WARSAW — Poland's center-right ruling coalition fell apart Tuesday, with the market-oriented junior partner pulling out to leave the Solidarity bloc in charge of a weakened government without a parliamentary majority.
The change could mean a slower pace for implementing tough economic measures aimed at preparing this nation to join the European Union. It might also mean that parliamentary elections expected in the fall of 2001 will be moved up, perhaps to as early as this fall. Polls show that if elections were held now, the former Communists of the Democratic Left Alliance would be favored to win.
The alliance, which ran the government from 1993 to 1997, backs policies aimed at protecting jobs and social welfare benefits. It supports democracy, integration into the European Union and membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But it is seen as less committed than the defunct coalition to carrying out difficult reforms such as privatizing state-owned industries or slashing deficit spending.
Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, who had offered to resign if that would help resolve the coalition crisis, is expected to remain in office. But his government can count on support only from his own Solidarity Election Action bloc, an assortment of rightist and union-based political groups that emerged from the Solidarity union that led Poland's 1980s democracy movement.
"I want to reassure everyone that the policy of the majority government will be continued by the minority government," Buzek said. "We will be doing our best to continue the policy to secure economic growth and focus on European integration."
Buzek is the longest-serving prime minister since communism fell here in 1989.
Freedom Union leaders, in announcing their party's departure from the nearly 3-year-old coalition, said they would back Buzek's government when they agreed with it on specific issues.
The ruling coalition, which led Poland into NATO last year, fell apart largely because of disputes over budget and tax policy. The Freedom Union wants tighter spending controls and tax cuts. It also was angry over the inability of the Solidarity bloc to keep its members in line for votes on key reforms. Two weeks of crisis negotiations collapsed Tuesday over the failure to agree on a replacement for Buzek as prime minister.
Departing Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, who heads the Freedom Union, said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that having parliamentary elections next spring might be a good thing. That amounted to a threat that the Freedom Union would eventually join with the opposition to topple the government.
Asked how long he expected the minority government to last, Balcerowicz said that "everything is dependent on what kind of economic policy will be followed by the new Solidarity Election Action government."
Many observers already had been predicting that if it survives into the winter, a minority Solidarity bloc government would put together a more populist 2001 budget than the Freedom Union would be willing to accept. Such a deadlock would set the stage for early elections, because by law the government must resign if it cannot pass a budget by the end of January.
Internationally respected Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, one of five Freedom Union ministers leaving office, said Tuesday that he expected to remain in his post through the end of the month. More than 100 countries are due to send representatives to a ministerial-level democracy conference here June 25-27, and Geremek is to be the host.
The Democratic Left Alliance appeared Tuesday to already have its eyes on early elections.
"Poland faces a serious crisis," the former Communists said in a statement. "Growing economic problems, a decline in living standards, widening differences within society, unsatisfactory results in negotiations with the EU--all of that is a challenge for a strong government with real support from the population."