The undoing of a living legend with the historic stature of Polish President Lech Walesa comes rarely in politics.
But for all the emotion surrounding Walesa’s election defeat Sunday, there was little fear Monday that his successor would veer the country from the democratic and economic reforms 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 Monday confirmed projections that 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 Walesa’s combative politics--the fiery oratory and unpredictable tactics 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 suport that vaulted him into the runoff election with Kwasniewski, Walesa has been mostly disliked as president, with approval ratings dipping into single digits last spring. At one point, Walesa even contemplated not seeking reelection.
Many voters Sunday were also convinced that 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% of unemployed voters chose Kwasniewski, as did 55% of 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 Kwasniewski. “But he can’t manage Poland in the modern world.”
With a record turnout of more than 68% of eligible voters, Kwasniewski won 51.72% of the vote and Walesa 48.28%, 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% of the vote.
Though former Communists control both houses of Parliament, they do so having won 21% of the vote in 1993 elections. Similarly, in other former East Bloc countries where ex-Communists have made electoral comebacks, it has been without the clear majority Kwasniewski garnered. Nowhere has such a visible leader of the Communist-era opposition as Walesa been ousted from such a lofty post by his onetime enemies.
“The problem for me and Solidarity was how to get rid of this senseless [Communist] system,” a combative Walesa declared at a news conference in which he conceded defeat. “We tried to save every drop of Polish blood, but it had its price.”
In a televised address to the nation, Kwasniewski sought to calm possible fears among the more than 9 million Poles who voted for Walesa that Kwasniewski’s victory amounted to a democratic coup by the forces many of them struggled to overthrow in 1989.
Throughout the campaign, Walesa targeted Kwasniewski’s Communist past, warning voters that he was the same old foe in a new capitalist disguise. Though Walesa promised Monday night to respect the election results, he continued to hold 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,” Kwasniewski said in his television appearance. “The choice we made in 1989 is the right choice, supported by a majority of Poles.”
That Kwasniewski felt the necessity to make such public assurances is evidence of the deep divisions that the election laid bare. According to pre-election research by the CBOS polling institute, more than a third of Walesa’s supporters were mainly concerned with blocking a Kwasniewski victory.
“Those who voted for Lech Walesa and those who voted for Aleksander Kwasniewski, you are neighbors,” Kwasniewski said. “We work together, we meet on different occasions. Really, if you look into each other’s eyes, you will see that a lot of things unite us, and very little divides us.”
Though many analysts mourned the loss of a gutsy symbol of Poland’s anti-Communist revolt, they predicted Walesa’s departure would, on the whole, not seriously jeopardize the achievements of the Solidarity movement he once led.
Indeed, some analysts said, if Kwasniewski can muster the political will, he could succeed in speeding up some difficult reforms--particularly of the social security system, which eats up more than a fifth of the national budget--because his coalition also controls Parliament. Walesa had notoriously bad relations with Parliament, even when it was governed by Solidarity-based parties.
“Kwasniewski may end up being more papist than the Pope because he wants to prove he is modern and can be trusted,” Nowina-Konopka said.
A pre-election analysis by the Salomon Bros. investment firm concluded the candidates were roughly balanced on economic issues and neither would seriously disrupt Poland’s rapid economic recovery.
The most significant issue the Salomon Bros. report raised about Kwasniewski involved his coalition’s proposal to make the Polish National Bank more subservient to Parliament. But the analysts noted that a victorious Walesa would have “destabilized” the bank’s current president because she challenged him in the first round of the election.
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 Kwasniewski’s commitment to reform, but they worry 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 in such cases, they said.
“With a prime minister from the same party, Kwasniewski will have much more power than Walesa ever had,” said Jan Zielonka, a Polish political scientist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “This worries me. I believe in a division of power politics, especially bearing in mind the historical background to this country.”
The symbolism of Kwasniewski’s victory over 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.
Walesa promised Monday 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.