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Poles Reject Economic, Political Reform Plan : Voter Abstention Helps Doom Referendum; Regime Won’t Abandon Efforts, Official Says

Times Staff Writer

The Polish electorate, in what may be a unique experiment in democracy in post-war Eastern Europe, has rejected a government economic and political reform plan that would have resulted in higher prices, the government announced Monday.

The vote, taken in a nationwide referendum Sunday, comes as a sharp setback to the reform-minded government of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, which had campaigned strenuously to win approval for the measures, aimed mainly at shoring up Poland’s troubled economy.

The government needed a 51% majority of Poland’s 26.8 million eligible voters for the referendum to win an approval that authorities had said would be considered full and “binding.”

Leading Question

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Instead, the leading question on the ballot, asking voters to approve an economic plan that would mean a period of economic austerity, received approval from only 44% of the registered voters.

The second question, asking voters to approve what the ballot called “the Polish model of deep democratization,” was supported by 46% of the electorate.

Only 67% of the voters turned out for the referendum, the lowest election turnout in modern Polish history, and the abstention rate was a major factor cutting into the majority that the government hoped to achieve.

From the 17 million voters who actually did turn out, the two questions on the ballot won majorities of 64% and 69%, respectively. However, the regulation covering the referendum, passed by the Polish Parliament, specified that a majority of eligible voters would be required for the approval to be binding.

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Government spokesman Jerzy Urban noted that “this rigorous form of democracy” would not be found anywhere else in the world and that, even in Western countries, only the majority of those voting is considered in elections.

The outcome, he said, was “an answer to all who maintained our democratic institutions are a facade and that the democratic transformations in Poland are not true.”

Urban stressed what may well become a government theme in coming weeks--that the referendum was the government’s method of measuring the public’s will and, as such, should not be read as a setback for the government’s much-discussed plans for reform.

“I want to confirm the determination of the authorities to continue the reforms and the democratic procedure of consulting the opinions of voters on issues of vital interest to them,” Urban said.

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On the other hand, the result of the vote seems to strengthen the arguments of conservatives in the Polish Communist Party and government who regard Jaruzelski’s reformist tendencies with misgiving. Jaruzelski, 64, is one of the youngest leaders in the Soviet Bloc of Eastern Europe and one of the first to embrace Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s concepts of glasnost and perestroika, words that mean openness and restructuring.

The question of why the referendum failed, at least by the standards that the government set for it, has complications that may take diplomats and other observers here some time to unravel.

The government’s clearly announced intention to raise prices may have been the decisive reason behind most of the negative votes. The price increases in what the government called its “radical” program of reform--a term it used repeatedly in its promotion campaign as well as on the ballot itself--would have doubled the price of most staple food products and raised the price of rent and gasoline by more than 200%.

Much of the Polish public, feeling strained to the limit already, found the prospect of such sharp price increases unacceptable.

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Urban also noted that the confusions of the ballot--voters were required to strike out the word “no” if they wanted to vote “yes"--may have accidently resulted in negative votes. Indeed, complaints about the ballots were often heard, although the government repeatedly demonstrated the correct voting procedure on television.

The low turnout itself may be partly explained as cynicism on that part of an electorate convinced in advance that the government would go ahead with its policies, no matter what the outcome of the vote. Many Poles who stayed away from the referendum expressed such views.

The result of the vote--the surprising and unique spectacle of a Communist government losing in an apparently honestly-counted national referendum--may actually win some credibility for the government from those who held the most jaundiced view of the procedure.

‘Honest Outcome’

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“I think it was an honest outcome,” said one normally suspicious Polish journalist. “To that extent, it was a little bit of glasnost, a little bit of democracy in Poland.”

Opposition figures, however, remained unconvinced. Leaders of the banned Solidarity trade union, who derided the referendum as “pure propaganda” and advised the public to stay home on election day, indicated that they were not surprised by the outcome.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa told the Associated Press that the referendum “explained nothing and settled nothing.”

Observers noted, however, that Solidarity had not pressed its boycott policy vigorously before the voting, and they doubted whether it had had much impact.

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In the wake of the vote, Walesa invited the government to engage in a dialogue with Solidarity if it wants to solve the country’s problems.

Prospects for consultations with the opposition, however, seem more remote in the wake of the vote than they did before it. Conservatives in the party hierarchy are known to advocate a harder line with Solidarity and other opposition groups than the Jaruzelski government has taken.

Starting Anew

The government’s reform plan now returns to the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, where lawmakers, in effect, will go back to the drawing boards while the top ranks of the government and the party try to decide what to do.

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While the upper reaches of the Polish political establishment wrestle with what may be a quiet-but-intense ideological conflict, the crisis in the Polish society and economy will continue to put pressure on the leadership. The country is about $37 billion in debt to foreign creditors and has been seeking to reschedule its debt payments. An economic recovery plan endorsed by the public would have provided strong arguments in its favor.

To the extent that the country is able to limp along with its crippled economy, the referendum results, in a sense, have given the government a wild card in dealing with the situation. On the one hand, it can go ahead with its reform, noting that it has at least a measure of public approval, while scaling down its harsher elements. Or, if the slower pace of reform only prolongs Poland’s crisis, it can blame some of the resulting dissatisfaction on the public’s will.

Urban said the Sejm will meet Saturday to consider its next step. But he said he could not speculate on any revision in the government’s economic plan.

He concluded that the outcome of the vote “will not make us change the general direction of economic reform.” The Polish leadership, he said, has determined such a course was a matter of “historical necessity.”

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“The referendum did not ask whether to reform or not,” he noted, but only approval for the rate of reform.

“The will to reform will not be weakened,” Urban said.


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