Leaders of a reborn Solidarity claimed a surprise victory over the governing ex-communists in parliamentary elections Sunday, the first step toward controlling the government after four years in opposition.
In one of the most dramatic political recoveries in the former Soviet bloc, the group of parties tracing its roots to the trade union that ousted the communists in 1989 won at least 33 percent of the vote, according to exit polls for Polish television. A separate poll for the newspaper Rzeczpospolita gave Solidarity 34 percent.
The governing Democratic Leftist Alliance, the former communists, trailed with 27 percent in both the television and newspaper polls. The polls, which fluctuated marginally through the night, indicated a voter turnout of about 59 percent.
The voting edge would not give Solidarity an outright majority in the 460-seat Sejm, but should allow it first chance to form a coalition with allied parties. On the eve of the elections, most opinion polls and the parties themselves had predicted a neck-and-neck finish.
If Solidarity manages to forge a parliamentary coalition, it would share power with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former communist who defeated Solidarity founder Lech Walesa as president in a tight election two years ago.
The cohabitation is not likely to be as contentious as previous periods in Polish politics. Despite controversy over such issues as transfer of state-wned industry to private hands, both major blocs applaud NATO’s decision to extend membership to Poland and both want to see Poland join the European Union.
Final elections results were not expected until Wednesday.
But announcement of the exit polls, shortly after balloting ended in the late evening, sparked a celebration at Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw.
“I’d like to thank all those who voted for Solidarity. I’d like to thank all those who love Poland, who love truth, who love Solidarity,” said Marian Krzaklewski, who succeeded Walesa as leader of the bloc.
“If this victory is officially confirmed, we will correct all the mistakes that have been made so far,” Krzaklewski said, promising to transfer much of the central government’s power to local authorities.
Krzaklewski shook the hand of Walesa, who received an ovation from several hundred Solidarity supporters in the domed portrait gallery where Solidarity set up its headquarters.
“This time, we’ll treat the victory as an obligation to carry out the policies that the nation asked us to,” Walesa said.
Some Solidarity supporters chanted “Down with the Communists.”
But the mood of the leaders was subdued, and they decided not to uncork a bottle of sparkling wine that was on hand, apparently hoping to avoid jinxing the results.
Solidarity lost its parliamentary majority in 1993, largely due to voter dissatisfaction over quarreling among its leaders and hardships stemming from its “shock therapy” economic reforms.
Solidarity’s most likely coalition partner was the Freedom Union, led by former Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, author of the shock therapy. Balcerowicz’s union won 15 percent of the vote Sunday according to the TV poll, and 14 percent according to the newspaper poll, carried out by the independent PBS agency. Both polls claimed a margin of error of one percentage point.
The election result, Balcerowicz said, “shows that the majority of the voters want parties with roots in August 1980 to complete the transformations.”
Solidarity was born as the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc during strikes in 1980, but was suppressed by communist authorities under martial law the following year. Balcerowicz and other Solidarity advisers, including the first post-communist prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, split from Solidarity proper in 1990 because of disagreements with Walesa over the pace of reforms and Walesa’s candidacy.
President Kwasniewski was careful with his comments pending final results, and declined to say to whom he would offer first chance to form a government.
“But democracy means democracy and results have to be respected,” Kwasniewski said on Polish television.
“We still have time to think about what coalition arrangements will be possible,” he said. “The first Sejm sitting will be Oct. 20 so we have nearly a month for consultations among the parties and the president.”