Lech Walesa plummets from revered to despised


WARSAW -- In tracking the baffling career of Lech Walesa, one can't help but wonder: How has the father of Polish democracy also become one of its most despised offspring?

Mr. Walesa, after all, was the extraordinary leader who helped awaken Eastern Europe from its Communist nightmare, the humble dockside electrician who pressed for freedom under the bright banner of a union called Solidarity.

In doing so, he captured the world's imagination, a Nobel Peace Prize and the first freely elected Polish presidency in 1990.

Now the complaints against Mr. Walesa are legion and brutally blunt: He's incompetent, inarticulate and remote, a simple-minded peasant who's in over his head.

But perhaps the most damning accusation is that he has become a power-hungry threat to the freedoms he once fought for.

"Walesa's only aim is Walesa," says one-time ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski. "There is no larger goal, and this is extremely destructive in a country trying to reorganize its whole economy. He does not understand things that even an average citizen would. He has childish opinions."

In all his years as an electrician, Mr. Walesa never faced problems as colossal as those destroying his popularity; and if he can't fix them soon, he risks being turned out of office in this fall's elections.

The latest polls show him running a distant fourth, supported by a mere 8 percent of the voters, and in one survey last year his competence rated below that of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former despot who imposed martial law in 1981 and had Mr. Walesa thrown in jail.

How has it come to this in only five years for the short bustling man with twinkling eyes and the trademark bushy mustache?

Mr. Walesa puts the blame on the uncertainties of the transition to a free-market economy. Despite a healthy trend of economic growth and a boom in exports, Poles have been unnerved by thousands of layoffs and an inflation rate that has usually outstripped wage increases.

In written responses to questions submitted by The Sun, an aide wrote on Mr. Walesa's behalf that Poles "feel abandoned and wronged. Many personally accuse the president for such a situation and often like to see him as somebody who can put things in order."

"They find it difficult to understand that in a democratic country there is a very strict division of power and that the president is not almighty," the statement continued. "Therefore I am considered guilty of everything that people get frustrated with."

The Polish presidency offers more than a merely symbolic role but far less power than the U.S. presidency. The formal powers of the job are still being worked out by drafters of the country's new constitution.

Mr. Walesa's presidential image hasn't been helped by the chaos swirling around the first few years of democracy.

Since the initial parliamentary elections in 1989 there have been seven prime ministers, and the electorate radically shifted course in late 1993, turning power over to the former Communists, who have divided into two parties that rule in coalition, the Democratic Left Alliance and the Peasant Party.

The once powerful Solidarity Party that grew out of the labor movement has splintered into competing factions, none of which supports Mr. Walesa.

But Mr. Walesa's critics say his long slide goes far beyond either economic uncertainty or democratic growing pains. His faults of leadership and judgment, they say, can be found in his daily decisions -- such as his appointment of his driver to one of his top advisory posts -- and in the ineptness of his daily pronouncements.

When Mr. Walesa isn't coming up with bad ideas, critics say, he's more often not coming up with any ideas at all.

"He is very good at tearing down things, which is necessary when you're trying to end a totalitarian state," says another former ally, Bogdan Borusewicz, who is now a lawmaker in the centrist Union of Liberty Party. "But he is not very good at building things up, which is necessary in a democracy."

Nor does he have the ability or the work ethic to change such tendencies, critics say.

"Someone who worked in a shipyard for 20 years could not be a lazy person because this is very hard work," says Mr. Kaczynski. "But having quit physical work, he considers this job in many ways to be a holiday. Like many people who do physical work, he doesn't consider intellectual work to be 'real' work."

"In the Czech Republic, they have Vaclav Havel, the thinker. In Poland we have Lech Walesa, the electrician."

There is in unmistakable element of cultural and intellectual snobbery in such criticism. No matter what their station in life, voters in interviews consistently cite the president's awkward manner of speech, with a peasant's locution occasionally intermingled with the buzzwords of government image makers.

"He's not smart -- you can tell by listening to him," says Janina Tasak, a 40-year-old apartment block superintendent. "He speaks a lot, but he doesn't say anything."

That sort of disdain makes it all the easier for people such as Ms. Tasak to hold it against Mr. Walesa when they have to struggle to make ends meet, even though their wages have increased.

"Life is much harder now than it was under the Communists," she says. "Before, it was hard, but I could save a little money. Now I don't have enough money to last from one payday to the next."

Any sympathy Mr. Walesa might have earned by appearing humbled as he has fallen has been lost in his occasional outbursts of anger.

"He started announcing in public that he does not make mistakes, that he had foreseen everything," Mr. Borusewicz says. "His success was worked out by thousands of people, and his failure is that he has forgotten this fact."

Some voters agree, saying he has lost touch.

"It was good when he was with Solidarity because he was close to the people and cared about what happened to them," says Aneta Supernak, an 18-year-old homemaker with a 2-month-old daughter. "Now he is a lord and gentleman, a power."

Once that sort of impression hardens, it's only a small jump to the more damaging perception that he is "anti-democratic," an accusation made more frequently during the past year.

Mr. Walesa helped provoke such charges when he told an interviewer last fall, "I would prefer democracy to usher [freedom] in without a strongman, but if I have to be a strongman, so be it."

He has also stirred occasional concern by testing the limits of the powers granted him by the country's interim constitution -- once by meddling in the award of TV broadcasting licenses, another time by organizing top army generals in an effort to oust the defense minister.

The outside world also has not always liked what it has seen of Mr. Walesa lately, especially when he has made remarks widely interpreted as anti-Semitic.

For all those reasons, some analysts now say he is so politically weak that he might not even run for re-election. He still makes it a point to say that he has not yet begun campaigning.

"I predict that by the end of August he'll say he's not running," says Michal Boni, campaign manager for Jacek Kuron, a former Solidarity politician who's one of the front-runners in recent presidential polls.

Others point out that he has beat the odds before, and few are willing to pronounce him politically dead.

If he stays in the race and doesn't even make it to a runoff, however, "then it will be disastrous for him," Mr. Kaczynski says.

If that happens, what next?

Mr. Walesa mentions vague things about putting his experience to work in some way "for the world's peace." He also says he'll devote more time to his family in Gdansk, who now only see him once a week. And there would always be the possibility of a comeback.

"When he fails he would be 52, and for a politician that is only middle age," Mr. Kaczynski says. "But a comeback will be difficult for him. These five years have left him completely naked to the public."

The prospect offered by Mr. Borusewicz might be the cruelest of all for someone who has earned a place in European history.

"I had always assumed he would progress, but he never did," Mr. Borusewicz says. "He will just fade away."

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