National Catholic Register


In Washington, Activists Cheer Poland’s Return to Solidarity

BY Victor Gaetan

October 12-18, 1997 Issue | Posted 10/12/97 at 2:00 PM


WASHINGTON-Solidarity is back.

Four years after an almost unimaginable defeat, in which Polish President Lech Walesa lost his job to former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, a new Christian democratic coalition, mobilized by Walesa's trade union successors, unexpectedly won Poland's parliamentary elections Sept. 21.

Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) won 34.7 percent of the vote, while the governing party's Democratic Left Alliance received 26.8 percent. Pre-election polls had predicted a dead heat.

Although the Catholic Church did not officially endorse AWS, the coalition and its president, 47-year-old Marian Krzaklewski (kuh-zhak-LEV-ski), championed Catholic issues and concerns and was tacitly supported by Church leadership, including the archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Jozef Glemp.

During the campaign, Krzaklewski called a new Polish constitution “godless,” in part because it does not ban abortion. He spoke of protecting the Catholic Church's central role in national life—and his political platform's principal plank is a pro-family policy to help families with young children.

“We're jubilant,” exclaimed Michael Szporer, a Polish-American Solidarity activist based in Washington, D.C., who helped organize Krzaklewski's May 1997 visit to the United States.

“This election proves that Solidarity remains the guarantor of democracy in Poland. Marian Krzaklewski has built a modern Christian democratic political party based in the union but much broader. It's a real [grassroots] coalition,” he explained.

Among the smaller political parties composing AWS is the Party for Catholic Families, according to Tad Meus, spokesman for the Foundation for Free Speech, a pro-Solidarity nonprofit organization based in Chicago.

“The full support of the Catholic Church was behind AWS, so most political parties with Catholic ties are part of AWS too. AWS won big in American cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington where Polish-Americans could vote in the [Polish] election,” said Meus.

“Most Polish-Americans are strong anti-communists and that is what AWS is—a Solidarity party, and a Christian party that opposes the return of communist interests,” he added.

Many credit Krzaklewski as the force behind AWS's unexpected victory. A computer scientist who became president of the Solidarity trade union movement when Walesa was elected president of the nation in 1990, Krzaklewski is known for being extremely organized and for his devout Catholicism. His recent triumph stems from his ability to build unity, overcoming Solidarity's tendency to let internal disputes cripple electoral performance as happened in 1993.

Observed Szporer: “Marian Krzaklewski is part of a new wave of politicians. He reflects the future. While Walesa came out of the shipyards, Krzaklewski's professional union is at the National Academy of Sciences—a union he organized in the 1960s. When he was here in May, he told us that some AWS decisions are computerized. They have some kind of logarithm to weigh, or adjust for, the power each party in the coalition represents.”

Szporer said there was little assistance outside of Poland for the AWS electoral effort. “When Marian Krzaklewski came to the United States this year he was sponsored by the Polish-American Foundation for Free Speech. He spoke to leaders of the Polish-American Congress. Other American groups weren't involved. Pulling together his visit to Washington, D.C. was a real arduous task, because Solidarity was seen as the opposition.”

That was in marked contrast to the 1980s when Americans clamored to hear Walesa speak and American organizations like the AFL-CIO were quick to claim credit for Solidarity's stunning defeat of communism.

In fact, Solidarity—and by extension, AWS—have grown beyond the influence of outside forces like the AFL-ClO as was made clear at a seminar last month on labor unions and social justice at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Marek Kempski, a young Solidarity leader, presented a review of its current status and Poland's political scene. He was challenged by Paul Somogyi, an AFL-CIO representative, who seemed upset that Solidarity was charting its own future—including the decision to create an electoral coalition with a Christian democratic orientation.

“Solidarity has blindly followed the promise of the market, and followed shock therapy without getting anything back,” declared Somogyi, who also criticized the union for being “sacrificed as a training ground for the political leadership of Poland.”

Kempski reminded his opponent that Solidarity functions as a moral authority in Polish society, meaning that it has responsibility to the nation beyond the average trade union. He also explained that the history of the trade union and its relationship to the Catholic Church are thoroughly intertwined.

“Our activities are based on Christian values,” he explained; “and if we talk about the relationship with the Holy Father, it is Marian Krzaklewski who visits the Pope more often than other Polish politicians. Last year, we had a special pilgrimage of Polish trade unionists to Rome and 10,000 members participated. Our meeting took place in St. Paul's Cathedral. That's who we are.”

An observer of the exchange, who asked not to be named, explained that the AFL-CIO has a strong social democratic orientation and is a leader of the Socialist International. As such, it is ideologically antagonistic to Solidarity's new political manifestation as a Christian democratic party.

Kempski outlined two priorities for a new government led by AWS. First, to continue privatization in a way that minimizes the pain experienced by workers in heavy industry and, second, to promote decentralization of the state.

He also warned that forming a governing coalition might be difficult.

Indeed, the challenge currently at hand for AWS is to create a governing coalition with smaller parties. Possible coalition partners include Freedom Union (UW), dominated by politically active intellectuals with ties to the West, which won 14 percent-although Krzaklewski announced in mid-September that he did not favor allying with UW, which has been known to portray Walesa as a “nationalist”—or the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland (POP), which received 6 percent.

The composition of the governing coalition should be announced in the next few weeks.

Victor Gaetan is based Washington, D.C.