Democracy tarnishes its heroes as surely as revolutions devour their children. For 25 years, the leaders of Solidarity personified the qualities needed to win Poland’s struggle for democracy: unbending courage in the face of the communist Leviathan and magnanimity and clear-sighted determination during the transfer of power. All of these were great and noble qualities, and all of them now seem utterly superfluous to most Poles.
That is the sad lesson of Poland’s parliamentary election two weeks ago, and of Sunday’s indecisive presidential election (which will be decided by a run off between Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczynski on October 23rd.) To be sure, the communists-cum-postcommunists who have dominated Polish politics since 1989 were utterly repudiated – the left got scarcely 11% of the vote in the parliamentary poll. But Solidarity’s old guard has also been cast aside. Poland yearns for something new.
Poland’s recent elections were the first in which the postcommunist left was irrelevant. The postcommunists know that they can no longer live off their legacy of organization and discipline, so they have chosen a clever and attractive 34-year-old leader. He has nothing to do with the communist era and has sacked all former Party members from important positions, even barring former Prime Minister Leszek Miller from standing for parliament.
This is undoubtedly all to the good. But the overall health of Polish democracy is another matter. Turnout for the parliamentary election was 40%, which puts Poland near the bottom in voter participation among the democratic nations of the world, and about 25-30% below the European average.