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Thursday, June 4, 2009

20th Anniversary Celebrations: High Noon in Poland

It went almost unnoticed. Quietly, simply, and not quite believing they were doing it, Poles walked into their polling places on this date, twenty years ago, and elected a non-Communist majority to their Parliament. They picked up pencils, marked ballots and left them for counting. Their bloodless, stealth revolution was all but lost in the horrific news of the day, the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In fact, I googled "June 4, 1989" several months ago, just for fun, and had to scroll through over 300 entries before getting to a mention of Poland's first free election. Today, I tried again and got an election anniversary story within the first 125. There is no story about the anniversary in the New York Times. The Washington Post is covering it. Polish friends of mine report going to vote with a sense of hopefulness but still not expecting a decisive result, certainly not the outcome achieved. Solidarity candidates won 99 out of the 100 seats in the upper house, the Senate, and won all 161 of the contested seats in the Sejm, the lower house of Parliament. Round Table Talks earlier in the spring, between the Communist government and Solidarity, set up the election, and reserved two-thirds of the seats in the Sejm for members of the Communist party and its affiliates. Nevertheless, the election was an overwhelming victory for the Solidarity and anti-communist movement and set up the official changes that continued to amend the constitution, to omit the "leading role of the Communist party" and to set up a Solidarity led government, with a non-communist Prime Minister. Posters appeared all over Poland in the run-up to election day. Gary Cooper in High Noon, hands on hips, ready for a showdown, with a Solidarity banner, made it clear that the stakes were as high as they could be. Something had to give. And now. It did. "It all began in Poland..." The Iron Curtain came down later in the year. Events in Poland provided the impetus for the sweeping, historic changes, for the end of the ugly divide in Europe. Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, spoke at today's celebrations in Krakow, and credited the Poles for the "decisive victory of democracy in Poland and finally in all of Eastern Europe." She expressed gratitude on behalf of the Germans for the Poles' "courageous stands," that led to the end of communism in her country as well. Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and leader of Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" later that year, also spoke at celebrations and praised the Polish leadership in the movement to bring down communist regimes and reunite a divided Europe. And George H. W. Bush, then President of the United States delivered a video greeting praising the Poles' "irrepressible spirit." It was high noon. The Polish people didn't blink. And that, in fairness, included the communist government. It was time. And they did what needed to be done. Historic, remarkable, and oh, what a gift to the world.

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