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Turnout strong for Poland's parliamentary election

Nuns cast their votes September 21, 1997
Web posted at: 10:56 a.m. EDT (1456 GMT)

WARSAW, Poland (CNN) -- Voters in Poland cast ballots Sunday in elections to choose a parliament that will be charged with seeing the nation through the next phase of fuller integration into western Europe.

Polls opened as scheduled at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT/midnight EDT) for 16 hours of balloting that will decide 460 seats in the lower house, the Sejm, and 100 in the upper house, or Senate. Official results will not be available until Wednesday.

Election-eve polls showed the main ex-communist and Solidarity blocs running neck-and-neck, with another seven or eight parties likely to be in a position to join in a coalition.

The new parliament, whatever the composition, is unlikely to bring major changes to the government. Instead, its most challenging job will be steering the country toward NATO and European Union membership in the coming years.

Prime Minister Wlodziemierz Cimoszewicz acknowledged Sunday that the new parliament, to convene October 20, will be more balanced than the previous chamber controlled since 1993 by his Democratic Left Alliance.

But, after casting his ballot in the eastern city of Bialystok, he said: "I'm not afraid of the election result because Poles can tell facts from propaganda."

The vote marks the third free parliamentary election since the fall of Communism in 1989, and the first following a full four-year parliamentary term. Roughly 28.5 million Poles are registered to vote.

Talk of coalitions

With the voting only hours old, politicians already were talking about possible coalitions.

Jozef Oleksy, the leader of the ex-Communist alliance, said the Democratic Left would look first to its current coalition partner, the Peasants party. However, he kept speculation alive that the ex-Communists were seeking a post-election alliance with the Freedom Union, a Solidarity-based party that has remained independent of the reunified bloc.

Many voters in the heavily Roman Catholic country went to Mass on the way to vote, and in some parishes they heard veiled plugs for the Solidarity movement, which shares deep ties and anti-Communist sentiments with the Roman Catholic Church.

Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement played a pivotal role in the downfall of Communism in Poland in 1989, became Poland's first freely elected president in 1990. He lost a re-election bid in 1995 to a former Communist.

Though the election is being contested along old party lines, Solidarity and the ex-Communists are no longer worlds apart ideologically. Both share strategic international policy goals and key market economy ideals.

The ex-Communists, reborn as free-market social democrats, swept to power in 1993 elections and have continued many of the same reforms established by the previous, Solidarity-led parliament.

But Solidarity, keeping alive the memory of workers shot by the old regime, wants to finish the revolution begun in 1980, when Solidarity became the Soviet bloc's first free trade union.

To reverse their fortunes, some three dozen Solidarity parties have joined in the Solidarity Electoral Action to challenge the ex-Communists.

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