Poles move to outlaw coalition nightmare: MPs finally agree on minimum vote for parties in coming poll

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AS HANNA SUCHOCKA, Poland's continuing Prime Minister, looks ahead to the general election in September, she will be highly relieved over one thing: no matter what the outcome of the poll, neither she nor any of her rivals will ever again have the nightmarish task of trying to hold together a governing coalition of seven or more conflicting parties.

Poland's disastrous electoral system, which in the 1991 election resulted in 29 parties entering the parliament and almost permanent political instability, is set to be changed.

On Friday, following the dramatic vote of no-confidence that toppled Ms Suchocka's government, MPs finally agreed on a new electoral law introducing a 5 per cent hurdle. The law, which still needs formally to be approved by President Lech Walesa, may have been one of the last passed by the parliament.

'This measure has been desperately needed for a long time,' said Piotr Pacewicz, political editor of the daily Gazetta Wyborcza. 'For far too long, minuscule parties have been able to hold the government to ransom. The new law may not remove the need for coalitions - but at least they will be much more manageable.'

Ms Suchocka yesterday proposed legislating by decree but the proposal seemed destined to fail, as it was made to the same MPs who passed a no-confidence motion in her government. If the goverment is not granted special powers, Poland could be plunged into a legislative power vacuum for several months, until new elections are held, according to observers.

With President Walesa's decision over the weekend to dissolve the parliament, to ask Ms Suchocka to remain as interim Prime Minister, and to call fresh elections, Poland's main political parties have begun gearing up for what are likely to be four months of bitter campaigning.

Ms Suchocka's Democratic Union, a party which grew out of the Solidarity movement and a keen advocate of speedy economic reforms, starts out as one of the favourites. Other strong contenders include Poland's former Communist Party, the renamed Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the PSL peasants' party and the populist Confederation for a Free Poland (KPN).

The key issue of the campaign is likely to be the pace of Poland's reform programme and its transformation from a command to a free-market economy. Ms Suchocka and her allies, who were brought down by a no-confidence vote tabled by MPs from the Solidarity trade union in protest over her refusal to cave in to pay demands by striking teachers and health workers, will argue that, no matter how painful, there is no alternative to rapid reform and rigid budgetary discipline.

According to Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Minister of European Integration Affairs, more than 60 per cent of Poles share this view and see the move to a market economy as part and parcel of building up democracy.

Ms Suchocka's opponents on the left will insist that there is a gentler way. 'What we are fighting for is not a return to Communism, but capitalism with a human face,' says Marek Siwiec, spokesman of the SLD parliamentary faction. 'We are not against the market economy but there is a limit to how much people are prepared to suffer in order to achieve it.'

Many Poles clearly share such sentiments. With prices continuing to rise more quickly than wages and ever-increasing numbers joining the dole queue, many do not feel their lives have tangibly improved since the end of Communist rule in 1989.