Poles vote today amid worries over nation's stability

November 25, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Kay Withers writes for The Sun from Warsaw.

WARSAW,POLAND — Warsaw, Poland Poles vote today in presidential elections, the campaign for which has both demolished the legend of Solidarity and aroused fears for the country's stability and political common sense.

Last summer, public opinion polls showed strong resistance to the idea of immediate presidential elections, the first by popular vote.

To begin with, the role and powers of the president have yet to be defined, for ratification of a new constitution is expected only next year. Today's candidates may therefore be making promises that tomorrow they will be constitutionally unable to keep.

Second, the efforts of the present Solidarity-dominated government have not managed to pull Poland out of its deep economic crisis. Buying power is dwindling. Living standards are falling rapidly. Unemployment looms. Huge masses of people are so vulnerable to populist propaganda that a mysterious Polish-Canadian millionaire, quite unknown here until two months ago, is now standing second in a field of six contesting the supreme office.

Third, there was no reason the incumbent president, former Communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, could not have stayed on a few more months. Elected as guarantor to the Soviet Union of Poland's stability with the socialist bloc, General Jaruzelski has kept a low profile and has respected the new democratic rules.

So why elections now?

The precipitate plunge into presidential voting is widely attributed to the political ambitions of Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity labor union, pioneer 10 years ago of the uprising that eventually was to topple Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe.

"The Solidarity advisers who formed the government failed to find a role for Walesa," said former Peasant Party leader Roman Malinowski. "That was a bad political mistake. He found himself increasingly on the sidelines and had to move to get back into the limelight."

Others disagree. "Walesa is not so much promoting discontent as articulating it," a senior Western diplomat said.

The Solidarity leader is demanding faster moves toward a completely capitalist economy, defense of the workingman's living standards and purges of former Communists. How his often-contradictory statements are to be reconciled is unclear -- he admits himself that he does not know how to implement, for instance, the award to every Pole of a $10,000 interest-free loan in order to set himself up in business.

Electioneering has set Mr. Walesa on a collision course with the prime minister he chose in September 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, another leading contender in the presidential race. Mr. Mazowiecki, whom not even his campaign manager would call charismatic, claims, nevertheless, that he is privatizing as fast as is practicable and that he has resisted purges and vendettas he says could tear the country apart.

With two leading Solidarity luminaries locked in mortal combat for the supreme office, the price of the presidential campaign has been high indeed.

First, the remarkable alliance of intellectuals and workers that was the unique cornerstone of Solidarity's success has been blown apart. The fact that Solidarity is fielding two candidates, Mr. Walesa and Mr. Mazowiecki, exemplifies this disintegration, with the workers rallying 'round Mr. Walesa's banner and the intelligentsia supporting the sober, pragmatic premier.

"Neither of them is really dealing with the economy," said Dr. Jane Curry of Santa Clara University in California, who is a visiting Fulbright professor at Warsaw University. "And so it has boiled down to a class issue."

Mr. Walesa is expected to win. If he doesn't, he has implied that there will be chaos.

Neither candidate, according to public opinion researchers, is doing spectacularly well. The public is disaffected with a once-venerated movement and has misgivings about the candidates -- about Mr. Walesa's autocratic image and Mr. Mazowiecki's apparent lack of energy. "Mazowiecki doesn't seem to want to run," Dr. Curry said, "and Walesa doesn't seem to want to compete, just to be president."

According to a poll taken last weekend, Lech-the-living-legend is the favorite of only 27 percent of the voters, far short of the 50 percent needed to win on the first round and avoid a runoff Dec. 9. And -- in an even more bizarre indication of voter bamboozlement -- Mr. Mazowiecki risks losing the second position to a rank outsider, Canadian millionaire Stan Tyminski.

Until two months ago, nobody in Poland had ever heard of Mr. Tyminski, a businessman and the leader of Canada's tiny Libertarian Party. Now his fuzzy populist program and well-financed campaign have overshadowed that of the prime minister, a veteran activist with a history of jail and dissent stretching back to the 1960s. "Poles are opting as always for the foreigner with hard currency," editor and satirist Jerzy Urban, the former Communist government spokesman, commented caustically.

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