A Freshly Democratic Country Flinches Over Slinging Mud

POLES, and especially presidential candidate Alexander Kwasniewski, are getting a taste of an independent negative campaign against a controversial front-running candidate.

Swallow-the-leader-and-spit-him-out may be a normal occurrence in election campaigns in the United States. But it is startling for Poles who are not used to high-pressure politics.

The ''3/4 Initiative,'' formed this summer in Krakow, has set its sights on Mr. Kwasniewski, a former government minister during Communism and the front-runner in this year's presidential campaign.

Supporters of the 3/4 Initiative don't want the fresh-faced, youthful Kwasniewski elected, fearing his Democratic Left Alliance could lead the country back into the past. They felt that since Kwasniewski had (until recently) about 25 percent support in opinion polls, three-quarters of the population must be against him.

''If Kwasniewski becomes president, all power will be in the hands of one party, which is made up of people deeply rooted in the former Communist system,'' says Wojciech Modelski, the initiative's chief organizer.

''The system of checks and balances will end. All important reforms will be slowed or stopped. Almost everything we have achieved in Poland since 1989 will be lost,'' he adds.

Mr. Modelski prefers to call the initiative, the first movement in Poland that is independent of a candidate, an ''information campaign'' instead of a negative campaign. ''In our political tradition, people don't like a strong-fighting and mud-slinging candidate,'' says Kazimierz Bujak, a professor of political sociology at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.

The initiative was founded by some members of the centrist Union for Freedom party (UW) and endorses three candidates for upcoming presidential elections Sunday. But Modelski says the initiative mainly aims to provide information that attacks the slick, liberal image that Kwasniewski is trying to convey while distancing himself from his Communist past.

''The purpose of our initiative is to ask him unanswered questions and present the things he has done in the past,'' Modelski says.

The initiative's first action publicized the fact that Kwasniewski voted for a statute of limitations on crimes committed in Communist Poland, a charge that Kwasniewski denied but was later proved to be true.

Members of other political parties joined in the outcry in what Modelski calls ''a snowball effect.'' He says many people now have joined the initiative who were never politically active. The initiative now has 60 chapters.

The initiative hands out leaflets printed on meat-rationing cards that Poles were forced to use under the Communist economy of the early 1980s. The cards claim that in six months Kwasniewski will try to bring back rationing. The initiative also organizes groups to talk about issues under a Kwasniewski presidency.

The initiative mainly peppers Kwasniewski with questions at his rallies. Kwasniewski says that the group harms ''politics in Poland'' and is an attempt to bring mudslinging into the campaign. He has been known not to answer difficult questions about his past, calling them ''3/4 questions.''

Political observers say the movement has brought some backlash, saying the candidates the initiative endorses have lost support before the first round of presidential elections Nov. 5.

''Society's worst reaction to the initiative has hurt Jacek Kuron, UW's presidential candidate, because people believe he is the main power behind the scenes and he isn't,'' Dr. Bujak says.

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