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ELECTIONS : Former Communists Poised to Return to Power in Poland


WARSAW — Just four years after the celebrated collapse of communism in Poland, the so-called invisible hand of capitalism is about to get slapped.

Fed up with the stresses and strains of building a market economy from the shambles of communism, Poles are poised to do the seemingly unthinkable Sunday: elect a government with roots in the haunted past.

Recent public opinion polls show that the country that bore Solidarity and helped inspire a revolution across Eastern Europe is likely to give two parties of repackaged former Communists a stunning victory in parliamentary elections.

"I thought it would take 10 or 15 years before we would gain any influence," said candidate Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, a former Communist Party member who now describes himself as a West European-style social democrat. "I was a pessimist. It turned out we needed less than five."

The two parties--the Democratic Left Alliance and the rural Polish Peasant Party--have successfully exploited the failings of capitalism, promising to soften the blow of the country's painful economic transition.

They have also benefited from infighting among their opponents and the incredibly splintered electoral scene. With 15 parties competing for 460 seats in the Sejm, or lower house of Parliament, a showing of 20% would almost guarantee a role in the new government.

Neither of the Communist-bred parties advocates a return to Soviet-style communism--in part, as one candidate explained, because there is no Soviet Union. But both call for a greater state role in the economy, particularly control over privatization.

The private sector now accounts for more than half of economic activity in Poland, and the country has been widely praised as a model for Eastern European economies breaking with their Communist pasts. But the economic miracle has been a harder sell at home, where many Poles long for the security of the former regime.

"There is a great sense of pessimism and disillusionment after all of the promises of the changed system," said Maciej Zurowski, a retired university professor. "I think the criticism of the old system was excessive."

Poland is likely to post the highest rate of growth in all of Europe this year, but unemployment has risen above 15% and the chasm between rich and poor has grown wider. Government economists boast that inflation has finally been checked, but consumers still face a 36% rise in prices this year.

The advances of capitalism abound: Fancy imported cars speed through Warsaw's increasingly stylish streets, and glitzy new shops offer the finest goods from abroad. But for many ordinary workers and those on fixed incomes, the newfound prosperity remains agonizingly out of reach.

"We are in despair," said one old woman from a bench in Warsaw's historic Old Town. "So what if we can now travel to other countries? Who can afford it?"

An independent poll published Friday by the respected Demoskop pollsters showed the Peasant Party with 20% of the vote and the Democratic Left with 16%. Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka's Democratic Union, the strongest party to emerge from the Solidarity movement, placed third with 14%.

Even with victories, it is not certain the former Communists would be able to form a coalition government because of differences among them. Even so, the prospect of a swing to the left has shocked much of the nation.

Right-wing groups have threatened demonstrations, and President Lech Walesa, while promising to honor the election results, has called the situation "difficult and dangerous."

One of the harshest reactions has come from the Roman Catholic Church.

"It is hard to imagine that, after the fall of Nazi Germany, former members of the Nazi party could aspire to take over power, promising that the German state would soon flourish under their leadership," Bishop Jozef Zycinski of Tarnow wrote in a recent pastoral letter. "Meanwhile, in the Polish situation, the vision of prosperity is often presented by the same activists who, for many years, consistently led the country to ruin."

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