Walesa loses re-election bid but reforms termed secure Polish president called out of step with times

ex-Communist triumphs

November 21, 1995|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WARSAW, Poland -- The undoing of a living legend with the historical stature of Polish President Lech Walesa comes rarely in politics.

But for all the emotion surrounding Mr. Walesa's election defeat Sunday, there was little fear yesterday that his successor would veer the country from the democratic and economic reforms Mr. Walesa toiled to secure.

"The point of no return in Poland has been achieved," said Piotr Nowina-Konopka, an opposition member of Parliament and Walesa supporter. "They must follow up on the policies we started in 1989."

Official election results released yesterday confirmed projections that Mr. Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity labor movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had lost to challenger Aleksander Kwasniewski, a government minister during the Communist era who now leads a party of former-Communists-turned-social democrats.

In a jarring twist in fortunes, voters decided that Mr. Walesa's combative politics -- the fiery oratory and unpredictable tactics TTC that were central to his struggles against communism in the 1980s and to his presidency in the 1990s -- were out of step with Poland's maturing democracy.

Except for a dramatic last-minute surge in popularity that vaulted him into the runoff election with Mr. Kwasniewski, Mr. Walesa has been mostly disliked as president.

The symbolism of Mr. Kwasniewski's victory over Mr. Walesa may ultimately help unite the plethora of center and right-wing parties that have been so busy bickering among themselves that they have given the left-wing parties little to fear.

Mr. Walesa promised last night to reunite the opposition and retake power. "Let's not disperse, let's not abandon our hopes, let's not dissipate our strength. Poland needs us," he said. After a week's rest at his home in Gdansk, he said, he will begin traveling Poland with his message.

Many voters Sunday were convinced that Mr. Kwasniewski would help ease the pain of the economic transformation, which has placed the Polish economy among the fastest growing in Europe but has also left countless casualties. About 60 percent of unemployed voters chose Mr. Kwasniewski, as did 55 percent financially strapped retirees, exit polls showed.

"Walesa is a great man in history, who achieved great things for Poland," said Czeslaw Dega, 72, a retired educator who voted for Mr. Kwasniewski. "But he can't manage Poland in the modern world."

With a record turnout of over 68 percent of eligible voters, Mr. Kwasniewski won 51.72 percent of the vote, marking the first time ex-Communists in Poland have won a majority of votes in a democratic election. In the last presidential contest five years ago, the ex-Communist candidate took just 9 percent of the vote.

Though former Communists control both houses of Parliament, they do so having won 21 percent of the vote in the 1993 elections.

Similarly, in other former Eastern Bloc countries where former Communists have made electoral comebacks, it has been without the clear majority Mr. Kwasniewski garnered.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Walesa targeted Mr. Kwasniewski's Communist past, warning voters that he was the same old foe in a new capitalist disguise. Though Mr. Walesa promised last night to respect the election results, he continued to hold Mr. Kwasniewski in such contempt that he pledged to skip the official transfer of power ceremony next month.

"I would like to assure all of you, those who voted for me and those who today have a lot of doubts, that Poland is not going to get off the road of reform," Mr. Kwasniewski said in a television appearance. "The choice we made in 1989 is the right choice, supported by a majority of Poles."

Though many analysts mourned the loss of a gutsy symbol of Poland's anti-Communist revolt, they predicted that Mr. Walesa's departure would, on the whole, not seriously jeopardize the achievements of the Solidarity movement he once led.

Fears about a Kwasniewski presidency focus mostly on the unseen faces of former Communist apparatchiks who still occupy the rank-and-file of his Democratic Left Alliance, a coalition of leftist parties.

Some critics don't question Mr. Kwasniewski's commitment to reform, but they worry that he may be beholden to his grass-roots constituency. With the coalition also in control of Parliament, there will be no effective checks and balances, they said.

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