Lech Walesa plummets from revered to despised

June 04, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

WARSAW -- In tracking the baffling career of Lech Walesa, one can't help but wonder: How has the father of Polish democracy also become one of its most despised offspring?

Mr. Walesa, after all, was the extraordinary leader who helped awaken Eastern Europe from its Communist nightmare, the humble dockside electrician who pressed for freedom under the bright banner of a union called Solidarity.

In doing so, he captured the world's imagination, a Nobel Peace Prize and the first freely elected Polish presidency in 1990.

Now the complaints against Mr. Walesa are legion and brutally blunt: He's incompetent, inarticulate and remote, a simple-minded peasant who's in over his head.

But perhaps the most damning accusation is that he has become a power-hungry threat to the freedoms he once fought for.

"Walesa's only aim is Walesa," says one-time ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski. "There is no larger goal, and this is extremely destructive in a country trying to reorganize its whole economy. He does not understand things that even an average citizen would. He has childish opinions."

In all his years as an electrician, Mr. Walesa never faced problems as colossal as those destroying his popularity; and if he can't fix them soon, he risks being turned out of office in this fall's elections.

The latest polls show him running a distant fourth, supported by a mere 8 percent of the voters, and in one survey last year his competence rated below that of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former despot who imposed martial law in 1981 and had Mr. Walesa thrown in jail.

How has it come to this in only five years for the short bustling man with twinkling eyes and the trademark bushy mustache?

Mr. Walesa puts the blame on the uncertainties of the transition to a free-market economy. Despite a healthy trend of economic growth and a boom in exports, Poles have been unnerved by thousands of layoffs and an inflation rate that has usually outstripped wage increases.

In written responses to questions submitted by The Sun, an aide wrote on Mr. Walesa's behalf that Poles "feel abandoned and wronged. Many personally accuse the president for such a situation and often like to see him as somebody who can put things in order."

"They find it difficult to understand that in a democratic country there is a very strict division of power and that the president is not almighty," the statement continued. "Therefore I am considered guilty of everything that people get frustrated with."

The Polish presidency offers more than a merely symbolic role but far less power than the U.S. presidency. The formal powers of the job are still being worked out by drafters of the country's new constitution.

Mr. Walesa's presidential image hasn't been helped by the chaos swirling around the first few years of democracy.

Since the initial parliamentary elections in 1989 there have been seven prime ministers, and the electorate radically shifted course in late 1993, turning power over to the former Communists, who have divided into two parties that rule in coalition, the Democratic Left Alliance and the Peasant Party.

The once powerful Solidarity Party that grew out of the labor movement has splintered into competing factions, none of which supports Mr. Walesa.

But Mr. Walesa's critics say his long slide goes far beyond either economic uncertainty or democratic growing pains. His faults of leadership and judgment, they say, can be found in his daily decisions -- such as his appointment of his driver to one of his top advisory posts -- and in the ineptness of his daily pronouncements.

When Mr. Walesa isn't coming up with bad ideas, critics say, he's more often not coming up with any ideas at all.

"He is very good at tearing down things, which is necessary when you're trying to end a totalitarian state," says another former ally, Bogdan Borusewicz, who is now a lawmaker in the centrist Union of Liberty Party. "But he is not very good at building things up, which is necessary in a democracy."

Nor does he have the ability or the work ethic to change such tendencies, critics say.

"Someone who worked in a shipyard for 20 years could not be a lazy person because this is very hard work," says Mr. Kaczynski. "But having quit physical work, he considers this job in many ways to be a holiday. Like many people who do physical work, he doesn't consider intellectual work to be 'real' work."

"In the Czech Republic, they have Vaclav Havel, the thinker. In Poland we have Lech Walesa, the electrician."

There is in unmistakable element of cultural and intellectual snobbery in such criticism. No matter what their station in life, voters in interviews consistently cite the president's awkward manner of speech, with a peasant's locution occasionally intermingled with the buzzwords of government image makers.

"He's not smart -- you can tell by listening to him," says Janina Tasak, a 40-year-old apartment block superintendent. "He speaks a lot, but he doesn't say anything."

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