In a referendum on Sunday the Polish people look set to agree a new constitution, one that will, at long last, replace the model fraternally bequeathed by Stalin in 1952. The vote comes at a critical moment in the political calendar since this September the country will have a chance to pass its verdict on four years of rule by "post-communists", parties with roots in the system that collapsed in l989. The political timetable has energised what for many would have been a dry and lifeless debate on arcane matters of legality.
While the professors of constitutional law have had some input, the real debate over recent months was dominated by a fierce contest between a post-communist-dominated parliament and an extra-parliamentary opposition centred on the Solidarity movement. This Sunday is widely regarded as an early but exceptionally important skirmish in a summer of increasingly heated politics.
The timing is neat since a few days after this Pope Paul II will begin a lengthy Polish pilgrimage.
In the seemingly-ancient pre-Sputnik period of the early 1950s Poland was a People's Republic. The Communist party embodied all that was good for the Polish state. Class and social conflict had been (theoretically) abolished and the party's newspaper, Trybuna Ludu, urged from its masthead "workers of the world unite". Since then the world has been turned upside-down. And even though the "evil Empire" collapsed some seven years ago Poland has found ditching the constitutional relics of the past to be no easy matter.
Warsaw's constitutional drama, long bogged down in mind-numbingly boring parliamentary procedure, suddenly exploded late last year. It was detonated by the trade union Solidarity, the extra-parliamentary opposition to Poland's current government. In the last days of March, constitutional developments unfolded against a backdrop of national demonstration and protest organised by Solidarity against the bankruptcy and closure of the Gdansk shipyard.
Not much of this seeped past the stout defences erected by the British media in the run-up to May 1.
However, the political atmosphere is warming up and the Solidarity opposition, through its political wing "Solidarity Electoral Action", is losing no opportunity to set out its claim to government. The constitutional issue was a godsend and Solidarity has done its best to ensure that God is duly honoured with His place in the constitution.
Poland's constitution-writing began with a public invitation for proposals. Last June, these were distilled into a single parliamentary constitution. But just before Chirstmas when Solidarity upped the ante. Parliament, dominated by post-Communists, produced a constitution which was, in the union's opinion, virtually a heathen document. This was, it implied, no more than could be expected from half-reformed Sputnik-worshippers, so Solidarity responded by dusting down its own so-called "citizen's consitution" and demanded either fundamental amendments or else that its own draft also be put to public referendum.
Parliament immediately rejec-ted the "two constitution" option. Nor was it keen to accept Solidarity's other demands. The Solidarity view, that the constitution should affirm 1,030 years of Christian tradition, was not so much a realistic proposal as an early volley in the general election campaign. There was not much chance that parliament would accept a completely unabridged form of Solidarity's "We, the Polish Nation, mindful of our 1,000-year history bound with Christian culture and beliefs . . . " Nor was there much possibility of Solidarity accepting parliament's " . . . we Polish citizens, both believers in God . . . and those not sharing these beliefs . . ."
Nevertheless, enough compromise was reached to take the edge off Solidarity's fundamentalism and dent its political campaigning. Of course the constitution is not only about values. It is also a document of practical significance. Abortion is perhaps the issue that most clearly captures this: whereas Solidarity's "citizens" would constitutionally ban abortion, parliament resisted the idea that the state must defend human life from "the moment of conception".
Some differences were less weighty. Take the presidential swearing-in ceremony, where parliament permitted the president to add (or not) the phrase, "so help me God". But for Solidarity, the testing words were firmly embedded in the constitution and the new head of state was free only to delete the reference to God, thus displacing a highly visible lack of commitment to Polish tradition and, possibly, an alien disposition.
The voice of higher education has been muted. A constitutional commitment to free education is hedged with qualifications that suggest that something along the lines of "top-up fees" will beocme commonplace. The funding crisis is so severe that there is probably no other way and in any case this acknowledges an existing reality. Private schools and universities are also quite acceptable, which is just as well since there has been a explosion in private provision in recent years and university autonomy is guaranteed.
A few compromises later, at the beginning of April, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland's post-Communist president, announced that parliament had finished its work: the people would have their say on May 25. But throughout the discussion parliament insisted, with presidential backing, that only one constitution would be put to the vote.
This was, to be sure, a short term defeat for Solidarity, but there is little doubt that the union and its chairman, Marian Krzaklewski, will once again pick up the role of Defender of the Faith before September's general election when the union will map out its broader election credentials as reliable guardian, with the Church, of the Polish national interest.
The senior of the post-communist parties in the ruling coalition, the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD) will not object. After all, the 1995 presidential election was fought over a similar territory of tradition and high ideology and then even such a grandee as Lech Walesa managed to lose to Kwasniewski, a minister for youth affairs in Poland's last Communist government.
As the September election draws closer, the stage is now being prepared for the next act - a summer of high politics that as one Polish commentator has put it, will centre on "God, abortion and the Polish People's Republic".
George Blazyca is head ofthe department of accounting, economics and languages atthe University of Paisley.