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Poland's anniversary of democracy

It's been 20 years since Solidarity trounced the Communist Party in a popular election, and Poland wants it remembered.

Former Polish President and Solidarity founder Lech Walesa waves a victory sign in front of a Solidarity poster during his presidential campaign in Plock on May 7, 1989. (Reuters)

WARSAW — The fastest way to get Poles riled up on June 4 would be to mention the approaching anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — because Poland sees its own role in bringing down European communism as paramount.

“They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall,” explodes Lech Walesa, the legendary leader of the Solidarity labor union and Poland’s president from 1990-1995.

Poland claims with some validity that it was first to undermine Communist rule.

First, through the Solidarity union formed during the strikes of 1980, which quickly became a movement of national liberation before the introduction of martial law in 1981. Although Solidarity was driven underground, it succeeded in shaking communism to the core by destroying the myth that the Communist Party represented the working classes.

Led by Walesa, Solidarity refused to cut a deal with the authorities through the grim 1980s, until another round of strikes so weakened the Communists that they were forced to open negotiations with the opposition in the spring of 1989.

The party reluctantly agreed to allow for partly free elections on June 4, 1989. The idea was that the Communists would still get to keep a lock on 65 percent of the seats in parliament, while allowing the opposition to vent a bit of steam by competing for the rest. The apparatchiks ruling the country since 1944 hoped to be able to co-opt part of the opposition to spread the blame for the country’s obvious economic collapse and to gain some social support for the drastic steps needed to repair it.

On the day of the election, Walesa thought that the opposition would win about two-thirds of the seats allotted to it, but that Communists would continue to rule the country for the foreseeable future. Overconfident party members were even considering the possibility that candidates linked with Solidarity wouldn’t win a single seat.

Instead, given their first chance in five decades to express what they thought of the Communists, voters trounced the party, which didn’t win a single seat in the first round and won only one in the second.

By August, Poland had formed its first non-Communist government since the war, giving the tottering Soviet empire a firm, although not final, kick.