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Poland: The New Opposition


On Sunday, November 29, more than 17 million Polish citizens, among a total population of 37 million, went to the polls to vote in the second referendum ever held in Communist Poland (the first was a rigged vote of approval of the Communist provisional government in 1947). The voters were asked whether they were “in favor” of two propositions:

  1. To carry out the “full government program for radical economic recovery,” aimed at “improving living conditions,” on the understanding that this would require a “difficult” two-to-three-year period of “rapid changes.”

  2. To introduce a new “Polish model” for “democratizing political life, aimed at strengthening self-government, extending the rights of citizens and increasing their participation” in running the country.

The propositions, however obscure and however vaguely phrased, conveyed a clear message. The government, in effect, was saying, “We recognize that the national economy is not working; it may, in fact, be approaching a catastrophe.1 We are finally prepared to take steps to decentralize the economy and allow more political liberty. But these steps—especially the economic ones—will require austerity and sacrifice, including higher prices, and cannot be carried out without the cooperation of the people. We are asking for their approval.”

To the first statement, 11.6 million voters (66 percent of the ballots cast) answered “yes” and 4.8 million (27.7 percent) voted “no.” To the second, 12.1 million (69 percent) said “yes” and 4.3 million (24.6 percent) “no.”2

One might think the government won a clear victory, but by its own guidelines it did not. According to a law passed last spring, a referendum must be won by a majority of all the eligible voters, not of the votes actually cast; and on November 29 about a third of the eligible voters didn’t vote. As a result only 44 percent of the electorate voted in favor of the first proposition and 46 percent for the second. According to its own law, the government suffered an embarrassing defeat, and one unprecedented for a Communist country.

Some of Jaruzelski’s top officials had feared just this result. Józef Czyrek, the No. 2 man in the Politburo, told me in September that he was worried about the idea of the referendum, and wasn’t sure whether it would ever take place. “What is the sense,” he said, “of asking hard economic questions? Can you imagine what the response would be if we asked our citizens whether they are in favor of, say, a 20 percent price increase?” An important Party secretary, Stanislaw Ciosek, said much the same thing.

A week after the vote, the talk in Warsaw was only of the referendum. Was the result personal defeat for Jaruzelski, who had described the new law as proof of his government’s (and his own) commitment to “democratization”? The vaguely worded first question did not spell out the kind of sacrifices that would have to be made in the period of “rapid changes” (although everyone knew they would include higher prices). But why did so many voters, who have had their fill of unfulfilled promises, approve of going through yet another “difficult period”? Or did many people vote out of fear that staying home, or voting “no,” might risk harassment?

The government’s campaign before the vote was as expensive as it was crude: in a country so desperately short of paper that even rough toilet tissues are hard to find, over a million zlotys were spent on posters and articles, not to mention constant radio and TV announcements so insistent and boring they could well have put people off voting. Moreover, the voting instructions were bizarre: in order to vote “yes,” you had to put a cross in a box on the ballot marked “no,” and vice versa.

The public position of the Catholic Church may also help to account for the relatively high number of “yes” votes. The government was clearly anxious that the Church, if it did not approve the referendum, would at least be neutral. It offered the Church authorities a concession: it would withdraw from the high school a textbook whose frankness about sexual matters the Church had strongly objected to. In the days before the election, the Church kept quiet about the vote itself and Cardinal Glemp went so far as to say that “even a flawed reform is better than none.”^3

As for those voting “no,” a party journalist compared the referendum to a patient who is asked to give his consent to a painful and risky operation: a lot would depend on his confidence in the surgeon, and Poles have reason to distrust theirs.


The leaders of Solidarity couldn’t agree on what to do about the referendum. First they called for a boycott of the vote and then for “ignoring” it. They failed to challenge Jaruzelski by raising the questions he was evading, such as exactly what economic reforms were to be carried out, and who would decide, and on what grounds, whether they were working or not. After the vote, Solidarity’s National Executive Commission said the results were a clear-cut defeat for the government and asserted that Solidarity’s own 1981 program for democracy and economic efficiency was the only “goal” capable of “uniting” the Polish people.4

The government for its part managed to make a show of confidence. It had little to say about what the text of the referendum actually meant and stressed that it had been ratified by a majority of those who voted. “Over two thirds of adult Poles,” the press spokesman, Jerzy Urban, said, “went to the polls, thus testifying that they…supported the radical reforms.” The actual shape of the reforms, he said, would now be determined by the Sejm, or parliament.5 On December 15, the prime minister, Zbigniew Messner, announced that average consumer prices would rise by 27 percent in 1988, and that price increases would be spread over three years, rising at a rate of 27 percent per year, rather than 40 percent as originally planned.6

Soon after the vote, I talked with three high officials—Józef Czyrek and Stanislaw Ciosek, both Party secretaries, and Vice Premier Edward Sadowski, a non-Party economist respected even by those of his colleagues critical of the reforms. Each one predictably said he was extremely satisfied with the referendum results, but when I asked Ciosek why the Sejm had passed such an odd referendum law, he sighed, “I am afraid we do everything in much too much of a hurry.” Some people, he said, may have voted “yes” out of “unjustifiable apprehension”—apprehension, presumably, that something bad would happen to them if they voted no. Nonetheless, “this was a great lesson in democracy,” which proved “above all that you cannot have economic without political reforms.” But wouldn’t the hard-liners in the Communist party now argue, in view of the equivocal vote, that such exercises in “democracy” are futile, even dangerous? Ciosek admitted that there is a sharp division of opinion within the apparat, but he said that “the reformers” like himself “are bound to win.”

A journalist and economist who has been attempting—thus far unsuccessfully—to found an “economic association” promoting private enterprise gave me a more convincing explanation of the results. “The government can claim that it has shown its commitment to ‘democracy,’ ” Jerzy Paszynski told me. “It has a ready-made alibi for the World Bank and the IMF that there isn’t enough social support for the drastic austerity measures the IMF insists are necessary if Poland is to have the payments on its $36 billion debt rescheduled and to get more loans. The reformers have been told that the reforms will go on. The hard-liners have been assured that the process will be slow. In other words, there’s something for everyone.”

On December 5, a maverick member of the Sejm, the distinguished sociologist Dr. Mikolaj Kozakiewicz, offered the shrewdest analysis of all. He had, he said, heard much talk about the high standard the government had imposed for interpreting the election—it had, after all, sought a majority of all voters, not of votes cast. Some had claimed this was evidence of a concern for “maximum democracy.” But this was nonsense, Kozakiewicz said. The real aim of the government in requiring a majority of all eligible voters was to make it difficult in the future for the public to impose any decisions on the authorities. The government, having granted the referendum to ingratiate itself with the people, wanted to make sure their influence was limited. “But,” Kozakiewicz went on, “you cannot with one hand set new mechanisms in motion, and with the other apply the old brakes.” That just leads to the “destruction of the automobile.”

The daily Zycie Warszawy (December 7, 1987) published a sizable excerpt from Kozakiewicz’s speech, but it omitted the heart of his grimly sardonic remarks (I quote from the text the author gave me):

Our situation is fraught with danger: the foes of reforms will exploit the absence of a decisive result to turn back, soft-pedal, and postpone the reforms…. Paradoxically, left “fundamentalists” [in the opposition] and right-wingers [in the apparat] have joined hands, the latter because…they are bent on protecting their convictions and personal positions, the others because…the improvement and modernization of a socialist society is not in the interests of people who are sworn to the principle “the worse the better” and are only waiting…for the “final crash.” We are faced with the single and perhaps the very last chance to emerge from [our country’s] crisis. There is no longer any room…for replacing decisive actions with half-measures, and real reforms with cosmetic subterfuges.


The controversies surrounding the referendum were revealing. They suggested that the image of Poland in the Western press is far from accurate. On the one hand, we are told, a monolithic Party leadership makes meaningless gestures of “liberalization,” while tenaciously holding on to its power and privileges. On the other a passive population is unwilling to act against the regime it hates, while remaining loyal to the principles put forward by Solidarity. There is some truth in this, but not much. The ruling elite is clearly not “monolithic.” It is split into self-interested factions, each with different ideas of what (if any) reforms should be made and how extensive they should be. (Ideological questions of “Marxism-Leninism” seem to concern no one who is close to power.)

As for the population, polls taken by sociologists such as Stefan Nowak, whose findings are not contested by Solidarity, show that about 25 percent are sympathetic to the regime, and another 25 percent favor the opposition (though only 20 percent approve of such opposition activities as organizing separate unions). The rest of the Poles—i.e., most of them—say they are indifferent between the two; and many of them are willing to give the government’s proclaimed desire to improve living conditions the benefit of the doubt—a clue, it would seem, to why so many people voted “yes.”

  1. 1

    For a brief account of the disastrous state of the Polish economy, and of the failure of Jaruzelski’s government to do anything decisive about it, see my article in The New York Review, January 15, 1987. Though production has risen during the past year, the general state of the economy is in some respects even worse than before. A year ago, the estimated waiting period for an apartment was twenty years. In some cities such as Kraków, it is now thirty years. There have been continuing shortages of basic food supplies as well as such items as toothpaste. During the last few months no cheese has been available in most cities except for a tasteless “processed” variety. No wonder that in a recent poll 85 percent of Polish youth expressed the desire to live abroad, a third of them “for good.”

  2. 2

    See Rzeczpospolita, Warsaw, December 1, 1987.

  3. 4

    See NEWS, published by the Coordinating Office Abroad of NSZZ “Solidarnosc,” Brussels, December 1–15, 1987. The National Executive Commission was formed on October 25 to replace the two bodies that had coexisted since September 1986—the underground Temporary Coordinating Commission and the open Provisional Council.

  4. 5

    See Rzeczpospolita, December 1, 1987.

  5. 6

    See John Tagliabue, “Poland Will Raise Prices by 27 percent,” The New York Times, December 16, 1987.

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