WARSAW -- Poland's voters poured out by the millions Sunday and cast their ballots in what the official news agency PAP called "an atmosphere of calm, seriousness and responsibility" in the first partially democratic elections here in more than 40 years.
When the polls closed at 10 p.m., PAP hailed the balloting as a "new chapter of socialist parliamentary democracy."
Official results may not be available for two days, but preliminary indications were that candidates backed by Solidarity were beating Communist candidates by huge margins in those races where head-to-head contests were allowed.
An elderly woman voter, referring to the Communist-controlled elections of the past, said after casting her ballot: "It feels totally different. Now there is freedom of choice."
It was the first time since a national election in January, 1947, that Poles were given a meaningful choice among candidates, though political power will remain with the ruling Communist Party under an agreement with the Solidarity trade union and other opposition forces.
A total of 27.2 million Poles were eligible to choose among nearly 2,300 candidates for 525 contested seats in a new bicameral legislature. Poles in foreign countries cast absentee ballots at embassies and consulates around the world.
More than 73% of the eligible voters cast ballots, a StateElectoral Commission spokesman said early today.
For some the choice was bewildering. In rural areas, some voters, especially elderly and ill-educated farmer folk, were confused over the voting procedure, according to local poll watchers. Voters were presented with as many as seven paper ballots and were instructed to cross out the names of candidates they opposed.
'Too Many Names'
In some places, people had to cross out more than 100 closely printed names of candidates for various posts to pick their choices. "Too many names," complained one rural voter. "People are getting lost. They don't know who is who."
However, most voters seemed well coached on the complicated process of selecting candidates. Many reported that they were voting for the first time in 40 years.
"It's important this time," said one man outside a suburban Warsaw polling station. "This time something could change here."
For 48 cloistered nuns, the election was a rare venture into the mundane world. They had received special permission to vote at a Warsaw polling station. One made a broad, sweeping sign of the cross before dropping her ballot into the ballot box marked with Poland's national colors, red and white.
If the election can be viewed as a referendum on four decades of Communist rule, as most Solidarity supporters contend, it seems likely to turn out as an embarrassing rout for the authorities of Poland, whose list of 35 candidates for the national Parliament were failing to win election, even though they were running unopposed.
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa warned against an overwhelming defeat of the Communist slate and its supporters, fearing a backlash by hard-liners that would set back Poland's march to greater democracy.
Single Red Rose
Wearing a single red rose tucked in the breast pocket of his coat, Walesa, his wife, Danuta, and their 19-year-old son, Bogdan, walked 100 yards from their home in the Oliwa section of the Baltic port city of Gdansk to the polling station to cast their ballots.
"Poland has started on the road to progress," Walesa told a throng of cheering supporters. But he cautioned that when the elections are over, "the hard work will begin. That is why we should stick to moderation."
Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, whose regime had at one time outlawed Solidarity and sent Walesa to prison, cast his ballot in the Mokotow district of Warsaw, spending three minutes to make his choice.
At stake in the election are 100 seats in a newly revived Senate and 460 seats in the Sejm, or Parliament. The Senate seats are all freely contested, but the proportions in the Sejm are to be divided--65% for the Communist coalition and 35% for all others, including Solidarity candidates. Walesa said he would be satisfied if Solidarity won 25% of Sejm seats and 75% of the Senate seats.
Exit polls conducted by representatives of Western news agencies showed 76% of those polled as voting only for Solidarity, while only 3.9% voted for Communist coalition candidates. Nineteen percent said they selected candidates from both slates.
Against Government Candidates
Perhaps more significantly, 87% said they voted against all or some of the government's select national list candidates.
The vote survey was highly informal and taken mainly in Warsaw, but it conformed closely to more thorough pre-vote polls that indicated 75% of the voters would back Solidarity.
If the government's national slate fails to be elected, it could throw into disarray the closely-worked balance in the national Parliament. Strategists for both Solidarity and the government say they are uncertain what steps will be taken, and under what authority, to replace candidates who might be wiped off the national list.
The issue is important because if Solidarity were to dominate the Senate and win all the seats available to it in the Sejm, it could split the votes in both houses of the new National Assembly virtually in half. The Communist authorities here had banked on having at least a narrow majority to control the Assembly.
The voting was orderly and generally efficient throughout the country, with poll watchers from both the opposition and the government present at each polling station. The well-organized Solidarity activists set up information stations near each polling place, handing out sample ballots to any voter seeking instruction.
Democratic Reforms In Poland Constitutional reforms enacted in Poland as a result of negotiations between the ruling Communists and the opposition groups led by the trade union Solidarity radically change the structure of the government, giving Polish voters unprecedented freedom of choice and reducing the power of the Communists.
Here are the key elements of the new structure:
New Office of President Chief executive elected to six-year term by a joint vote of both houses of National Assembly. Appoints government ministers; can veto legislation passed by the Sejm. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who is currently first secretary of the Politburo of the ruling Polish United Workers' Party and president of the Council of State, is expected to be elected to this new post after this Sunday's voting.
Polish National Assembly Advises lower house; empowered to veto legislation passed by the Sejm. Two seats per province, with one extra seat each for Warsaw and Katowice. No party quota or screening of candidates.
100 seats / Freely Elected Restructured lower house: Sejm Adopts legislation by a majority vote; can override veto of upper house by a two-thirds vote. Opposition agreed not to contest seats of governing parties this year, but may in next election in 1993.
460 Seats Government Parties Polish United Workers'Party (Communists) 175 Seats 38%
Democratic Party and United Peasants' Party (Communist allies) 124 seats 27%
Opposition Solidarity, Rural Solidarity and other groups 161 seats 35% SOURCE: Associated PressCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun