Walesa's 10 years of activism are put to the test, and they're likely to pass

November 25, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- Poles vote today in presidential elections expected to crown the remarkable career of a shipyard electrician with an oratorical bent who became a symbol of Poland's thirst for freedom.

The last public opinion poll before today's balloting tapped Lech Walesa, the charismatic leader of the Solidarity labor union, as the next president of Poland, although his predicted victory is by no means sweeping.

Rallying mainly rural dwellers and workers who underscored their discontent over austerity policies with a round of strikes last week, Mr. Walesa scored an approval rating of 38 percent, surging from the previous 27 percent.

Next in line with a 23 percent rating was the Solidarity intelligentsia's candidate for the presidency, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whom Mr. Walesa chose as prime minister last year. The competition between the two Solidarity veterans formalized the split in the union's ranks.

To the embarrassment of the Polish political and intellectual establishment, third in line was a maverick Polish-Canadian millionaire, Stan Tyminski, who left Poland 20 years ago and made money in Toronto and Peru. He appeared from nowhere a couple of months ago and, untried and unknown, briefly edged out the prime minister from the No. 2 spot.

The other three candidates -- a former Communist, a veteran right-wing dissident and a peasant leader -- have virtually no chance.

Presidential elections were called before the expiration of the term of the incumbent, former Communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, after Mr. Walesa expressed popular discontent with the slow pace of reform and the continued presence of Communists in positions of power.

The race has been marked by bitter rivalry, charges of treason and dirty tricks, legal prosecutions, ineptitude and bursts of anti-Semitism.

Unofficial results based on computer projections are due late tonight. For an outright win, a candidate must poll more than 50 percent of the votes. Otherwise the two leaders will fight it out in a runoff Dec. 9, which polls suggest is likely.

From shipyard worker to reviled dissident to president of the republic would be an extraordinary passage for Lech Walesa. Today's outcome will show if the aura of the lean, fiery-eyed rebel who jumped the fence in Gdansk 10 years ago still clings to the portly professional politician that Mr. Walesa has become.

Probably it does.

"There's nothing but the election discussed on the city buses these days," said Marianna Granecka, a Warsaw housekeeper. "And they are all going to vote for Walesa."

She thought she would, too: "He's a simple man, and he'll look out for us simple people."

Then her son, Karol, persuaded her that Poland lacked the wherewithal to "look out for the simple people" and that Mr. Walesa was not saying how he would. She switched to Mr. Mazowiecki.

To the relief of many, the most recent voter survey somewhat deflated the Tyminski phenomenon, although the Canadian might still capture the despairing and dissatisfied voters, impressed by his rags-to-riches emigre background.

After a week in which alarmed politicians and the press presented the bespectacled Mr. Tyminski as mentally ill or criminal or both, a bearded intellectual at a Warsaw dinner party swore he would still support Mr. Tyminski.

"Look at the candidates," he said. "Look at the campaign. Poland deserves Tyminski."

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