Against the advice of friends who warned him to steer clear of Communist politics, Jozef Wronski reluctantly agreed last June to sit on a committee overseeing a local government election.
It was an act of good faith by this 33-year-old farmer, who had never dabbled in politics before and never really meant to get involved. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience for him.
Now Wronski says he knows firsthand of at least one Polish election that was not honest.
Because he saw things that didn't look right -- voters dropping in ballots for other people not present, local officials driving around the countryside pulling in people to vote -- Wronski filed a complaint.
Last week, he told Poland's Supreme Court that police had threatened him for his action, as well as several of the witnesses he had hoped would back up his claims. Because of the intimidation, he alleged, five of his eight witnesses failed to show up in court.
His allegation of police abuse is particularly serious in light of Poland's current furor over last month's killing of a popular, pro-Solidarity priest, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, by state security officers. Following the slaying, the Polish leadership has been stressing the obligation of police and other officials to respect the law.
Wronski's complaint about election fraud was one of 14 to reach the high court. Under a revised election law adopted this year, Polish citizens for the first time have the right to challenge a vote if improprieties occur or if a candidate fails to measure up to official moral standards.
But anyone who tested the law had an uphill fight. Regional election officials provided little assistance. Government prosecutors sat passively in the courtroom, speaking up now and then to urge that a case be dropped. And the three-judge panel that has heard the complaints threw out most of them. It also has turned a deaf ear so far to Wronski's cries of police harassment.
In only one instance has the court annulled an election and ordered a new vote. This involved a councilman from the village of Lutowiska in the southeast whose daughter said he had beaten his wife and reneged on alimony payments. The court ruled the councilman was not morally fit to hold public office.
Wronski's case is the last one still unsettled. It has drawn the most public attention and the most sympathy from Polish reporters who have done a remarkably fair job of covering the court sessions for the Communist-controlled press.
"Someone from Kamienice, Pabianice or Fajslawice who decides to take such a serious step and take his case to the highest legal institution in the country, presenting not his personal rights but his rights as a citizen in local elections, takes a big risk upon himself," Stanislaw Podemski observed in the official weekly Polityka.
Wronski is not sure to this day how he came to be named to the election committee in his township of Fajslawice, about 20 miles southeast of Lublin. He received a letter one day inviting him to a meeting where he would be briefed on the duties of a committee member.
He said in an interview that the other members never took him seriously -- until he refused to sign an official form called a protocol verifying that the election had been conducted properly. He had noticed several irregularities during the voting. He saw a number of people -- including some fellow committee members -- casting more than one ballot.
When he complained about this to the committee's deputy chairman, who was handing out the ballots, she waved him away, he said.
By the afternoon of election day, June 17, Wronski said, the turnout in his village was still well below the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid an automatic second election. So several powerful community members -- the manager of the local bank, the chairman of the agricultural service cooperative that loans farm machinery and the chairman of the local cooperative store -- went around the area in an official car picking up people and bringing them to the polling station. Wronski did not think this was proper, either.
He recorded his objections on the protocol. Observing him do this, a plainclothes policeman in the voting station suggested that he might end up in Moscow or eating onions in Siberia, Wronski recalled.
"At first I expected that all I had to do was object on the protocol and all would be taken care of," Wronski said. But things were not as simple as that.
That same evening, the local Communist Party boss called a meeting of election committee members excluding Wronski, and they redrafted the protocol, minus Wronski's criticisms.
The committee's chairman admitted in court that the protocol was rewritten, justifying the action on the ground that Wronski's remarks were unauthorized and had spoiled the integrity of the document.
After several hearings on the case, the Supreme Court appears interested neither in the alteration of the protocol nor the rounding up of voters by local authorities. The focus of questioning by the justices has been on how many people voted more than once.
In court, several committee members have admitted to dropping in additional ballots, saying they had voted for members of their families. But most insist that no other voter did so. One committee member testified last week that he did catch another person trying to stuff two ballots in the voting box and evicted him. But that, he said, was the only such incident he witnessed.
"We thought it would be enough to prove just one case or two of invalid voting," Wronski said, "but the court isn't satisfied."
Indeed, the law obliges Wronski to demonstrate that illegal voting was widespread enough to have affected the outcome of the election in his district. Fortunately for him, the total turnout was barely sufficient to make the election valid. Only 245, or 53 percent, of the community's 465 eligible voters cast ballots. If Wronski can find 13 ballots that were deposited illegally, the court would be forced to call a new election.
On Oct. 25, Wronski was picked up for questioning by police. He was held for seven hours. "They told me we have to make a deal, that I had to get sick and drop the case," Wronski said. "They pressed me to withdraw. They used a carrot and stick."
He said the police officer who interrogated him -- a man known to him as a state security agent assigned to a neighboring town -- offered to help him obtain a combine or tractor for his 25-acre farm. At the same time, Wronski was accused of being an underground activist and of going against state interests by pressing his court suit. Police suggested that he was being directed by a neighbor, Janusz Stepniak, the local leader of the Rural Solidarity farmers' union before the independent union was outlawed.
Wronski said the police encounter only strengthened his resolve to see his protest through to the end.
Some of his neighbors are cheering him on, but most doubt that Wronski will succeed. His wife, afraid for him, herself and their three young children, wishes he would drop the case. The court scheduled another hearing for Nov. 28 to give witnesses who failed to appear last week another chance to come forward.
Asked why he persists, Wronski replied: "It's a matter of conscience. I have something inside, a feeling for justice. If I win, maybe people will believe it's worth standing up for their rights."