Poland puts its faith in a firm female hand: Hanna Suchocka will have to wield remarkable powers of conciliation to hold together the country's fragile seven-party coalition, writes Adrian Bridge

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WITHIN days of assuming her new position, Hanna Suchocka, Poland's first female prime minister, has, perhaps inevitably, been likened to Baroness Thatcher.

She is known to be a woman of forthright views, a champion of free enterprise and someone who does not suffer fools gladly.

But, unlike the former British prime minister, Ms Suchocka is going to have to show remarkable powers of conciliation and tolerance for the views of others if she is to hold together the fragile seven-party parliamentary coalition that finally agreed to her appointment last Friday.

Her no-nonsense approach is what many Poles now hope will bring an end to the months of bitter wrangling in the Sejm (lower house of parliament) that had almost brought the country to the point of ungovernability.

'She is our last chance,' said Kazimierz Woycicki, editor of Zycie Warszawy, Poland's second largest daily newspaper. 'At last here is someone who might be able to preside over a functioning government.'

Given the fact that until recently Ms Suchocka was relatively unknown as a political figure and had never held a ministerial post, such faith in her leadership abilities appears extraordinary.

As an expert on constitutional law and leader of the Polish delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Ms Suchocka had gained a reputation for being a good organiser and a hard worker. Even before the collapse of Communist rule she stood out when, as an MP for the Democratic Union, she voted against the imposition of martial law in January 1982 and against a law outlawing the Solidarity trade union. That notwithstanding, Ms Suchocka herself was astonished when, during a trip to London to learn about British parliamentary democracy earlier this month, she heard that she was set to become Poland's fifth prime minister since 1989. 'It was surreal to read about it in the newspapers,' she said.

Within days of her return to Warsaw, however, the 46-year-old unmarried lawyer had succeeded where her predecessor, Waldemar Pawlak, had singularly failed - in forging agreement with a sufficient number of Poland's 29 parties to secure a working parliamentary majority.

According to some observers, one of the main factors behind the parties' decision to join forces again was the fear that President Lech Walesa would try to take over himself. Certainly the unresolved question of who wields exactly what powers under the Polish constitution means that Ms Suchocka is set on a collision course with the power-hungry President.

She will find it hard, too, to balance the staunchly pro-market leanings of her own party with the more protectionist tendencies of the alliance's other main party, the Catholic Nationalist Party (ZChN). As a Catholic with strong anti-abortion views, she has so far been accepted as a compromise candidate by the ZChn, but its support may wane.

'There is no ruling out the possibility that the bickering may start again,' said Mr Woycicki. 'Naturally many people would like to see a sustained period of stability. But, in Poland, one should never be too optimistic.'