WARSAW, NOV. 30 (MONDAY) -- The government reported the lowest voter turnout ever recorded under communist rule in a national referendum yesterday, called to judge Poles' support for political and economic reforms, including radical price increases.
Official reports said that 68 percent of Poland's 26 million eligible voters appeared at polling stations to vote on two propositions covering official plans for a "radical healing" of the economy and a "Polish model" of political reform.
The turnout appeared to leave a narrow margin for passage of the propositions, which requires approval by more than 50 percent of registered voters. Official results will be announced later today.
At the same time, the turnout appeared to deal a setback to the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski by suggesting widespread resistance or indifference among Poles to the reform. Government officials have said broad public support is crucial for the implementation next year of the scheme's austerity measures, including a doubling of basic food prices and a tripling of rents and utility charges.
The results carry an additional political sting for Jaruzelski because the banned Solidarity trade union condemned the referendum as a propaganda stunt and advised Poles not to vote. The communist leadership has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of seeking Solidarity's cooperation in the reform process.
In a press conference early this morning, government spokesman Jerzy Urban maintained that the government was satisfied with the turnout, which he termed "very good." He attributed the low turnout in part to the novelty of the referendum for Poles, but also acknowledged that "a significant part" of the electorate "could not take on themselves the difficult choice" of radical reform.
The lowest voter turnout previously reported by communist authorities was 75 percent in 1984 local elections. Elections to the parliament in 1985 resulted in a 78 percent turnout.
The referendum was the first held in Poland since 1946 and was described by officials as a step toward democratization and the "socialist pluralism" promised by the reform plan. However, critics said the propositions offered voters no reasonable choice, and contended that the balloting amounted to an attempt to make Poles feel obliged to accept price increases next year.
Apart from yesterday's turnout, signs of the public's reaction to the reform plan and announced price increases have not been good for the government. In recent weeks, panic buying and hoarding has nearly cleaned out supplies of sugar, jewelry and durables such as furniture and television sets. The black-market price in zlotys of the U.S. dollar -- Poland's financial equivalent of gold -- has soared by 30 percent.
Demonstrations against the referendum were reported yesterday in Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow, Wroclaw and the steel town of Nowa Huta. Spokesman Urban said 12 persons were detained around the country but described the overall climate as peaceful. In Gdansk, marchers shouting "if you want to starve, go and vote" were blocked and dispersed by police as they sought to move from the downtown St. Brigida's Church to the monument commemorating workers slain in 1970 antigovernment riots.
Opposition sources said several thousand protesters participated in the march and several were beaten by police in riot gear. Urban said the crowd numbered in the hundreds and that police had detained two demonstrators who had hurled stones.
At polling stations, residents cited a range of reasons for voting, including civic obligation, fear of official reprisals against non-voters, and hope that the new reforms would yield results.
"It's worth risking because it can't do any harm and it might produce something good," said one young worker who voted yesterday afternoon at a vocational school in the industral district of Wola. But an older man at a bus stop in the Ochota district disagreed. "It's no use," he said. "They've done this enough times in the past and nothing has come out of it. This is nothing new."
Although the most significant political measure of the referendum appeared to be the turnout level, polls and interviews with voters suggested a significant negative vote was possible on the first proposition, which concerns the government's economic program. Government officials have reluctantly conceded that if that proposition is defeated, price increases next year would be significantly reduced from those now planned.
Urban acknowledged that the paper ballot given to voters was confusing. In order to vote for the proposition, Poles were required to cross the box reading "no," while marking the "yes" box indicated a vote against. "It was like asking people to scratch the left ear with the right hand," the spokesman said.
Government and party officials privately acknowledged that one purpose of the campaign was to make Poles aware of the upcoming measures so as to minimize the shock -- and possible reaction -- when they are implemented. Jaruzelski's leadership deeply fears a repetition of the popular uprisings against price increases that have caused the downfall of three previous Polish communist governments and prompted the creation of Solidarity in August 1980.