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Voter Turnout Is Low as Poles Back Constitution

May 26, 1997|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Polish voters turned out in small numbers Sunday to ratify a contentious new constitution, which unofficial exit polls indicated was headed for victory despite strong opposition from the Solidarity trade union and its allies.

The respected PBS polling agency reported late Sunday that 57% of voters favored the 243-article document, which was drafted by a parliamentary commission to replace the country's Communist-era constitution and a host of ad hoc amendments.

"One thing is unquestionable," Krzysztof Koczurowski of PBS announced on Polish television. "With full responsibility, I can say that more than 50% of those who voted today said 'yes.' "

Official results will not be available until late today or Tuesday.

The apparent victory for supporters of the new constitution was clouded by the relatively low voter turnout--less than 40%, according to polling projections--and indications that the document has served to further divide the country along already deep ideological lines. The 1995 presidential election attracted more than 60% of the electorate.

"I expected a higher turnout," said Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who headed the Constitutional Commission while a member of Parliament.

The new constitution was written by a Parliament dominated by the ruling former Communists, while opposition to its passage was strongest among a coalition of right-wing groups associated with Solidarity.

The staunchly Roman Catholic opponents have pledged to rework the document if they win parliamentary elections in September, with a particular eye on provisions considered overly secular and insensitive to the country's Catholic tradition.

Before the vote, former President Lech Walesa said objections to the constitution had less to do with the substance of the document than with the character of its primary authors. By pushing for its passage, Walesa said, the former Communists "humiliated the majority" of Poles who struggled against totalitarianism.

"They are proposing something nice, but it doesn't taste right," Walesa said. "You can say it is politics, but something like this simply tastes better when it happens under different conditions."

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