IN parliamentary elections set for Sunday, Poland appears ready to elect a government led by the successor to the Communist Party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).
This outcome would mark the end of four years of leadership by parties spawned from the Solidarity movement that opposed communism during the 1980s. Poland would become the first former East bloc nation to overturn its unabashedly pro-market leadership in an election. If public opinion polls are correct, the SLD will receive the most votes and be asked by President Lech Walesa to form a government.
``The last four years [the government hasn't] worried about the economy,'' says a Warsaw businessman who says he plans to vote for the SLD but declined to give his name. ``They worried about whether the eagle [on the national emblem] should have a crown, about abortion, but not about the economy. The economy is falling apart.''
In jeopardy is the administration of Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka, whose Democratic Union is predicted by one poll to finish third behind the Polish Peasant Party, a former communist satellite.
But no one is predicting a return to communism. On the contrary, the SLD portrays itself as Poland's social democratic alternative, akin to the left-of-center parties in Western Europe.
``We're heavily behind the market,'' party vice chairman Jozef Oleksy told the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
SLD leaders say they want to continue the direction of the current government's economic program but with more attention to the needs of the common worker. Critics say this could mean the subsidizing of large, inefficient, state-owned firms in an attempt to maintain employment; 15.4 percent of Poland's work force is already jobless, and the number is expected to peak at 20 percent next year. Seeking a compromise
SLD chairman Aleksander Kwasniewski says his party seeks a compromise between the free market and workers' needs.
``Because if we think about economic development only, then there is the question of social conflicts,'' he says. ``If we will speak only about the protection of the workers' interests, that is the disaster of the economy, because [that means] no new capital, no new investment ... and then the entrepreneurs will go from Poland.''
During its month-long campaign, Ms. Suchocka's Democratic Union has been counting on Poland's burgeoning private sector - employing roughly 60 percent of the work force - to provide the party with ample support. It stresses how inflation has slowed while Poland's rising gross domestic product has made the country East Europe's first to record economic growth.
Such numbers have failed to impress the electorate. Another pro-reform party - the Liberal Democratic Congress - may not even garner the requisite 5 percent of the vote to be represented in the Sejm (parliament).
Reports in Polish newspapers note how even Poland's new business community is uneasy with the free market, in which risk-takers can lose their shirts.
In an attempt to ease the concerns of Western lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mr. Kwasniewski says the SLD would raise the budget deficit no more than 1 percent.
The IMF and World Bank provide Poland with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans on the condition that deficit and inflation targets are met. Critics also fear that the SLD's plans to scrutinize the privatization process will slow the entry of foreign capital. Memories of `spiritual poverty'
Politically, SLD's opponents cringe at their imminent defeat at the hands of the former communists.
``People do not remember the `80s and `70s,'' says Andrzej Potocki, spokesman for Democratic Union. ``This great time of material and - if I may say so - spiritual poverty created by the communists.''
The SLD received a boost recently when President Walesa, who led the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, said he would appoint a prime minister from the party taking the most votes.
``Today the left is different, they have a lot of young people,'' Walesa told the Polish news agency PAP last week. ``As the president, as a realist, I have to accept what democracy provides me.''
Walesa dissolved parliament and called for elections on May 31 after Suchocka's government lost a no-confidence vote.
The president then formed his own political movement aimed at drawing undecided voters to the reform camp - the Non-Party Bloc for the Support of Reforms (BBWR). BBWR's popularity waned after it began acting ``like a normal political party,'' according to Piotr Starzynski of the CBOS Public Opinion Research Center.
Walesa's BBWR may even find trouble reaching parliament, as might Poland's main Catholic party, the Christian National Union (CNU), which as part of a pre-election coalition entitled ``Fatherland'' requires 8 percent of the vote to qualify. SLD seeks a separation of church and state and criticizes the Sejm for having passed a CNU-sponsored law last January that limits a woman's right to an abortion.