President Lech Walesa took a gamble four months ago when he dissolved the stormy Polish Parliament and called for new elections, only the second in post-Communist Poland.
“The decisive voice returns to you, the people,” he declared in a televised address at the time. “Let the nation speak. Let it choose those whom it trusts.”
The nation spoke on Sunday, but it did not say what Walesa expected to hear. Instead of supporting the Solidarity-bred leaders of Poland’s sweeping economic reforms, the country handed the government back to Walesa’s archenemies, some of whom had thrown him in prison a decade ago.
In a bittersweet testimony to Poland’s infant democracy, the former trade unionist whose movement began the toppling of communism across Eastern Europe will probably turn to a party with origins in the old authoritarian regime to form Poland’s new government.
“This guy for the last 15 years has fought against all of this,” said one stunned Western European diplomat. “And here they are coming back. His gamble didn’t come off.”
Walesa pledged during the campaign, even as opinion polls pointed to a surge in support for the left, to oblige the democratic process by selecting the new prime minister from the winning party.
Preliminary results based on exit polls show the Democratic Left Alliance, a self-described social democratic party created by former Communists, will easily finish first among the six parties in the new Sejm, or lower house of Parliament.
Official results are not expected before the end of the week, at which time Walesa is likely to announce his selection.
“I have no choice, democracy is not a joke,” Walesa said on election day when asked if he would honor his pledge even with a Democratic Left victory. “If the nation wants it, it surely has to be that way.”
The task, however, will be extraordinarily difficult because Walesa will be turning to some of the same faces who have opposed him for years. The Democratic Left’s insistence that it has broken with its Communist past and will continue economic reforms, albeit more slowly, is unlikely to make it any easier.
Even as ballots were being tabulated Monday night, the animosity between the president and his former adversaries was evident. Some Democratic Left leaders were brazenly speaking of restricting the powers of the presidency, although they denied campaign speculation that they would seek to oust Walesa before the end of his term in 1995.
A presidential spokesman, meanwhile, hinted in a TV interview that Walesa would not stand idly by if a new government threatened hard-won economic and political reforms.
Among those likely to take the reins of power in the new Parliament are Alexander Kwasniewski, a dapper former Communist government official who squared off with Walesa four years ago during negotiations with Solidarity to end four decades of Communist rule.
He is expected to be joined by Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who shortly after quitting the Communist Party challenged Walesa in the 1990 presidential election, finishing a dismal fourth.
“However bitter it is for me to admit it, parties tracing their pedigree to the era of the Communist dictatorship have been victorious,” said Adam Michnik, a former Solidarity adviser and now editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper who was jailed as a dissident under the Communist regime. “This means that for a large part of the electorate, that past has ceased to be something compromising.”