Not Quite a Revolution
When Poland's big-name politicians faced off for the first time in direct elections for local posts, voters, expected to turn out in droves, instead acted more like their apathetic Western counterparts.
Before this fall's local elections, political scientists had placed their bets on direct elections as an antidote to widespread apathy in political life, a way to finally overcome the low voter turnout that has plagued elections on both the national and local level in Poland. For the first time post-1989, Poles would vote directly to choose their local leaders, and these new high-profile elections would force political parties to roll out big names for powerful positions such as mayor. The resulting battles, it was thought, would be competitive and generate lines at the ballot boxes.
The parties, to a large extent, delivered, offering up famous national politicians for the two rounds of elections on 27 October and 10 November--the fourth local (and second regional) elections since the fall of communism. But Poles largely stayed at home, even in the capital--a dose of realism for those who believed that these elections would undoubtedly represent a turning point in the growth of the country's grassroots democracy. In the end, it seems, despite the high expectations, the country has much in common with its Western counterparts (the recent direct election of the mayor of London--a historic first--generated similarly low figures). Instead, the most interesting thing about the outcome could be the inclusion of more extremist parties, largely isolated on the national scene, in local and regional coalitions with more mainstream parties.
The last decade was a time of fundamental changes in the local and regional administrations. First, in 1990, self-governing local units were re-established after 40 years of communism, ending the system of complete subordination to the central authorities. Since the roundtable agreement negotiated between the communist government and Solidarity activists mandated that the communists maintain their positions in parliament and in the central administration, Poles' first post-1989 democratic elections took place on the local level. As a result, from the beginning opinion polls showed that local government enjoyed significant democratic legitimacy and was seen as an important pro-reform force.
The situation further improved in 1998, when parliament passed wide-ranging administrative reforms: Strong regional units were formed and introduced in 1999, regional councils were elected, and substantial power was transferred from the center (even if few financial resources were provided to back up the changes).
Nevertheless, turnout in the 1990s for local elections remained low at between 30 and 40 percent. Those numbers have also characterized nationwide polls, except for presidential elections, which typically fall within the 60 to 70 percent range. Turnout has been a particular problem in larger towns, where local elites are seen as alien, in contrast to rural areas, where political participation is still higher. Many Poles have clearly not managed to overcome the communist legacy--when low turnout was a symbol of protest--and still see public life as an abstract institution ruled by outsiders.
This past summer was supposed to change that: The parliament finally approved a bill mandating the direct election of mayors and heads of communes. In one stroke, that law eliminated the chasm that had existed between national and local politicians, with local positions seen as second-rate. Direct elections encouraged leaders of various political parties to compete in major Polish towns, such as Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan, and Wroclaw. Not surprisingly, with national politicians suddenly dominating the local scene, the campaign saw general declarations of intent to improve the efficiency of the administration, fight corruption, decrease unemployment, improve safety and security, and improve the overcrowded road system.
Especially attractive was the position of Warsaw mayor, a high-profile job often seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency. Reflecting both the fragmented political scene and the Polish tendency to extreme individualism, 14 candidates decided to run in the first round. One of the most prominent candidates was Andrzej Olechowski, one of the leaders of the Civic Platform (PO). A former finance and foreign minister who came in second in the last presidential campaign in 2000, Olechowski has not concealed his ambitions to run again in 2005, when President Aleksander Kwasniewski's term runs out.
The second most well-known candidate was Lech Kaczynski, a controversial populist who, as justice minister in the previous government, pushed hard for radical changes to Polish criminal law, including extremely harsh penalties for criminals. In the 2001 parliamentary elections, his quickly formed Law and Justice Party (PiS) promised improvements to the judicial system and community safety and gained a hefty 10 percent of the vote.
The only woman who entered the race was Julia Pitera, an independent. Like Kaczynski, she advocated a fight against corruption and greater transparency in the local administration, calls buoyed by her position as chair of the Polish office of Transparency International, an influential anti-corruption organization. More of a "local" politician than her competitors, she has served for the last eight years as a Warsaw city council member. Meanwhile, the electoral chances of Marek Balicki were increased by the fact that he was representing the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD), which won the last parliamentary elections. Zbigniew Bujak, a symbol of underground Solidarity, represented the tiny Freedom Union, which in the 1990s was one of the main pro-reform forces.
The other candidates, while adding color to the elections, did not stand much of a chance. They included Janusz Piechocinski, one of the leaders of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), who used the opportunity to promote the new image of his party as a force for more than just rural interests; Waldemar Frydrych, a famous oppositionist who fought against the socialist authoritarian system by poking fun at it, including organizing teenagers to give flowers and thank police officers; Jerzy Krzekotowski, a self-made local politician, who promoted public housing for lower-income families; Senator Henryk Dzido, representing the populist Self-Defense party; and former Interior Minister Antoni Maciarewicz, famous for his lustration law and who until recently represented the arch-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR) but stood as an independent this time.
Despite the crowd of mayoral candidates, until a week before the election, opinion polls showed that only three candidates had a chance of reaching the second round: Kaczynski, Olechowski, and Balicki.
In the end, the Warsaw mayoral runoff pitted Kaczynski against Balicki, and early results estimated that the former won with at least 70 percent--no surprise since he was only 2,276 votes short of the 50 percent that would have given him victory in the first round. In the first round, Balicki received 21.85 percent of the vote and Olechowski 13.47 percent. Pitera and Bujak trailed behind with 5.97 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.
The big loser was Olechowski, whom most analysts had expected to do battle with Kaczynski in a closely contested runoff. Instead, blunders by the PO, Olechowski's party, sunk his chances. Just a few days before the election, the party committed a serious political mistake in the Polish Sejm, the lower house of parliament, by failing to condemn a pre-electoral stunt by several of the extremist opposition parties.
Parli amentarian Gabriel Janowski of the populist LPR staged a sit-in after receiving a rebuff to his demand for an explanation from the Treasury Ministry about the sale of a Polish company to a German owner. He was later removed by force. The radical Self-Defense party repeated the action the next day. Evidently disgusted by the paralyzing effect on the Sejm's work--and disappointed by the PO's lack of backbone--many potential backers of the party stayed home on election day.
While the disruption in the Sejm contributed greatly to Olechowski's fall, both Self-Defense and the LPR benefited, bettering their results from the previous elections. The SLD, in coalition with the smaller Labor Union (UP), won the most seats in local and district councils across the country, but the numbers were down from the previous election--hardly a surprise considering the floundering economy. In general, the PSL succeeded in rural areas and the SLD in urban areas.
In larger towns, voters based their choice for mayor less on party affiliation and more on personality, while in the case of town councils, they continued the tradition of voting by party. In smaller towns and villages, mayoral candidates representing national parties often fared poorly, losing to local leaders whose independent political standing made them more attractive than those connected to the major parties, viewed as driven by partisan interests and mired in permanent conflict. Town and rural councils followed a similar pattern, with candidates representing local blocs doing better than those representing national parties. (For a complete rundown of the results and their implications for the political scene, see accompanying article by Aleks Szczerbiak).
Even with all the well-known faces, participation remained low, at around 44 percent. In Warsaw, turnout was only 41 percent, despite opinion polls two weeks earlier suggesting that it could be as high as 70 percent.
THE WAITING GAME
The presidential campaign is three years away, and in that time unexpected events could determine the electoral chances of even the most successful mayor of Warsaw. However, the crucial link between local and national politics has been established. Regardless of the low turnout, the establishment of direct elections of town mayors has significantly strengthened their power.
With the stress on vibrant personalities rather than faceless bureaucrats, direct elections should eventually revitalize local politics. If citizen interest in the activities of local and regional governments increases, local and regional authorities will be forced to be more transparent in their actions and intensify their contacts with their constituencies. Eventually, the national parliament and central government will be the destination for politicians who have proven successful in local and regional politics, the norm in most Western countries.
Now, however, the political scientists will have to wait another few years to find out if the general lack of participation signifies a trend. Despite their impatience, the reformers should remember that it is much easier to build new institutions and pass new laws than to encourage active civic behavior--especially after 40 years of socialism. Gradual changes in social attitudes--rather than radical upheavals--are what we should expect.
Dr. Tatiana Majcherkiewicz, a sociologist, is a lecturer at the University of Mining and Metallurgy in Krakow.
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