WARSAW, MAY 27 -- The threat of a nationwide rail strike combined with a surprisingly low voter turnout today to detract from Poland's first completely free elections in half a century.
Railroad workers in northwest Poland, whose eight-day-old strike has forced closure of the country's two largest sea ports, called for a 90-minute national walkout Monday and threatened an indefinite countrywide strike beginning Tuesday unless the government responds to their wage demands.
The Solidarity-led government again refused the demands, arguing that any strike-forced wage increases would spark renewed inflation and ruin a five-month-old economic recovery program.
The strike threat -- the most serious challenge to the government since it came to power last fall -- has overshadowed the local elections, which afforded voters an opportunity to complete Poland's year-old democratic revolution.
The elections, part of a radical program of government decentralization, returns decision-making authority to localities after more than four decades of top-down Communist rule.
More than 50,000 councilors were chosen today to run more than 2,300 local government bodies. The vote coincides with the transfer by the central government of about one-fifth of its property to the local councils, which will be able to levy taxes and spend money on their own authority.
About 42 percent of eligible Poles voted today, according to national election commissioner Jerzy Stepien, who characterized turnout as "not very high."
Government polls had earlier indicated a likely turnout of 50 to 60 percent. In last year's quasi-democratic election of a National Assembly -- which set the stage for the end of Communist rule here and started an anti-Communist chain reaction across the East Bloc -- turnout was 62 percent.
"The electoral campaign showed low interest in the elections and little knowledge of the outcome this revolution brings for each of us," said Jan Rulewski, a prominent leader of the Solidarity labor union in the northern city of Bydgoszcz, after casting his vote.
First results from the election are not expected until Monday night, with final returns due by mid-week.
Today's vote was set against a backdrop not only of a railway strike but also of a precipitous and painful fall for most Poles in their standard of living.
As a result of the government's free-market program, the economy has slid into deep recession, with real income down by 40 percent and the number of unemployed growing to about 400,000.
The government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki has depended on worker acceptance of these hardships, arguing that austerity is the unavoidable price of overhauling a top-heavy, debt-ridden and industrially moribund socialist system.
Until the rail workers strike, the government could claim a remarkably high level of popularity, with Mazowiecki's approval rating in polls hovering between 80 and 90 percent. Talks between the government and the strikers broke off Saturday in Warsaw, and rail workers returned to the Baltic Coast city of Slupsk, where they met through the night with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who led Poland's peaceful revolution, has been backed into a corner this year as he has tried to support both the government and the workers. In the process, he appears to have lost credibility with both.
In Slupsk, Walesa said he had been "very near" signing an agreement with strikers but that his negotiations were sabotaged by leaders of the All Poland Trade Union Alliance, a labor group that was created in the 1980s by the Communist government as a rival to Solidarity.
The Trade Union Alliance has supported the demands of the Slupsk strikers, who want a 20 percent wage increase. That would give them about $10 more than the average Polish monthly wage of $98.
Walesa warned leaders in Warsaw today to move quickly on the strike. "The decision-makers must decisively intervene and end this strike or give the strikers what they want," Walesa said.
Mazowiecki said his government could offer the strikers nothing in the way of salary increases. "We will discuss pay issues when strikes stop. . . . The stand of the government will not be changed," he said.
Polish troops have been transporting some stranded rail passengers and perishable supplies by truck, but Mazowiecki said he sees no need thus far to use the army to begin operating the railroads. He also said he was not going to let the strike prevent his scheduled visit Monday to France, where he is planning to ask for drastic reduction in Poland's $38 billion foreign debt.