COVER

A WORKING CLASS HERO

WALESA IS SET TO BECOME PRESIDENT

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 26 1990
COVER

A WORKING CLASS HERO

WALESA IS SET TO BECOME PRESIDENT

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 26 1990

A WORKING CLASS HERO

WALESA IS SET TO BECOME PRESIDENT

Lech Walesa tried to put on a convincing display of humility. Perhaps, he said last week, it would be better if his campaign to become Poland’s president proved unsuccessful. “I could live better if I lost,” he said with a smile. “I have a miserable life. I don’t have any time to enjoy my past victories. And if I win, it will be more difficultemdash; people will end up cursing me.” Walesa was sitting in a meeting room at his headquarters in Gdansk, near the sprawling shipyard where his trade union movement, Solidarity, was born. His eyes darted around towards supporters, seeking approval for his jokes and comments. But he left no doubt that, behind his feigned reluctance, he is eager to brave the hardships of leading his nation. And when Poles vote on Nov. 25 in their first-ever fully free presidential election, it seems likely that the Solidarity leader will soon have that chance.

For many Poles, and indeed for many others around the world, elevating Walesa to the Belvedere presidential palace in Warsaw would be the logical culmination of the country’s stormy past decade. It was Walesa whose charismatic leadership of Solidarity since 1980 helped inspire the popular revolts that toppled Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. But his campaign has not been a unifying factor in his own country. The two main candidates, the stout, working-class hero Walesa, 47, and the gaunt 63-year-old intellectual, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, were once close allies in Solidarity’s fight against tyranny. Now, they are bitter rivals, clashing over the pace of political and economic reform, and their supporters have split Solidarity apart in a type of Polish family feud. For many veteran activists, the choice has been painful. “They used to see Solidarity as one body,” said Ernest Skalski, deputy editor of the proMazowiecki Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. “It was like children watching their parents divorce.”

Walesa’s heroic past and natural gifts for communicating with voters have made him the strong favorite to win. Although opinion polling in Poland is unreliable, almost all surveys put the Solidarity leader well ahead, and the country’s only bookmaker has made him the favor-

ite. However, the presence of four minor candidates may deprive Walesa of the 50-per-cent return he needs to win outright in the first round of voting on Sunday. If no one reaches that threshold, the two top candidates will face off two weeks later in a second round.

Canadian: Surveys give third place to a Polish-Canadian businessman, 42-year-old Stanislaw Tyminski. Tyminski, who emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1970, is owner and president of a Mississauga, Ont.-based computer company and is leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, which promotes the rights of the individual. Although Tyminski fired his

campaign manager last week and acknowledges that he is little known in Poland, polls give him a surprising 10 to 15 per cent of the vote. “I am a symbol of hope for Poland,” he said.

The main debate, between Walesa and Mazowiecki, has been passionate, in part because of the personal links between them. When Solidarity was founded under Walesa’s leadership in the port city of Gdañsk in 1980, Mazowiecki was one of his closest advisers. And last year, when the former Communist authorities reluctantly agreed to hand power to a Solidarity-led coalition government, Walesa proposed that his onetime adviser be prime minister. Now, however, he claims that Mazowiecki’s government failed to act quickly enough to remove Communist bureaucrats and to dismantle the old state-run economy.

Mazowiecki’s supporters accuse Walesa of being power hungry and making irresponsible campaign pledges. As well, they say, Walesa would disrupt the government’s ambitious program of economic reform.

Charisma: In fact, some of Walesa’s onetime allies in Solidarity maintain that he may become a right-wing strongman who, as president, would prevent Poland from maturing into a pluralistic democracy. His magnetic leadership made him the right man to tear down the Communist system, they concede. But they say that he is not equipped for the more delicate task of building democracy in a country whose economy is in ruins. “The era of charismatic leaders is past,” said Adam Michnik, a leading Solidarity thinker who is now one of Walesa’s fiercest critics. “Today, charisma can only serve destruction.”

lt; In an interview with Maco lean ’s last week, Walesa re| jected such accusations. Al9, ternately joking and lecturing, he displayed the unshakable self-confidence of a man who has faced seemingly overwhelming oddsemdash;and overcome them. “It was the same in 1980,” he said. “They said then that I wasn’t fit for the situation. Then, when martial law was declared [in December, 1981], they said I was finished. Now, they say I won’t be any good for the current situation.” He added, “I’ll win again, but they’ll start saying again that I’m not right for the situation.”

Walesa’s opponents have attacked him for making contradictory statements and for avoiding the difficult choices that lie at the heart of governing. They point out that he urges swifter economic restructuring that

would inevitably lead to bankruptcies and job losses—while declaring that he is against unemployment. Walesa himself cheerfully admits to the tendency. “It’s true that I say one thing in the morning and something else in the afternoon,” he said. “It’s because I’m an initiator of Poland’s march towards reform. So I am a sort of engine which pushes things forward.” That approach is reflected in Walesa’s energetic campaign. He works crowds like a professional, poking fun at his opponents. Mazowiecki is so slow to act, Walesa told one gathering,

that “he can’t even catch a _

flea.” He habitually refers to himself in the third person, as “Walesa,” and he avoids saying exactly what he would do if elected: “How can I tell when I’ve never been president before?”

Food: While Walesa aims at winning his listeners’ hearts, Mazowiecki appeals almost exclusively to their minds. A noted Roman Catholic intellectual, he barely looks at his audiences when reading his infrequent speeches. And he readily acknowledges that he cannot bring himself to adopt the standard conventions of a campaigning politician. “People say I smile too little,” he said in a television address, adding: “I have never been

able to adapt myself to those artificial smiles.” Mazowiecki and Walesa also appeal to different constituencies. The prime minister is most popular among intellectuals, white-collar workers and younger voters. Walesa leads among farmers, blue-collar workers and older voters—generally those who have suffered most from the shock-therapy economic reforms that the government introduced in January. Under that program, the government ended most price controls and cut subsidies to many enterprises as part of a transition to a free-market

economy. It reduced inflation to a manageable three per cent a month now from a ruinous 70 per cent one year ago, and its policies put goods on the once-bare shelves of food stores and shops.

But the government also cut Polish workers’ real wages by an average of 35 per cent over the past year, and unemployment soared. Officials predict that more than one million people will be out of work by the end of 1990, and they say that number may double next year. The effects are evident in the large numbers of soup kitchens and beggars, as well as the rising crime rate in Warsaw.

Although sharp and dramatic, the personal contest between Walesa and Mazowiecki is only the opening shot in a larger battle for political power that resulted from the unusual way in which the Solidarity-led government took power last year. Partially free elections were held in June, 1989, under a compromise agreement worked out in the spring of that year between Poland’s Communist rulers and Solidarity. The rules were designed to let the Communists keep control of most seats in the lower house of Poland’s parliament. But Solidarity resoundingly defeated the Communists in almost every seat it was allowed to contest, and the pressure for change became irresistible.

Power: Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist president who declared martial law in 1981 and banned Solidarity, agreed to let the movement form a government. Walesa nomi-

_ nated Mazowiecki to lead it.

But with the sudden collapse of Communist rule in the rest of Eastern Europe, what appeared at the time to be a bold breakthrough soon seemed like an unsatisfactory compromise. By last winter, Walesa began to speak out from Gdansk, accusing the government of moving too slowly with reforms. Last spring, his supporters formed a group called the Centre Alliance to press for change, including speeded-up presidential and parliamentary elections to break the Communists’ remaining hold on power.

Mazowiecki’s allies now claim that Walesa simply felt frustrated on the political sidelines. “Walesa could not

bear to stand at the side and watch others make history,” said Halina Bortnowska, a senior Mazowiecki organizer.

“He has been the focal point for too long.” In response, the prime minister’s loyalists formed a group called the Civic Movement for Democratic Action. The two organizations now act almost like rival political parties and plan to field candidates when new parliamentary elections are called, probably next spring.

The two men are waging their election fight on matters of both style and substance. Mazowiecki’s supporters point to the prime minister’s accomplishments in controlling inflation and beginning the immensely complicated task of privatizing the economy. His government claims other accomplishments, as well. It negotiated a treaty with Germany, signed last week in Warsaw, that confirms the existing border between the two countries. That reassured many Poles who had expressed concern that a resurgent united Germany might try to take control of formerly German territory that was absorbed into western Poland at the end of the Second World War.

Collapse: The prime minister’s supporters say that political stability is essential to allow the government to pursue its reforms. That might be impossible to achieve, they claimed, if Walesa wins and unleashes disruptive populist forces. They also caution that Walesa may be playing on some of the darker emotions still alive in Poland, including anti-Semitism. Last summer, he said that people should “declare their origins,” a statement that some of his critics interpreted as Walesa’s response to widespread, unconfirmed rumors that key members of Mazowiecki’s circle are Jewish or are somehow influenced by Jews.

During the campaign, anti-Semitic slogans were scrawled on walls in Warsaw, and a few Mazowiecki posters were defaced with the word Zyd, Polish for Jew. Walesa maintains that his opponents are exaggerating the issue in order to discredit him. “Israel and the Jews are a chosen nation,” he said in Gdansk. “I am a Catholic and I must respect the chosen nation, so I cannot be anti-Semitic.” Then, however, he added without further explanation, “But there are among them, you know, pharisees who are fighting against me.”

Some of Walesa’s other statements have also aroused concern that he might not respect constitutional restraints at a time when Poland’s democracy is still taking shape. One problem for voters is that the powers of the president will remain somewhat undefined until the government adopts a new constitution

next year. In an interview last June, Walesa declared: “For today, when we are changing the nation, we need a president with an axe: decisive, tough, straightforward. If he sees that people are profiting from the change of system, he issues a decree valid until the parliament passes a law.” That led Michnik, his onetime Solidarity ally, to write, “Lech Walesa’s presidency may be catastrophic for Poland.”

Last week, Walesa dismissed those attacks as predictable barbs from people who want to keep the positions of power that they have won in the past year.

“Who is more dangerous at this point?” he asked.

“Mazowiecki isn’t listening to anyone.” His supporters say that by talking about “axes” and “decrees,” he was simply trying to underline the need to cut through the layers of bureaucracy still hindering reform efforts.

In fact, there is ample evidence to support their claims that action has been slow.

The Mazowiecki government has won widespread praise in the West for its far-reaching economic reform plans, drawn up by Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz. Walesa, apparently seeking to calm concerns that he might change course, has even suggested that he might name Balcerowicz to be his prime minister. But despite the praise, many of the plans remain stalled. Although the government has identified 7,500 state-owned enterprises that are to be priva-

tized, it has announced immediate action on only seven.

Reforms: Although Mazowiecki promises that half of the rest will be privatized over the next three years, Walesa’s supporters maintain that such a timetable means only further delay. Said Jacek Maziarski of the pro-Walesa Centre Affiance: “At this rate, people are wondering in what century we are going to finish this famous privatization.” He added: “People were willing to tighten their belts based on the promise that reforms would come quickly. Well, it’s almost a year later and we’ve tightened our belts, but we don’t see any reform.”

There are already signs that the remarkable patience that Poles have shown towards the government’s harsh program is starting to wear thin. Coal miners have staged sporadic strikes to protest their falling standard of living, and their leaders were calling for a one-day walkout this week, just five days before the vote. Walesa warned last week that Mazowiecki’s government will not be able to control the unrest. If he wins the presidency, Walesa himself may have to use his personal prestige to contain the growing impatience. More importantly, he will have to demonstrate that he is as skilled in building democracy as he is at tearing down dictatorship.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Warsaw