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Chagrined Polish Regime to Dampen Reforms in Wake of Ballot Setback

Times Staff Writer

The Polish government’s first brush with electoral politics was being assessed this week, and the verdict from most quarters was that it must have stung.

The government sought to encourage the notion that nobody lost in last Sunday’s referendum on reforms, but most observers concluded that it had fallen well short of winning. They tended to attribute this to what one critic termed “overconfidence, inexperience and vanity.”

A Polish journalist commented, “These people have seen elections come out the way they want them for so long, they think it happens automatically.”

Certainly, the result was surprising. The Polish populace, in refusing to support the government’s proposed political and economic reforms, confounded the expectations of the regime of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski as well as most diplomats and other political observers here.

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The referendum results gave Poland’s Communist leaders a bracing introduction to the uncertainties of free elections.

Before more than 17 million voters went to the polls, the principal question for most government and party leaders dealt with the size of the expected majority. In fact, the regime did win a majority of about two-thirds of the votes cast. But the election law specifies that in order for the referendum to be considered binding, it had to win a majority of all the eligible voters. Since about 9 million voters stayed home, the measures failed.

The two questions put to the voters sought approval on a package of economic reforms and a “Polish model” of political liberalization. The first question won approval from 44% of the 26 million eligible voters; the second, 46%.

The questions represented the essence of Jaruzelski’s plans for restructuring Poland’s economy and its political life, plans that in many ways go beyond those proposed by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Most of the public, Polish leaders now say, found it all a little frightening.

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Much of the Public Afraid

“We should not go on with the boldest part of the program,” Deputy Premier Zdzislaw Sadowski, one of the architects of the reform program, told reporters Wednesday. “There is a large part of society that is afraid of them.”

In addition to dampening the reforms, the government’s disappointment at the polls could have other lasting consequences. For one thing, it could be a long time before another such experiment in democracy is undertaken in the East Bloc.

For a Communist country, it was a remarkable experiment in the first place. Before the vote, many observers here, including a large sector of the public, diplomats and experienced journalists, Polish as well as foreign, assumed that the government was capable of “adjusting” the results, and likely to do so if the outcome was not acceptable. Clearly, there was no such adjustment.

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“I think there were too many people watching,” one diplomat said. “I think there must have been too great a chance that any fiddling with the numbers would have leaked out, somewhere, and then it would have looked even worse for the government.”

A question that will be widely discussed here in the coming weeks is why the government failed to achieve a majority of public support for reform when it is widely assumed that the majority of Poles, deeply disillusioned and dispirited, want nothing more than a radical change in the economy and the political system.

A partial answer centers on the disillusionment. By far the most decisive factor in the referendum was that about 9 million Poles chose to sit it out. Apathy explains some of this, but for most, their abstention was in effect a vote of no confidence in the government.

This was the course advocated by the leadership of Solidarity, the outlawed but still active free trade union movement. Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader, suggested that voters should stay home, but he stopped short of calling for a boycott. Still, most Poles who declined to vote arrived at the decision without help from Solidarity.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise, some diplomats noted, was the number of negative votes actually cast--4.8 million on the first question and 4.3 million to the second. The heavy “no” vote shattered a general assumption that an overwhelming number, perhaps 90%, of those who voted would be in favor of the proposals.

“Many of these people were afraid of big price increases,” said Ludwik Krasucki, editor of the Communist Party’s theoretical journal and an advocate of the proposed reforms. “To them, these are large uncertainties.”

Krasucki’s comment underscores another important factor in the referendum--the government’s inexperience in the art of what is really Western-style political persuasion. The effect was comparable to an American politician campaigning on a pledge to double taxes and triple the rent.

“They just didn’t know how to do it,” a Western diplomat said. “If anything, they were too frank. They scared people with talk of how their rents would go up by 200%.”

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Amid all the straight talk of hardship, he added, the promise of a brighter future somehow got lost.

Even the government’s decision to make ground rules for the referendum--requiring a majority of the electorate when a simple majority of those voting would have served--now seems naive. As Information Minister Jerzy Urban suggested, few countries count the votes of non-voters.

“I’m not sure how it happened,” Krasucki said. “Perhaps it was a state of euphoria on the part of the members of Parliament who supported reform, perhaps overconfidence, feeling so pleased that they were sure of winning. So now Poland is in the Guinness Book of Records because of it.”

Surveys Prove Misleading

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Another possible factor contributing to the overconfidence, Urban suggested after the vote, was that the government had been misled by optimistic surveys done by two opinion polling groups. There has been much speculation as to whether the outcome of the referendum will strengthen elements of the Polish Communist Party that are opposed to reform. Some analysts have suggested that Gen. Jaruzelski, who is known for his caution, will be especially conscious of the party’s conservative wing in the coming weeks but will continue to be one of the East Bloc leaders most committed to reform.

“No one has ever claimed,” a diplomatic observer said, “that the issue of reform is universally accepted, either in the Soviet Union or here. This is bound to slow things down a little.”

The government has conceded that the pace of reform may be changed, but insists that reform has not been derailed. The party’s Central Committee issued a statement saying that the “program of reforms should be analyzed from the angle of the need to change the speed and scope of the reforms” but stressed the “need to maintain the present direction.”

Deputy Premier Sadowski, in his meeting with reporters Wednesday, made it clear that the threatened severe price increases would be scaled back and that major reductions in state subsidies, such as those for food and petroleum products, would be delayed.

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