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: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.” 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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.