Poland: Solidarity May Blow Its Best Chance In Years

In Gdansk, shipyard workers clash violently with riot police. Miners and steelworkers storm and occupy the Treasury in Warsaw. It's hard to believe it is March, 1997, as shouts of "Gestapo!" and "Down with Communism!" echo in the streets. But the imminent forced closure of the bankrupt Gdansk yard, legendary birthplace of Poland's Solidarity movement, is stoking political passions. And Lech Walesa's successors have seized the moment to confront President Aleksander Kwasniewski and the former communists who now rule Poland.

Solidarity has shot back to prominence after years in the political desert thanks to labor leader Marian Krzaklewski. He has stitched together a grab bag of 30 center-right parties into an electoral alliance called Solidarity Election Action (AWS). Pollsters give it a fighting chance of winning power in general elections due in September, reversing the rout of Solidarity-backed parties in 1993 by Kwasniewski's reformed communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).

RAMPANT CRONYISM. Despite its strong economic performance, the government is playing into Krzaklewski's hands. Business leaders are delighted with the current 5.5% growth rate, declining inflation, and continuing market reforms. Nevertheless, they are increasingly unhappy about the huge centralization of power, high-handed tax policies, and rampant cronyism that still stalks Warsaw's corridors of power. Besides, the ruling coalition is divided. In a recent feud, hard-liners in the Polish Peasants Party forced the reformist Agriculture Minister out of office--even though he was backed by the SLD--because they didn't like his reforms.

All the same, Solidarity has some gaping weaknesses that could hurt its comeback bid. The AWS alliance has not been able to hammer out a coherent economic program. Its leaders have advocated a series of woolly ideas ranging from labor laws that protect workers' jobs to slowing down privatizations and giving greater state assets to workers.

Now, by demanding protection for workers, and using Gdansk as a political battering ram, Krzaklewski is widening a Solidarity schism dating back to 1990 between the labor union and intellectuals. Adam Michnik, a force in Solidarity during Walesa's heyday, editorialized in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper that the Gdansk protesters' message was really: "Down with a democratic state based on the rule of law." Other big names from Solidarity, such as former Prime Minster Hanna Suchocka, have long flown the coop to join the Freedom Union party, ardent free marketers.

Krzaklewski is running some other big risks. He's pushing such Polish hot buttons as the abortion issue. He tried, for example, to insert an outright abortion ban into the constitutional revision now in the final stages of parliamentary approval. And he's running on Roman Catholic Church social doctrines, such as Pope John Paul II's dictum "Capital should not be above man," and owners shouldn't be preferred over workers.

The Pope's planned 10-day visit to his native Poland at the end of May could make the church a key election issue. Even Kwasniewski is trying to preempt being labeled antichurch by meeting the Pope in the Vatican in April. Co-opting the church can, however, prove a poisoned chalice. It was one factor in Walesa's defeat in the 1995 presidential election. Although 90% of voters are baptized Catholics, polls show 7 in 10 want the church to keep out of politics.

Polish voters uneasy with the SLD's grip on power are clearly casting about for an alternative. But despite its climb in the polls, it's not sure that the AWS yet provides the answer. To succeed, it will have to find common ground with its more reform-minded partners--and let go of its heroic Solidarity past.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE