Polish PM struggles to stay in power: Solidarity is threatening a strike that could topple the government. Adrian Bridge reports from Berlin

Click to follow
Hannah Suchocka, Poland's beleagured Prime Minister, spent most of yesterday fighting for her political life in crisis talks with Solidarity trade union leaders threatening to try to topple her government.

The talks, specifically over pay demands by tens of thousands of striking teachers, doctors and scientists, appeared set for deadlock, prompting fears Solidarity would call for a general strike and, simultaneously, a parliamentary vote of no confidence against Ms Suchocka's fragile coalition government.

With only minority support in the Sejm (parliament), Ms Suchocka, who took office last July, could easily be voted out of power. But according to many observers in Warsaw, the lack of any credible alternative could enable her to cling on a little longer. 'It is touch and go for Suchocka,' said Adam Bromke of the Polish Academy of Sciences. 'But whatever the outcome of the current struggle, her room for manoeuvre will be extremely limited.'

According to the Prime Minister herself, her hands are already firmly tied. In a rare televised address to the nation on Monday, she insisted there were no extra funds available to meet the teachers' demands, and, promising that the worst was now over, she appealed to Poles, once again, to be more patient.

'A general strike overthrowing the government and dissolving parliament would not solve anybody's problems, but would undermine everything we have been building for the past three years,' Ms Suchocka said. 'It would be an unforgivable mistake to let Poland abandon its chosen course now.'

Most teachers, whose salaries average 2.5m zloty a month ( pounds 105), well down on the 3m- zloty national average, have had enough talk about Poland having turned the corner, light at the end of the tunnel and the need to grin and bear just one more austerity budget in order to secure vital International Monetary Fund loans.

With prices still rising faster than wages, they, together with state-employed doctors, scientists and artists, are pressing for a pay rise of 600,000 zloty a month - a cause in which they are receiving the full support of Solidarity.

Although nothing like the force it was at the height of the battle against Poland's former Communist regime, the union still has a strong membership and 26 MPs in its parliamentary faction. A nationwide Solidarity strike could still cause havoc.

For Solidarity radicals, the time has come for the union to reassert itself. Many resent the compromises that had to be made in the immediate post- Communist years when, with former Solidarity members leading the country, the movement was torn between supporting a government bent on radical economic reform and the needs of ordinary working people, many of whom were hurt through those reforms. They see this dispute as a chance to reconfirm Solidarity's commitment to the latter - and to return unequivocally to its trade union roots.