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Vote on Polish Constitution Also Seen as a Political Test


WARSAW — Polish voters will decide Sunday whether to ratify the country's new constitution, which lawmakers drafted to replace the anachronistic, Communist-era version enacted in 1952.

The vote is being watched for more than its legal significance. The referendum, coming just four months before parliamentary elections, is considered a dry run for the fall campaign, which will pit a rejuvenated Solidarity trade-union movement against the ruling former Communists.

The proposed constitution was written by a Parliament dominated by the left-wing former Communists, while a new alliance of right-wing Solidarity forces outside the legislature is leading the drive to defeat it. The two political groupings are running neck and neck in popularity polls, though surveys show most Poles favor adopting the new document.

BACKGROUND: The first Polish Constitution, one of the oldest in the world, was written in 1791 but never fully enacted because the country was partitioned by its neighbors. Subsequent versions were also short-lived, mired in political controversy or overtaken by catastrophic events--such as the onset of World War II.

The Stalinist-era document has been amended many times, particularly to account for democratic changes since 1989. But the alterations have been haphazard, confusing and, some scholars say, destabilizing because of the contradictory mix of authoritarian and democratic provisions.

Parliament passed a law in 1992 setting out procedures for overhauling the document and, as an interim measure, approved the "small" constitution that temporarily regulates relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Seven competing versions of a new constitution were submitted to a special Constitutional Commission, which synthesized them into one document approved last month by both houses of Parliament.

ISSUES: As a compromise reached in politically stormy times, the new constitution satisfies virtually nobody. Legal experts say its 243 articles are poorly written, redundant, overly politicized and sometimes incomprehensible. One of its chief authors, former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, says he wishes that the document could be rewritten from start to finish.

In terms of substance, it addresses important issues for Poland's future.

It ensures civilian control over the armed forces, a crucial requirement in Poland's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It outlaws the death penalty and enshrines numerous personal freedoms, prerequisites for eventual membership in the European Union. It also delineates the powers of the presidency, which did not even exist under the 1952 constitution.

The biggest points of contention center on the document's handling of the Roman Catholic Church and its unique role in Polish society, which critics say is not adequately reflected in the new version.

In a sloppy compromise between the sectarian former Communists and church supporters, the preamble makes an awkward reference to citizens "believing in God" and others deriving "universal values from other sources."

It takes no clear stand on abortion, which the church wanted banned, and includes far-reaching provisions on children's rights, which some church supporters interpret as excessive state interference in child rearing.

FORECAST: In the weeks leading to Sunday's vote, the Roman Catholic Church has drifted away from its pledge of neutrality.

Polish primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp has criticized the constitution's authors as "mostly nonbelievers" and "aliens," and materials urging defeat of the measure have been openly distributed in some parishes.

Meanwhile, right-wing groups have made the document a litmus test of the anti-Communist opposition, angrily breaking ranks with Solidarity-based lawmakers who endorsed the document.

With the constitution likely to win voter approval, analysts say the eleventh-hour grandstanding may be more about political positioning for the fall elections than changing the outcome on Sunday.

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