WARSAW — The Polish electorate, in what may be a unique experiment in democracy in post-war Eastern Europe, has rejected a government economic and political reform plan that would have resulted in higher prices, the government announced Monday.
The vote, taken in a nationwide referendum Sunday, comes as a sharp setback to the reform-minded government of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, which had campaigned strenuously to win approval for the measures, aimed mainly at shoring up Poland's troubled economy.
The government needed a 51% majority of Poland's 26.8 million eligible voters for the referendum to win an approval that authorities had said would be considered full and "binding."
Instead, the leading question on the ballot, asking voters to approve an economic plan that would mean a period of economic austerity, received approval from only 44% of the registered voters.
The second question, asking voters to approve what the ballot called "the Polish model of deep democratization," was supported by 46% of the electorate.
Only 67% of the voters turned out for the referendum, the lowest election turnout in modern Polish history, and the abstention rate was a major factor cutting into the majority that the government hoped to achieve.
From the 17 million voters who actually did turn out, the two questions on the ballot won majorities of 64% and 69%, respectively. However, the regulation covering the referendum, passed by the Polish Parliament, specified that a majority of eligible voters would be required for the approval to be binding.
Government spokesman Jerzy Urban noted that "this rigorous form of democracy" would not be found anywhere else in the world and that, even in Western countries, only the majority of those voting is considered in elections.
The outcome, he said, was "an answer to all who maintained our democratic institutions are a facade and that the democratic transformations in Poland are not true."
Urban stressed what may well become a government theme in coming weeks--that the referendum was the government's method of measuring the public's will and, as such, should not be read as a setback for the government's much-discussed plans for reform.
"I want to confirm the determination of the authorities to continue the reforms and the democratic procedure of consulting the opinions of voters on issues of vital interest to them," Urban said.
On the other hand, the result of the vote seems to strengthen the arguments of conservatives in the Polish Communist Party and government who regard Jaruzelski's reformist tendencies with misgiving. Jaruzelski, 64, is one of the youngest leaders in the Soviet Bloc of Eastern Europe and one of the first to embrace Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's concepts of glasnost and perestroika, words that mean openness and restructuring.
The question of why the referendum failed, at least by the standards that the government set for it, has complications that may take diplomats and other observers here some time to unravel.
The government's clearly announced intention to raise prices may have been the decisive reason behind most of the negative votes. The price increases in what the government called its "radical" program of reform--a term it used repeatedly in its promotion campaign as well as on the ballot itself--would have doubled the price of most staple food products and raised the price of rent and gasoline by more than 200%.
Much of the Polish public, feeling strained to the limit already, found the prospect of such sharp price increases unacceptable.
Urban also noted that the confusions of the ballot--voters were required to strike out the word "no" if they wanted to vote "yes"--may have accidently resulted in negative votes. Indeed, complaints about the ballots were often heard, although the government repeatedly demonstrated the correct voting procedure on television.
The low turnout itself may be partly explained as cynicism on that part of an electorate convinced in advance that the government would go ahead with its policies, no matter what the outcome of the vote. Many Poles who stayed away from the referendum expressed such views.
The result of the vote--the surprising and unique spectacle of a Communist government losing in an apparently honestly-counted national referendum--may actually win some credibility for the government from those who held the most jaundiced view of the procedure.
"I think it was an honest outcome," said one normally suspicious Polish journalist. "To that extent, it was a little bit of glasnost, a little bit of democracy in Poland."
Opposition figures, however, remained unconvinced. Leaders of the banned Solidarity trade union, who derided the referendum as "pure propaganda" and advised the public to stay home on election day, indicated that they were not surprised by the outcome.