Despatches: They're back! In Poland, Solidarity is on the march again

The pendulum is swinging back in Poland. After its crushing defeat four years ago, Solidarity enters Sunday's parliamentary elections with a good chance of toppling its eternal enemy - the left. Imre Karacs reports from Warsaw.
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It was like old times at the Ursus clubhouse. The audience have grown chubbier since the days when the tractor plant was an epicentre of revolt, but the message from the rostrum has barely changed. Poles had to make a final stand against the "communist oligarchies", intoned the speaker, Maciej Jankowski.

The Solidarity boss, head of the trade union in the Warsaw region, occasionally let it slip that he was referring to "post-communists", but hastened to add that the threat was no less acute. Another term, and you'll never get rid of them, he warned.

In an exceptionally tranquil campaign, that is as far as opposition politicians will go to invoke the Apocalypse. The Church - Our Church, as a Solidarity official instinctively refers to it - has not seen the need to be so restrained. "Communism is like a cancer, and it has to be removed," declared Warsaw's auxiliary Archbishop, Zbigniew Kraszewski, at an outdoor mass last Sunday.

The omens for divine retribution look good. Four years in the wilderness have brought some of the children of the revolution together. United again in a 36-party block called Solidarity Election Action, they are running neck and neck in the polls with the main governing party, the Democratic Left Alliance. Although there are at least 20 permutations in the Lego- like game to build the new government, the multi-party arithmetic favours Solidarity.

The party-cum-trade union will have to make do withoutLech Walesa. The Gdansk electrician has put away his toolbox, and now sparkles only on the global lecture circuit. His successor, Marian Krzaklewski, is assured only of the former president's vague sympathy.

He will need more than that to defeat the most stable government in the post- communist era. Four years and only one prime minister lost - to unproven allegations that he used to work for the secret police - is the proud record of the outgoing administration. That and unprecedented economic boom, with annual growth of 6 per cent in the last three years, unemployment down by a third and real incomes soaring.

"A good today, a better tomorrow," the ex-communists' election posters pledge. Against that, Solidarity can only carp. The boom, it argues with some justification, is the direct result of reforms launched by its government on the first day of this decade. Three years later, the "shock therapy" drove the doctor out of business, but the beneficial effects are now being felt.

Not everybody has gained, of course. On the street, old ladies sell off the last threadbare items from their wardrobe. Even the government admits that the pension system, costing companies 48 per cent of staff wages, is a disaster. Unemployment still lurks around 12 per cent, and much of the country's heavy industry is kept afloat only by subsidies. Agriculture is reckoned to be the most inefficient in Europe.

With the economy ticking over nicely and Poland set for EU and Nato membership with bipartisan support, Solidarity only has the anti-communist card to play. The government's recent efforts to pack the boards of state- run companies and the civil service with party loyalists has brought back memories of the communist's nomenklatura of old.

"The most important thing is to get the ex-communists out of power," says the Solidarity spokesman Wojciech Blasiak. "There is corruption in the government; they sell official positions to their friends; they are incompetent."

Whatever the government's flaws, international business appears convinced that the ex-communists are the lesser of the many possible evils on offer. The trade unionists in the nominally right-wing Solidarity alliance worry foreign capitalists a great deal more than the self-proclaimed leftists in the government, who were applauded by one US agency recently for their effort to turn themselves into a "conservative social democratic party".

Some of the Polish press has gone to great lengths to expose the home- grown Reds, particularly those under the bed, but without much success. Last week a newspaper was forced to eat its words after linking - but not nailing - President Alexander Kwasniewski to the KGB.

Solidarity's promise to cleanse public life of former secret agents has struck a chord, providing the opposition with a rare area of attack.

Devising a reliable system for spy-catching will be harder than Solidarity pretends. But as ideological differences fade, it pays to maintain the one barrier which still separates the jailers of yesterday from the jailed.