With week to go, Polish presidential runoff is tossup


WARSAW, Poland -- In classrooms and on campuses, in living rooms and workplaces, a week before the presidential runoff election young Poles are saying: Forget their favorite candidate's Communist past. He is, many of them argue, the force for the future.

Many first-time voters in next Sunday's election say they will choose Aleksander Kwasniewski, 40, a telegenic former Communist, because as a man who speaks English and knows some economics, he is a modern man.

Lech Walesa, 52, who as leader of the Solidarity labor movement cracked the Communist system and who has been president for five years, is an emblem of history and should remain that way, they assert.

"Walesa is ancient history," declared Lukasz Przybylo, 20, a student at the Warsaw School of Economics, as he discussed the election after class with some friends.

He alluded to the year that martial law was imposed in Poland and the year that communism collapsed. "In 1981, I was 5 years old," he said. "In 1989, I was 14. Walesa stirs too many conflicts and is too close to the church. It would be best if he stayed as the symbol of Poland's past."

The outcome of the runoff election between Mr. Walesa and Mr. Kwasniewski is far from certain, and the youth vote is seen as vital. Mr. Walesa, who was trailing so badly in opinion polls that his chances were written off several months ago, revived his fortunes and came in a close second to Mr. Kwasniewski in last week's preliminary round.

Immediately after Mr. Walesa's showing -- 33.1 percent to Mr. Kwasniewski's 35.1 percent -- political analysts considered him likely to win a second term. But in the last few days, a Walesa victory has seemed no sure thing.

In part, this is because after an erratic performance as president, Mr. Walesa remains unpopular. Just as important, some voters, including many 18 to 29 years old, believe that Mr. Kwasniewski's pedigree in the Communist Party is irrelevant.

In the first round of voting last Sunday, Mr. Kwasniewski bettered Mr. Walesa by 4 percentage points among the 18- to 29-year-olds. Mr. Walesa did markedly better among the elderly.

Thus, in many ways, the election seems to be boiling down to memory -- or lack of it.

"I'm astonished how in six years the Communist regime seems to be ancient history among the young," said Bronislaw Geremek, TC leader of the Freedom Union party, which is now supporting Mr. Walesa after its candidate failed to qualify for the second round.

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