Solidarity Lost

Solidarity Lost

On December 9, after a second ballot, Lech Walesa, the former electrician from the Lenin Shipyards, will be the President of the Polish Republic.


On December 9, after a second ballot, Lech Walesa, the former electrician from the Lenin Shipyards, will be the President of the Polish Republic. But the first ballot two weeks earlier, in which the utterly unknown Stanislaw Tyminski took 23.1 percent of the vote and became Walesa’s second-round rival, may have sounded the death knell for Solidarity. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, eliminated from the contest with only 18.1 percent of the vote, is the obvious first victim. But Walesa has also suffered and so has the movement. The verdict from Warsaw holds a lesson for the whole of Eastern Europe.

The price that Mazowiecki has paid is not for his intellectual honesty or his lack of brilliance. It is for his economic program, spelled out by Jeffrey Sachs and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund, and for the drastic cut in living standards and the dramatic rise in unemployment. But it is also a verdict on the intellectual message that went with it. You do not switch from workers’ solidarity to an attitude of “I’m all right Jack” without consequences. If the main slogan you preach to the people is “Enrich yourselves,” then instead of picking a modest Warsaw intellectual like Mazowiecki, they will turn instead to a symbol, a local boy who’s back home after making his fortune in the New World, even if he’s not the main star of the show. In the Polish election Stan Tyminski is a figure from a poor man’s Dallas, and the Polish government is paying the price for the quality of the dream it has inspired.

Lech Walesa has scarcely fared any better. True, 40 percent on a first ballot with several candidates is not bad for a normal contender, but it is meager for a would-be national savior; it is not a score of which plebiscites are made. This is all the more true since Walesa, once in office, will not be able to criticize his Prime Minister, while offering basically the same medicine. Incidentally, the general awareness in Poland that the two former friends from Solidarity offered essentially the same economic prescription–the so-called Balcerowicz plan–was one of Tyminski’s assets. He could be different things to different people. For some he was a symbol of capitalist success. For others he was the outsider, the opponent of consensus, the man accusing the government of selling the country on the cheap to foreigners. Now that so much of the capital acquired by Solidarity has been visibly squandered, will Walesa change his economic line, or will he look for scapegoats? Judging by the unscrupulous conduct of his campaign, it is difficult to be optimistic.

For the outside world the main message of this election is that good will is inevitably a fast-wasting asset. The Polish example has been widely quoted by the advocates of “shock therapy,” notably in Moscow. If the doctor is popular, the nation is ready to take the most bitter potion, the reformers around Boris Yeltsin have argued. Now the advocates of the fast track to capitalism throughout the area are themselves in shock. If the Poles, with a labor movement behind them, have so rapidly spent the political capital acquired over ten years of heroic struggle, the precedent is discouraging.

For the same reasons, Western media reaction to the Polish election has been uneasy. Clearly, anticommunism plus capitalist shock tactics is not quite enough. Yet that is no reason to follow the arguments of some commentators in Warsaw who, echoing Brecht, are now ready to dissolve the people. Those Polish politicians who are beginning to say that their people may not be ripe for democracy would do well to look in a mirror. A year after the fall of the Berlin wall, the days of illusion are over.

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