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The Strange Normality of Polish Elections

WARSAW: On September 21 Poland is to hold parliamentary elections that will be totally free. A minimum of four (and perhaps as many as seven) parties may enter parliament. Differences between the left and the right seem stark. Given such "clear" choices, you would think that Polish voters should feel empowered. Yet Poles are dissatisfied not only with their politics, but with the very sterility of democratic choice.

What is wrong? What is missing? One answer is obvious if you look at the structure of Polish party politics (a structure also visible in other postcommunist countries, such as Hungary). A future majority in the Sejm (Parliament) can only be created by a coalition of no fewer than three parties. Such coalition-building may seem normal in countries that adhere to the principle of proportional representation. But in Poland voters feel cheated because the configuration of parties that will enter the various coalitions is entirely unpredictable. In an earlier election many people voted for the liberal Union of Freedom party not because they agreed with its program but because they hated the rival Catholic and nationalist parties. What happened after the elections? A coalition of the Union of Freedom with the Catholics and the nationalists was formed.

When such coalitions of convenience are not only possible but common, voters who try to behave rationally are forced to confront the irrational outcomes of their own behavior. They cannot foresee who will rule and what policies the government will pursue, even if their favorite party joins the governmental coalition. But when anything is possible, and nothing is predictable, the act of voting becomes senseless and politics itself loses all meaning. Voters are given their formal right of democratic choice, but are denied its substance. Not surprisingly, this aberration of democracy incites widespread cynicism. Seven years after communism’s end, sad to say, it is possible that no more than 40% of Poles will bother voting.

A second factor must also be taken into account if Polish politics are to be understood. Today, we do have what might be called a "left," although its main representatives, the postcommunists, follow Britain’s new Labour prime minister Tony Blair in believing more strongly in a market economy than in extending social welfare. A liberal, open minded, pro-market party -- the Union of Freedom headed by Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Poland’s economic renewal -- occupies the political center.