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Chicago’s Poles Skeptical and Hopeful About Elections

May 29, 1989

CHICAGO (AP) _ Polish citizens around the world will be able to vote in next weekend’s historic election in Poland by going to their nearest consulate, a prospect that has Chicago’s large Polish community skeptical but hopeful.

″It’s time for something new. Communism hasn’t worked out,″ Halina Cessna said while looking over imported sauerkraut and hams in a Polish grocery.

″The most important thing is that these are the first elections with a choice in many years,″ she said. ″At last, the opposition has a voice.″

The Communist government and the opposition Solidarity trade union on April 5 agreed to Poland’s first somewhat democratic balloting since World War II.

Polish citizens living abroad may vote Saturday at Polish consulates. In Poland, voters will go to the polls Sunday.

At stake are 460 seats in the existing parliament, the Sejm, and 100 seats in the newly created Senate. The opposition is allotted 161 seats in the Sejm, with the rest reserved for the communists. But the race for the Senate is wide open.

Chicago is said to have more residents of Polish descent than any city outside Warsaw.

″We’ve been fighting for this for so long, now that we’ve got a chance we have to go and vote,″ Katarzyna Kowalinska said as she waited to buy sausages in a delicatessen along Milwaukee Avenue, sometimes called the Polish Broadway.

″It’s not really a free election, but it’s a first step,″ said Ms. Kowalinska. ″It’s already a lot. There’ll be a free press and free television.″

″I love my country, but I’m not interested in politics,″ Marek Stachowicz said as he sipped coffee in a tavern across the street. ″Is my vote going to make a difference? No.″

Robert Michniewicz, vice consul at the Chicago consulate, estimated 800,000 people in the Chicago area are of Polish descent. He said about 50,000 are still citizens of Poland, and he expects as many as 10,000 to vote here - a far cry from the 200-odd he says voted in past Polish elections, in which only candidates from the Communist Party and its allies ran.

″I believe most of the people will vote for the opposition,″ Michniewicz said. ″In these elections, Solidarity is encouraging people to vote.″

Poles voting here and at consulates in New York and Washington will choose from among 32 candidates running for three Senate seats in Warsaw’s central district, he said. Voters also will fill two seats in the Sejm.

Those wishing to vote must bring a passport, some other document showing citizenship, or an ID and two witnesses swearing to a person’s citizenship.

The election agreement reserving 65 percent of the seats in the Sejm for the Communist Party and its allies has some Poles here questioning the value of the exercise.

″If they want democracy they should give us the whole thing. There’s only going to be 35 percent opposition in the Sejm,″ said a man who asked not to be identified because he is in the United States illegally.

The main issue is not how to vote but whether to vote at all, said Maciej Wierzynski, who was a journalist in Poland and produces a Polish-language TV show here.

″The people who are going to vote are certainly going to vote for the opposition,″ Wierzynski said. ″Some people say the elections are a compromise with the Communists, but my feeling is that most people will vote.″

Janina Domoradzka, who was granted political asylum in the United States five years ago, said she didn’t plan to vote.

″Nothing will change because we’re too close to the Soviet Union,″ Ms. Domoradzka said. ″The opposition isn’t going to be able to do anything. The Polish government won’t let them.″

The Chicago-based Polish-American Congress, an organization of immigrant Poles, has raised about $200,000 nationally to support the Solidarity candidates, said Kazimierz Lukomski, a leader of the group.

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