Not Quite a Revolution

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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,

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 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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