WARSAW, Poland -- Lech Walesa, the legendary leader of the Solidarity labor union, won a plurality of votes yesterday in Poland's first direct presidential election in 45 years, but he fell short of the absolute majority he needed to avoid a runoff.
Mr. Walesa's first-place showing was overshadowed by a surprising race for second place, in which Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was running behind Stanislaw Tyminski, an expatriate businessman with no political experience.
If early returns and government projections based on exit polls are confirmed, the Dec. 9 runoff will feature Mr. Walesa and Mr. Tyminski, a Polish-Canadian unknown here two months ago, instead of Mr. Mazowiecki, the pragmatic prime minister Mr. Walesa appointed in August 1989.
Little is known about Mr. Tyminski, except that he was a penniless emigre when he left Poland in 1970 and that he returned a millionaire. Bronislaw Geremek, the former parliamentary leader of the Solidarity caucus, called Mr. Tyminski's success at the polls a "sign of society's immaturity."
Figures released by the German polling organization INFAS three hours after the polls closed yesterday evening said Mr. Walesa was leading the field with 39.2 percent of the vote.
It was not considered a triumph for the hero of Solidarity's 10-year battle against communism.
Early in the campaign, Mr. Walesa had said he would get 80 percent of the vote, and he had suggested that he would withdraw if he did not win in the first round. Instead, he attracted considerably less than half of the 70 percent estimated turnout -- less than 30 percent of the total electorate.
Mr. Walesa's staff members, describing the result as a "little disappointing," canceled a planned victory celebration. It would have followed a glamorous election night party for the political establishment, which was televised live to the economically stressed Polish voters.
Mr. Mazowiecki, Mr. Walesa's main rival in the Solidarity movement, polled only 20 percent of the vote, which Mr. Mazowiecki attributed to the "crisis through which Polish society is going."
Mr. Tyminski won a projected 23.2 percent of the vote, getting strong support in the small towns, in working-class areas and among youthful voters -- hitherto Mr. Walesa's strongholds.
Looking lost and surprised, Mr. Tyminski, 42, said in a Polish television interview that he had triumphed "despite difficulties with the press and television."
Three other candidates got less than 10 percent of the vote each, with former communist Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz doing the best at 9 percent.
Mr. Tyminski appeared in Poland at the beginning of the campaign, identifying himself as a proprietor of small businesses in Toronto and Peru and as leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, a group without parliamentary representation.
He said he could lead Poles to wealth, and 56 percent of his countrymen told pollsters he was the candidate with whom they would most willingly invest money. (Mr. Walesa was a distant second with 15 percent.)
As Mr. Tyminski's stock rose from 4 percent to 20 percent in opinion polls, alarmed members of the political establishment began legal proceedings against him for calling the prime minister a "traitor to the nation." The Polish press painted him variously as a drug baron, a fraud and a psychiatric patient.
"If Mr. Tyminski is mentally ill, he should be treated," said columnist Leopold Unger, "but so should Polish society."
Commentators variously described Mr. Tyminski's success as a "shameful episode," an "escape route" or a "vote of no-confidence in the post-communist authorities."
The anti-Tyminski campaign may have contributed to his popularity by making him seem to be the victim of authority, a popular image in Poland.
"They overdid the savaging," said Warsaw University teacher Danuta Chylinska. "People thought it was unfair, and they were even more determined to vote for him."
Aleksander Hall, Mr. Mazowiecki's campaign manager, said Mr. Tyminski played on Polish dissatisfaction with declining living standards and rising uncertainties -- a technique that Mr. Walesa also had used.
Mr. Tyminski appeared to have won most of his votes among unsophisticated voters -- also Mr. Walesa's constituency -- which could make the second round of balloting close.
Many saw Mr. Tyminski's success as a defeat for Solidarity, whose ranks produced both Mr. Walesa and Mr. Mazowiecki and whose factions quarreled bitterly during the campaign.
"Solidarity has lost strength," said lawyer Edward Wende.