LECH WALESA AND his Solidarity movement played such an epic role in the collapse of the Soviet empire that Poland's presidential elections Sunday will be watched closely throughout the world. No fewer than 13 candidates are seeking the chief executive's office, but the only ones likely to get through the first round are Mr. Walesa himself and Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist official who is now campaigning as a Social Democrat.
That Mr. Walesa is even regarded as a finalist shows how this one-time shipyard electrician should never be underestimated. Early this year, after five years as president, he was so unpopular he was running a fourth in opinion polls. Even his Solidarity
movement seemed to have forsaken him. In recent months, however, he has staged an impressive comeback. He has regained Solidarity backing and is also favored Poland's influential Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, the Solidarity hero may well be beaten by Mr. Kwasniewski in the first round. Many voters are disenchanted with the Walesa leadership. Particularly Poland's radical economic reforms, while largely successful, have come under fierce criticism.
Two years ago, Polish voters turned against economic shock therapy and gave parliamentary power to a coalition of one-time communists. Among them was Mr. Kwasniewski. If the voters now show a willingness to elevate the 40-year-old head of the Democratic Left Alliance to the president's office, they would continue a trend that has been established in some other formerly communist countries. In neighboring Lithuania, for example, voters booted out that country's first post-Soviet president, a fierce but impractical nationalist, and replaced him with an old communist chief.
Their backgrounds may be different but there are few major policy differences between Mr. Walesa and Mr. Kwasniewski. Both support a free-enterprise system and advocate a Polish membership in both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Nowhere is this election watched more closely than in Russia, which is scheduled to have its own presidential elections next year. A Kwasniewski victory would give a big psychological boost to anti-Yeltsin forces who think their country's reforms have gone too far.