Poles' First Gulp of Freedom
To most Rejszew residents, taking part in the Solidarity landslide meant `pure happiness'. POLAND ELECTIONS: SMALL-TOWN VIEW
REJSZEW, POLAND — ELZBIETA MICHALKIEWICZ arrived at 8 a.m. Inside the village's one-room ``farmer's house'' converted for the day into an election station, the polls already had been open for two hours. Elzbieta entered. An electoral commissioner checked her identity card and gave her a ballot. The first sheet contained a list of Poland's communist leaders, all running unopposed on a ``national'' list. Elzbieta began crossing off each of the 35 names, smiling with each motion of her hand as if to show physical pleasure at rejecting unwanted rulers.
Then she checked the names of three Solidarity candidates from the Senate and the one Solidarity candidate for the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.
When Elzbieta emerged from the private voting booth, the president of the electoral commission offered her a red rose - the traditional gift celebrating a citizen's first vote.
``I felt like I was 18 again,'' explained Elzbieta, a pretty 36-year old mother of three children. ``Until now, it never seemed worth it to vote.''
On June 4, 1989, Poland held the freest election ever in the Soviet World. In this village just north of Warsaw, 369 registered voters were eligible to participate in the historic event. They gulped down their first taste of freedom, often with emotion, sometimes confused, always peaceful and serene. Many expressed a general good humor not often experienced by more jaded Western democracies at election time.
Throughout the day and into the evening, until the polls closed at 10 p.m., Elzbieta offered information sheets about Solidarity candidates to each voter. She converted her Volvo sedan into an small election office, parking it just outside the official election office and covering it with screaming red-and-white ``Vote For Us'' Solidarity posters.
The Communist Party seemed invisible. No party volunteer canvassed voters, and no party campaign posters could be found. Its only presence was across the street in a small trailer.
``Secret Police,'' Elzbieta whispered.
Inside the trailer, three broad-shouldered, young men with bushy, blond mustaches were playing cards and drinking coffee. A question about what they were doing and why they weren't enjoying the sunshine outside brought a bark: ``Get lost.''
``Well, its good they don't want to show their faces,'' Elzbieta laughed. ``They used to spend the entire day inside the election office intimidating people.''
This time, party supporters seemed intimidated. One story being told concerned an old man who came to the voting office and hesitated for a long time before entering. Finally, he whispered to an election commissioner, his voice trembling, ``is this also where communists vote?''
Old men and women came from church. Farmers drew up in their trucks. Youngsters arrived on motorcycles. Some came with several identity cards. In the past, one person could cast ballots for his entire family, even for friends. This time, each voter had to be present in person. Afterwards, almost everyone queried gave the same response.
``Who did you vote for?''
``Solidarnosc, Oczywiscie! - Solidarity, Of course!''
``Because it gives us hope.''
Complaints about communist misrule poured forth. Rejszew has no telephone even though it is only 20 miles from Warsaw. It has no running water. And its electricity service often breaks down. The night before the election, a thundershower cut off the supply and voters could not see the final evening campaign speeches.
``We're not primitive, we want something better,'' said Zofia Nyszynska, a 45-year old mother of two.
``Poles used to be known for good things,'' she added.
When the polls closed at 10 p.m., 187 people had voted. The final score was a stunning, if predictable, success for Solidarity. Its candidates for Senate wracked up 136, 142, and 130 votes, while party candidates took only nine votes each, and of the 28 other candidates, none took more than four votes.
The Solidarity candidate for the Sejm swept 180 votes. No other candidate - there were six in all - received more than two votes. Many other ballots were invalidated.
Party candidates running unopposed on the national list all suffered dramatic defeats. Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski posted only 54 positive votes - a pitiful 22 percent. None of the reform-minded Politburo members scored more than 70 votes - less than 30 percent - even though Solidarity leaders had called for them to be supported.
``People just couldn't help it, they wanted to slap those communist faces,'' Elzbieta explained afterwards.
``We all wanted to tell them that they must be responsible for their actions.''
The low turnout of 68 percent did not upset her. Some abstentions, she admitted, came from young radicals who criticized Solidarity for ``compromising with the communists.'' But most of the stay-aways were people who voted in the past out of fear.
``People used to feel like cows here on election day,'' Elzbieta said. ``If they didn't vote, they couldn't hide, and the local party chief would discriminate against them with building permits and other things.''
That fear vanished on June 4. Those who stayed away chose to stay away, those who voted chose to vote. In Warsaw, many feared that Solidarity won too large a victory, that frustrated party hardliners might take the elections as an excuse to crack down.
But in Rejszew, there was only joy. ``You could see it in peoples' faces, in the way they drove around Monday honking their horns and flipping their lights on and off,'' Elzbieta reported.
``This election was pure Happiness for Poles.''