburied, were dead and gone forever. Anti-Semitism, thus, was a purely Polish affair, a thermometer of the nation’s social sickness. Somebody went on to illustrate this point. Until 1989 Poles thought they were in trouble because they were governed by “them,” by outsiders. Then came “our boys,” and instead of getting better, things got worse. Hence, they could not be “ours.” The nonexistent Jews were perfect scapegoats, since you could stick that label on any politician.

That temperature during the campaign may be described as rather unhealthy. To begin with, there was the fictional report that Kwasniewski’s mother was buried in the Jewish cemetery. (According to the account, when found alive by a reactionary journalist, this gentile woman reassured her with a wink: ” We are accustomed to resurrection.”) Then there were leaflets, giving Jewish names and connections to all sorts of pretenders. Finally, there was a candidate whose TV programs had to be banned for racism. In one of them he had Kwasniewski dressed up as a practicing Jew. What perturbed me was that Kwasniewski’s lawyers threatened to sue for slander rather than press for an indictment under the law condemning racist propaganda.

The Jewish question focused my attention on another feature of Polish society: its growing commercialization. In Kazimierz, the former Jewish district of Krakow, one square still contains two medieval synagogues and a cemetery. The day I was there I had a pleasant surprise–a Polish teacher telling his students about the customs of the vanished tribe–and a shock. Between the two temples stands a moneylender’s shop, as if somebody wanted to bring Shylock to this place. My rage, however, had another contributing cause. In the middle of the square there is a stone. On it we are advised to meditate on the thousands who went from here to death in the gas chambers. The stone is offered by a Jewish family’s foundation. Next to it stands a smart restaurant, owned by the same foundation, offering kosher food at, by Polish standards, high prices. What won’t we do for a buck within earshot of Auschwitz? It brought to my mind the distasteful image of a kosher toast to the Holocaust.

The reader may object that this report is jaundiced. If that is so, it may be due to the fact that the two main protagonists are connected with broken hopes: Kwasniewski, now at a very distant remove, is linked with socialism as an instrument for changing the human estate; and Walesa, back in 1980, stood at the head of Polish workers presenting their interests as the superior interests of society. Yet it is idle to quarrel with history when it does not come up to your expectations. Poland, as this presidential campaign has shown, is in deep turmoil. Its property relations are still undefined, its innumerable parties are groping for position, its minds are guided by conditioned reflexes. Much time is needed for new structures, new women and men, new hopes to emerge. As the two contenders enter the second round, fighting over the spoils of power and property, it is to be hoped that their phony war does not split the country too deeply and dangerously.

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