Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Annika was all of fifteen. It was February, 2008. She was a volunteer for presidential primary caucuses in suburban Denver, assigned to work at a public school ten miles from our house. She arrived early as directed. The lines were already out the door and around the corner. Colorado was not one of the big prize primary states but it was early days and the question was, can the Obama momentum continue? Annika discovered that the paid workers were in a tizzy, absolutely flustered by the turnout and by the reality that the room they had prepared was nowheres near big enough. One woman disappeared for an hour. Ostensibly to seek direction but really, to sit in a tiny closet and freak out. The mom in me loves this part. Annika went to the principal and the custodian and said, "we have too many people. We need a bigger room. Or we need another room." She arranged for the caucus to be split, from the original two precincts sharing one room to the obvious solution, they'd each have their own. Annika took the required materials to the cafeteria and, beings that she herself was a tad bit underage to actually preside, she commandeered another one of the paid workers -- who had been distinguished by her distinct style of hand-wringing -- to follow and technically run the meeting. But really, it was Annika who ran that caucus that night, poised and calm and terribly efficient. Several hundred voters did their business and went home satisfied with their part in the political process. That tells you something about my younger daughter. But I want it to tell you something, as well, about Poland. There is no way anything like this would, could happen in Poland. Not yet. Twenty years ago, 1989, it was November, as it is now. Right. The borders of Hungary and Czechoslovakia were leaking like a sieve. Crowds had gathered in Leipzig on Monday evening, in the square outside the main Lutheran church, St. Nicolai, in the tens of thousands, with candles, to pray, to demonstrate their determination that change should come. One week later, the Wall would crack open and crumble, come down, gone, gone. Forever. In an instant. Or close to it. Twenty years ago, 1989, November, it was already five months since the Polish nation had gone to the polls in the first free elections in the Soviet bloc since World War II, or, to be more clear, in the first free elections ever in the Soviet bloc. By this time twenty years ago, Poland already had a non-Communist Prime Minister and majority in its Parliament. By this time twenty years ago, Solidarity had moved in to the Department for Foreign Affairs building and had the keys. The long, painful struggle for freedom and a civic society in Poland had gone on for all of the forty-some years of Communist domination. Workers' strikes, student strikes, more workers' strikes, and then, after the election of the Polish Pope and his first visit to Poland in 1979, the workers and the intellectuals and the students and the whole mass of Polish society had joined together, cooperating, resisting the Party's attempt to fragment their purposes and set them at odds with each other, as it had done in the past. The whole of Polish society was together in this pursuit of freedom, democracy, and, let's face it, food. It was not a wholly non-violent revolution. But the violence came not from the revolutionaries, as is normally the case, but was started and provoked by the authorities and was, blessedly, limited. The casualties were lifted up and revered and the people carried on their slow march to freedom. By this time twenty years ago, Gorbachev had already told the Polish Prime Minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, "it's over." Meaning, the communist stranglehold on power. The post-War Polish state, the People's Republic (that was never the people's at all). ' "It's over." The Poles had voted. The verdict was overwhelming. No big surprise there. Solidarity won. The Communist candidates barely got the requisite 50% majority even in the seats where they ran uncontested. But there were surprises. Only 62% of the electorate had come out to vote. Despite the posters plastered all over town, all the towns, and countrysides, and a blanketing campaign by Solidarity to make sure everyone knew who "their" candidates were, the response was tepid. This shocked me. Until I remembered the accustomed resignation, skepticism, and outright cynicism of so many people after forty-plus years of having no say, no power, no opportunity to express their voice in other than rote forms. Or in the protest demonstration. Voting. What was this voting? Of course,they knew. Had longed for it, labored over years for the right to vote. But the Poles did not line up three days in advance or walk hundreds of miles, as the black South Africans did, when the time came. And to this day, they're still getting used to the idea. And especially the overwrought campaigning. When I told the story of my daughter's activism, people were stunned. To a person. But they're getting it. While it is oft said (and not without some merit) that Poles are better at fighting than governing, and their political climate is enough to make you tear out your hair, democracy in Poland is now something to be cherished, and the franchise used. It amuses me that every week, or so it seems, a new opinion poll is widely published with the latest figures about the relative popularity of the leading political parties. It's like taking your blood sugar reading every hour. But what a joy! They can do this now. What was thought lost forever, impossible in the lifetimes of at least all of my peers, if not their children, is routine. So routine as to be sometimes forgotten, or blown off. "I forgot to vote." A year ago today I sat in the Europa Cafe, and the Honoratka Restaurant, and the Coffee Heaven on Nowy Swiat with friends, fretting, waiting out the election returns from America. My vote had been cast. I had faxed it from the American Embassy several days earlier and had emailed -- twice! -- to be been reassured by a lovely woman named Joy at the Arapaho County Clerk's office that my ballot had indeed been deposited with all of the mail-in ballots to be duly counted. I even had my actual ballot, the piece of paper on which I had connected the arrows to cast my votes. How cool -- I got to keep it! But that wasn't enough. I needed numbers. My daughters spent the day ringing doorbells, driving elderly voters to the polls, taking food to the poll watchers. My Polish friends were stunned. Wasn't this going a bit overboard? "Just wait," I told them. "Your grandchildren will get to this point. Democracy grows on you. Maybe it takes a little while to believe it can work." (And some days I still shake my head.) Twenty years ago, even before Gorbachev told Rakowski in Berlin, "it's over," the fun part was just beginning.