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Ex-Communists Appear Victors in Polish Vote


WARSAW — Polish voters issued a stunning rebuke to the country's aggressive economic reformers Sunday, giving two parties with Communist-era roots a majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament, according to preliminary projections early today.

In just the second free parliamentary election since the collapse of communism in 1989, the biggest winner was the opposition Democratic Left Alliance, the successors to the former Communist Party. Finishing second was the Polish Peasant Party, which grew out of the former rural allies of the old Communists.

The so-called post-Communists skillfully exploited a deep resentment among many Poles about the inequities of the country's fledgling capitalist experiment, the most ambitious and fast-paced in Eastern Europe.

A recent opinion poll showed that nearly three in five Poles said they are worse off now than a year ago, when the Democratic Union party formed the current coalition government and aggressively promoted privatization and other market economy reforms.

"It seems the Democratic Union was not able to convince the people that the economic program we designed is necessary for Poland," said a dejected Bronislaw Geremek, the party's leader.

Led by a junior member of the last Polish Communist Council of Ministers, the Democratic Left Alliance won nearly 20% of the vote and was projected to occupy at least one-third of the 460 seats in the Sejm, or lower house of Parliament, according to exit polls conducted by Polish and German pollsters.

The Polish Peasant Party collected nearly 16% of the vote, according to the projections. Under the complex election law, the party would be awarded 137 parliamentary seats, giving the two Communist-bred parties a clear majority.

The leading Democratic Left party won just 12% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in 1991, when discontent about the harshness of Poland's drive toward a market economy was already evident. Exit polls showed that more than one in five Poles voting for the first time in a free parliamentary election cast their ballot Sunday for the Democratic Left.

"This is a success for Poland and a success for democracy," declared Democratic Left leader Alexander Kwasniewski.

Repackaged as self-described West European-style social democrats, the former Communists have pledged to continue Poland's economic transition, but at a more deliberate pace and with greater concern for the poor and disadvantaged.

More than half of the Polish work force is now employed by the private sector, but the average monthly wage is still only about $200, and nearly 3 million people remain out of work. Fashionable new shops are stocked with the finest goods, but many ordinary workers and pensioners cannot afford them.

Dressed in a pin-striped suit, horn-rimmed glasses and a conservative red print tie, one of the party's leaders assured reporters gathered at an election-night media center that the party would not turn the clock back on Poland, just make it tick a little more slowly.

Marek Siwiec, a former journalist and onetime Communist Party member, predicted that the Democratic Left's strong showing would "be received in the West as a sensation." But he sought to calm fears, saying party members have already met with representatives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to assure the financial institutions that a Democratic Left-led Poland would act responsibly and continue the reforms.

But some critics were less reassuring. A leader of the Solidarity trade union told Polish television that the election results may mean "we have to start this all over again," a reference to the union's role in toppling the former Communist regime. Others expressed fears that four years of hard-fought economic progress would be lost.

"We are witnessing a shift to the left with all of its consequences," said Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-Communist prime minister of Poland and a leader of the Democratic Union, the most powerful party to emerge from the Solidarity movement and the party of current Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka.

The Democratic Union finished a lackluster third in Sunday's vote, with an estimated 11% of the vote.

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