Poland's former communists head for power

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The Independent Online

Poland's former communist rulers looked set to return to power in a landslide victory in elections yesterday.

Leszek Miller, the politburo member who sat across the table from Lech Walesa in 1989 to negotiate the end of decades of communist rule, looks likely to become prime minister. The next time he sits at the negotiating table, it will be to discuss Polish membership of the European Union.

His Democrat Left Alliance party won a clear majority with 44.9 per cent of the vote and 231 seats in parliament, according to exit polls by the private polling agency PBS last night.

The government, a coalition dominated by Mr Walesa's Solidarity movement, which led the fight against communism, will not only fall ­ Solidarity will be wiped out as a political force. Two separate exit polls showed it failed to win a single seat in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

As Mr Miller contemplates a return to the corridors of power he was groomed for, Mr Walesa, the once fêted dockyard electrician who personified the struggle against communism, appears to have been consigned to history. In presidential elections last year, he only managed to get 1 per cent of the vote.

Overwhelmingly the largest and most important country in the first wave of candidates for EU membership, with a population similar in size to that of Spain, Poland could enter the Union with ex-communists in power.

But the Polish people are not voting for a return to the years of repression. The members of Mr Miller's Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) say they have reformed and become socialists on the Western European model. Mr Miller, the former apparatchik, now likes to describe Tony Blair as his role model. The Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewksi, who won a second term in elections last year, is an SLD man and former communist sports minister. He has won generally favourable reports from Poles and outside observers alike.

But the likely landslide vote in yesterday's elections was not so much for the SLD as against the Solidarity government. The main gripe, as in almost all the former communist bloc, is the economy. It developed rapidly in the 1990s, but has all but ground to a halt now. Unemployment has reached 16 per cent ­ and it has hit Poland's large young population worst. Some Poles have even resorted to illegal immigration in their efforts to find work. So nervous is the EU of a tide of Poles seeking work in the richer countries of the West, that it has banned the free movement of labour between new members and the rest of the Union in the first years after enlargement.

But the economy was not the only reason. Poland's young population sees Solidarity and its icon, Mr Walesa, as out of touch. In the post-communist Poland the party has presided over, Roman Catholic values dominate. Mr Miller has promised to change that ­ much to the dismay of the church.

Corruption also contributed to the fall of Solidarity. Voters were furious with what they saw as a culture of cronyism.

* The chairwoman of a polling station in central Poland was bludgeoned to death by her husband during her dinner break yesterday, police said.