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EUROPE : Ex-Communist Waits in Wings of Poland’s Political Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Communist Party official who helped negotiate the transfer of power to the Solidarity trade union has agreed to become Poland’s next prime minister.

But Jozef Oleksy, a onetime party boss and a minister in the country’s last Communist government, may never get the job.

Oleksy, 48, faces what many here consider to be an impossible task: making peace between his left-wing coalition government and President Lech Walesa, the only Solidarity-era figure still holding top office in Poland. As president, Walesa must sign off on any new government that Oleksy would head.

“His chances are no better than 50-50,” said analyst Marcin Krol of Respublica Nowa, a political journal.

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The stakes are high for both sides leading up to presidential elections this fall, when Walesa is expected to face tough opposition in his bid for a second term, most likely from a candidate fielded by the governing coalition of former Communists and their allies.

If Oleksy stumbles, it could give Walesa an advantage over a left-wing challenger supported by a demoralized coalition. Walesa has already won sympathy for recent attacks on the government, which he claims have undermined economic and democratic reforms.

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Oleksy’s bid also carries powerful symbolic overtones. If he becomes prime minister, he would be the first former Communist to head a democratic government in Poland. Waldemar Pawlak, the current prime minister, comes from the coalition’s junior partner, the Polish Peasant Party.

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Oleksy served as minister for trade unions in the last Communist government, placing him across the table from Walesa and Solidarity negotiators when the Communists agreed to introduce democratic reform in 1989.

Oleksy has been associated with the reform wing of the Democratic Left Alliance, the party of the former Communists, which won the most votes in the 1993 parliamentary elections. For the last 16 months he has been Speaker of the Parliament, putting him a heartbeat away from the presidency under Poland’s rules of succession.

Oleksy once told a television interviewer that he regretted joining the Communist Party, explaining that he had been “beguiled by my professors” as a college economics student. Until high school, he attended a Roman Catholic seminary and was considered a likely candidate for the priesthood.

“When accepted into the party, he did not renounce God. He went around our questions somehow,” a former Communist Party official told the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

Oleksy’s coalition commands a comfortable majority in Parliament, but Walesa has already bullied Pawlak into submitting his resignation, which takes effect when--and if--Oleksy forms a new government. Walesa has said that he would not block Oleksy’s nomination, but the former shipyard electrician does not like the former Communist Party official and has made no effort to ease the transition.

“I would not like to be in Oleksy’s shoes,” political scientist Adam Bromke said. “As a Communist Party member since 1968, he is going to be an easy target for Walesa.” But Oleksy is not expected to surrender easily. Friends say he is ambitious--he is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate--and not likely to accept defeat.


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