Throughout its tumultuous modern history, Poland has been a bellwether of change in Eastern Europe. In 1956, unrest among Polish workers signaled growing discontent in post-Stalinist Eastern Europe; in 1980, the birth of the Solidarity trade union began the unraveling of the Soviet bloc; and in 1989, Poland spearheaded Eastern Europe's rejection of communism as a Solidarity-led government took power.
Last September, when Polish voters ousted a coalition of ex-communists and sealed the comeback of Solidarity, they may have established another landmark-the emergence of Christian democracy as a significant political force in Central and Eastern Europe. The election brought in a right-of-center dramatically different from Western European counterparts, many of which have evolved into secular movements. The Polish Christian democrats have little desire to separate their politics and their religious beliefs. They appeal explicitly to voters' Roman Catholic religious identity and announce their own adherence to "Christian values" that encompass the sanctity of human life at conception; the need for moral instruction, including through the educational system; and the belief that the economy and work are part of God's design for humanity. They are staunch loyalists in the camp of the Polish pope, John Paul II-whose turn away from the welfare state and endorsement of the free market gave impetus to Solidarity's decision to form a coalition government with the backers of economic liberalism. Developments in Poland parallel a resurgence of Christian democracy in other Central and Eastern European countries with Catholic majorities or significant Catholic minorities. And a revitalized Christian democracy may have resonance farther west in Europe-at any rate, the pope hopes so. During his pilgrimage to Poland last summer, John Paul linked the post-Cold War reunification of Europe to the reassertion of its Christian roots.
BUILDING ON FAITH
On September 21, 1997, the Solidarity Electoral Action bloc (AWS) captured a majority of seats in the Polish Senate and came relatively close in the lower house. In mid-October the aws and the liberal, market-oriented Freedom Union agreed to form a government anchored by a stable parliamentary majority. One reason for the reversal in the fortunes of right-of-center forces after their electoral defeat in 1993 was the Solidarity trade union's crafting of a broad-based coalition of nationalist, conservative, liberal, and populist parties. But the aws would not have won over voters without a message that unified a broad spectrum of groups.
Marian Krzaklewski, founder and leader of the AWS bloc and chairman of the Solidarity trade union, established that connection through his appeal to Catholic tradition under the banner of Christian democracy. The first paragraph of the aws campaign manifesto declared: "We can build a modern, just, and self-sustaining sovereign state; a state founded on patriotic and Christian values, on love and freedom. These values have formed our core identity for a thousand years." The appeal to religious identity was at the core of Krzaklewski's electoral strategy.
To understand the aws, one must understand its founder, a 47-year-old academic with a doctorate in computer science. Krzaklewski joined Solidarity in 1980 and helped organize its branch at the Silesian regional affiliate of the Polish Academy of Sciences. During the 1980s he worked in the banned union's underground network, and in 1990 he was elected chairman of the national Solidarity union, succeeding Lech Waffilesa. Krzaklewski's home, the Silesian coal country, is a deeply religious region whose miners are drawn to tradition and characterized by stubbornness. Their suspicion of outsiders made Silesia a hotbed of opposition to communist rule, especially after the imposition of martial law in December 1981. For someone from the intelligentsia like Krzaklewski to win the miners' trust was possible only because he shared their intensely felt anticommunist and Catholic beliefs.
In a campaign autobiography, Time for Action, Krzaklewski writes of his debt to the Catholic Church. He evokes the heroism of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, a tribune of resistance to communist oppression, and places the church's social thought at the center of Solidarity's ethos. Krzaklewski infuses his Christian democratic politics with transcendent importance:
A struggle is being played out over what values will triumph; it is a struggle of values on which Poland has always based its existence. But this struggle is not being waged solely for the good of Poland, but for the good of Europe and the entire world. Is it possible that Poland will decide the fate of a new evangelization?
By 1993 Krzaklewski had left his mark on Polish politics, but when Solidarity returned to power in 1997 it was with a different orientation and different partners. Back in 1993, Krzaklewski and Solidarity's parliamentary allies, pressed by workers unhappy with the rigors of market reform, brought down the free-market government of Hanna Suchocka, ushering in four years under the ex-communist left. Today, however, two architects of the economic "shock therapy" that Solidarity once disparaged, Freedom Union chairman Leszek Balcerowicz and former Prime Minister Suchocka, are, respectively, deputy prime minister and justice minister in the aws-led government. This remarkable political reconciliation results from two factors: acknowledgment by many workers that Balcerowicz's approach created a vibrant economy with annual growth of more than 5 percent, and the evolution in the Catholic Church's thinking about the free market.
MIXING RELIGION AND POLITICS
Pope John Paul II's 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) was sympathetic to a social democratic third way between market capitalism and socialism. Influenced by his teachings, Eastern Europe's Christian democratic movements in the early years of the post-communist transformation resisted rigorous market reforms. By the time the pope penned his 1991 encyclical Centisimus Annus, however, his thinking had changed.
In part, this was because the pope had witnessed the stagnation of state-dominated economies in the Soviet bloc and observed the new dynamism of free-market economies. In an interview in November, the religious scholar and social scientist Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute suggested that early in his papacy John Paul "thought of capitalism as impersonal and material." Then, however, "it began to occur to him that capital can also be human capital, resting on skill and initiative." In Novak's view, by the early 1990s the pope had "created a new middle ground, based on a free economy, a free polity, and a moral sphere rooted in liberty." "The free market," John Paul asserted in Centisimus Annus, "is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs." He also shifted ground on the welfare state, declaring, "By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies . . . dominated by bureaucratic . . . thinking."
The pope's new vision made it much easier for Christian democrats throughout Central and Eastern Europe to move away from their support for a large state role in economic life and join forces with free-market liberals. One sees the results in the governing coalition in Poland and other recent alliances in the region.
A key event in the Polish center-right's victory was the pope's fifth visit to his native country in May and June, just three months before the election. More than six million Poles attended the papal Masses and listened to John Paul's homilies. In his hometown of Cracow, more than 1.5 million gathered to hear him. Unlike on his 1991 visit, the pope neither sounded overtly partisan nor berated his fellow Poles for "excessive consumerism." While the pilgrimage focused criticism on Poland's left-backed liberal abortion laws, John Paul's main emphasis was the reinvigoration of Poland's Christian traditions. Krzaklewski and the aws received a boost from the visit, and in the following months plastered Poland with posters depicting the pope's pilgrimage.
In mounting the comeback, the aws adopted many of the tactics of the American right. Like American conservatives, it benefited from the support of Christian radio broadcasters. It organized "right to life" marches jointly with the Catholic Church. It also built grassroots networks by mobilizing around referendums. In 1996 Solidarity and its right-of-center allies worked on behalf of a referendum that would have forced a new wave of privatizations and distributed stock to millions of ordinary citizens. That referendum won 94 percent support but failed because of low turnout. In early 1997 Krzaklewski led an unsuccessful church-backed campaign for a "no" vote on a referendum that ended up approving a secular constitution by a slender majority. Such campaigns did not gain their immediate objectives, but they got Solidarity and right-of-center parties working together, and functioned as test runs for the September 1997 elections.
The AWS's first days in power revealed a moderately conservative agenda. The coalition named as prime minister Jerzy Buzek, a chemistry professor who was Krzaklewski's academic mentor. Buzek, a political moderate, is highly regarded across the broad spectrum of Polish anticommunists for his service in the 1980s as leader of Solidarity's underground network in Upper Silesia. The elevation of Buzek, a member of Poland's 90,000-strong Lutheran community, ensures that Krzaklewski-who heads the aws bloc in parliament and retains the chairmanship of the Solidarity trade union-will remain the country's premier Catholic politician.
The shaping of a modern, centrist Christian democratic identity for the aws is complicated by far-right forces within the bloc. Most problematic are 20 members of parliament backed by the traditionalist Radio Maryja, named after the Virgin Mary. The highly popular station, which has a national reach, mixes a fundamentalist Catholic and nationalist message with a measure of economic populism. Radio Maryja endorsed candidates who support the "Christianization" of Poland's public education system (while most aws deputies would like to ensure religious instruction in public schools), back a complete ban on abortion, and want to see what they say is Poland's expressly Catholic nature proclaimed in the constitution. These conservatives, however, may have limited room for maneuver. The Catholic Church has distanced itself from Radio Maryja's radical agenda and, if necessary, will press the zealous fundamentalists to cooperate with the aws government. Moreover, the new governing aws-Freedom Union majority is likely, on its own, to move in the direction of some fundamentalist demands by tightening Poland's liberalized abortion laws and strengthening religious instruction in the schools.
Nor is tension inevitable in the ruling coalition between the Christian aws and the secular Freedom Union, as some analysts have suggested. In fact, the Freedom Union has Christian democrats within its ranks, notably former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. And in 1996 two-thirds of the Freedom Union's bloc in the lower house of parliament joined a losing attempt to thwart passage of a bill liberalizing Poland's strict abortion laws.
ELSEWHERE IN EASTERN EUROPE
The new cooperation between liberal and Christian democratic parties in Eastern Europe, along with the success of free-market policies in the region, helps explain why broad-based center-right coalition movements are again winning elections and taking power away from the ex-communist left. Then, too, throughout Central and Eastern Europe and possibly beyond, Catholic values appear to have fresh relevance among people who feel that statist socialism created a spiritual vacuum.
In Romania, events are unfolding along the lines of the Polish pattern. The ruling Democratic Convention, voted into power in November 1996, is a coalition of the center-right dominated by the National Peasants' Christian Democratic Party. The new Christian Democratic-backed prime minister, former Bucharest Mayor Victor Ciorbea, like Poland's Krzaklewski, began his post-communist political career in 1989 as a trade union leader.
In Hungary, polls conducted last October showed significant support for culturally conservative political movements. The nationalist Independent Smallholders' Party, with 20 percent support among voters, is seeking to establish an electoral bloc with the Christian Democratic People's Party. Equally significant, other leading parties of the center-right, including the former governing Hungarian Democratic Forum, are seeking to position themselves as heirs to a Christian democratic conservative tradition. Even Fidesz, a party established by secular liberals under the age of 30 (which has 27 percent support, versus 30 percent for the Socialist Party), is sounding conservative themes. Fidesz has embraced values-oriented politics that are likely to be reinforced by the recent entry into its ranks of parliamentarians from the Christian Democratic People's Party.
In Slovakia, a broad-based coalition modeled on Romania's Democratic Convention and Poland's aws recently formed under the leadership of Jan Carnogursky,'s Christian Democratic Party. Polls in October showed the new Slovak Democratic Coalition running ahead of authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's governing Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.
In Lithuania, a resurgent centrist Christian Democratic Party is cooperating with the ruling nationalist Homeland Union-Conservative Party, which espouses traditional Catholic values and has a Christian democratic wing.
During his trip last summer, the pope delivered a homily in the Polish city of Gniezno before the presidents of five predominantly Catholic countries-Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia-and two with large Catholic communities, Germany and Ukraine. In a clear attempt to invigorate a Christian democratic revival throughout Europe, John Paul emphasized:
There will be no European unity unless there is a community of the spirit. This most basic foundation of unity was bequeathed Europe by Christianity, through its Gospel, through its understanding of man, and its contribution to the evolution of the works of men and nations . . . The framework of European identity is built on Christianity. And the current absence of spiritual unity emerges primarily from the very crisis of Christian self-awareness.
The spiritual hunger that attracts voters to political parties oriented toward religious values is not confined to the former communist world. In the United States, politics has been influenced since 1980 by the resurgence of faith-based activism. And a growing interest in religious faith may help explain the unexpectedly large crowds during the pope's visit to France in August. The grand ambition of Marian Krzaklewski-the victory of religion in a struggle of values in Poland, in Europe, and around the world-does not seem so far-fetched. Events in Poland may reverberate far beyond the country's borders, a harbinger of reinvigorated Christian democracy in Eastern Europe. That would be as important a development in modern European history as the emergence of Christian democratic parties in postwar Italy and Germany.