Party formation in Poland predictable, finds Tworzecki

Political scientist Hubert Tworzecki was going against conventional wisdom when he theorized that party formation and voting behavior in new, free societies could be predicted. His new book, Parties and Politics in Post 1989 Poland (Westview Press), grew out of his dissertation on that topic.

"Most journalistic and scholarly literature assumed that chaotic behavior would occur in Poland and other countries of the former Eastern Europe when voters had their freedom for the first time," said Tworzecki. "The thinking was they would feel lost in a new, free society and would not know which parties would represent their interests, or even what their interests were. My book evolved over three to four years, and my research showed that voting patterns were well defined and organized from the beginning."

Tworzecki's timing to explore the formation of political parties in Poland was good. In the fall of 1989, just as the communist regime in Poland was falling, he entered the graduate program at the University of Toronto. And, he was already familiar with Poland. In 1981 when he was 15 years old, he had emigrated with his parents from his hometown of Warsaw, Poland, to Canada shortly before military rule was instituted. "It seemed like an amazing opportunity to do research when each new event was a historic landmark," he said of his dissertation topic.

Tworzecki used a simple test to see if political parties formed in an orderly fashion. He looked at which parties succeeded in which areas of Poland. "I found that anti-communist parties succeeded in the more traditional regions of Poland, which are mainly in the Southeast," he said. "This area is rural and more religious than other regions. The north and northwest regions showed significantly stronger support for communism. These areas have more migrant populations and thoroughly collectivized agriculture."

History and economics can explain the way the parties formed in Poland. "The older communities in Poland responded well to the national symbolism used by the opposition parties; there was a sense of `we need to reclaim our country,'" said Tworzecki. "For the people in the highly collectivized regions, it was natural for them to want to stick with the Communist party since that was their economic way of life.

"The most interesting thing is that these results have held steady since the first national election in 1989 and through parliamentary elections in '91 and '93 and presidential elections in '90 and '95," said Tworzecki. "That was unexpected."

Using data collected by a public opinion organization in Poland, Tworzecki examined the early stages of party formation. "The surveys were taken before the first parliamentary elections in 1991," he said. "At that time, parties were known to the electorate only as names and slogans, but the law provided for equal access to television time." In fact, the surveys began as a part of the communist regime in the early 1980s, but for the most part the results were classified. "Even during communist times, the general public was willing to answer questions quite frankly."

Initially there were some 120 parties for voters to choose from. "It was a completely open situation, but it quickly became apparent that voters chose parties in ways that were predictable," he said. In the 1991 parliamentary elections 29 parties won seats. "At first there was no threshold on the percentage of votes that a party had to receive to be elected in the proportional representation system," said Tworzecki. In 1993 a threshold was set at 5 percent and has reduced the number of parties in parliament to seven.

Tworzecki said he finds himself less concerned now about the future of Poland. "There are still some of the communist vs. non-communist arguments, but the debate has moved on," he said. "It is now ordinary politics that you'd see in Western Europe: issues of social security, health care and issues that make a difference in people's lives."

In a forthcoming article that will appear in the journal Electoral Studies, Tworzecki examines the 1995 Polish presidential election when Lech Walesa, the incumbent president of Poland and a living symbol of the Solidarity movement, was defeated in his re-election bid by Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance. "This outcome," wrote Tworzecki, "though bitter for many people attached to the Solidarity tradition, was neither a surprise nor a significant departure from the basic electoral alignments of post-1989 Poland.

Tworzecki noted there has never been a hint of irregularity in Polish elections. "Poland is very interested in joining the Western European Economic Alliance and NATO, eventually" he said. "The carrot of NATO membership makes sure that everyone behaves themselves in the election process."

Tworzecki said he is moving on to a larger research project that will examine the formation of party systems in Eastern/Central Europe, including Hungary and the Czech Republic.

--Jan Gleason

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