Lech Walesa's place in history is secure. But he still has one ambition: to lead Poland to a final victory over Communism

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The villagers of Dziemiany had not seen a Polish president in the flesh since 1923, and they had turned out en masse to catch a glimpse of the current incumbent.

They liked what they saw. Straining to get closer, with small children perched on fathers' shoulders, they looked on adoringly at the stocky figure with the walrus moustache, the man who once launched a thousand striking shipyard workers and precipitated the collapse of Communism in Poland.

In front of the village church, the parish priest blessed the anointed son. In the mass that followed, he went on to tell his flock that, just as God had chosen this man, so, too, should they in Sunday's coming presidential election.

"I hope that everyone here can feel how kind and good you are," said the priest, as the president-cum-candidate knelt before the altar. "You children here, this is your future. It is in our hands ... Dear Lord, bring us to the light so that we can choose what is right."

Tears formed in the kneeling figure's eyes. Lech Walesa may be a veteran of countless bruising battles, but he has his softer side. And this little episode, being filmed by Polish television, was undoubtedly helping his cause. Here he was for all to see, the devout Catholic, the true patriot, the man who, once again, destiny was calling forth to be the saviour of the nation.

Although there are 13 candidates contesting this Sunday's Polish presidential election, the field has long been narrowed down to just two who can win. Walesa, 52, is one. His main rival is Aleksander Kwasniewski, the 41- year-old leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the successor to the old Communist Party which, after a period in the doldrums, swept back to power in Poland's 1993 parliamentary elections.

Neither man is expected to win the 50 per cent plus of the vote required for an outright majority; they are therefore expected to face each other in a second round run-off two weeks later. According to opinion polls, Walesa should emerge the winner.

If he does secure a second five-year term, it will be a remarkable personal triumph for the president, a man who, despite his undoubted courage in facing down the Communist authorities, has frequently looked out of place and out of his depth as the country's head of state.

The mere fact that the contest has come down to one between Walesa and Kwasniewski is evidence of the fact that for all the giant strides Poland has made since 1989, the country is still bitterly divided between the heirs of the former Communist regime and those of the Solidarity movement that brought it down.

Many Poles haves a sense of deja-vu about this campaign. The country has returned to the polarisations of the Eighties. On one hand there is Kwasniewski, a slick operator, a professional politician, but a sports minister in the last Communist government and a man whose party is still a refuge for many of the old nomenklatura. On the other, there is growling Walesa, a man who believes he has a mission to lead Poland to the promised land of what he calls "normality" and who rails that now having captured parliament and the government, the reds want to crawl under the presidential bed.

Many people, including Kwasniewski, feel that these battle lines are anachronistic and that they obscure the real issues facing the country: the pace and scale of economic transformation, the best way of securing early accession to the European Union and Nato, and the acceptable extent of the Church's influence on the state. But for Walesa, a man whose identity is rooted in the struggle against Communism, the resurrection of the old conflict has been a godsend. The president may be uneducated and undignified, impulsive and power-hungry, and even unable to speak Polish properly - something that even he himself would not deny - but when it comes to fighting Communists (or their successors), there is nobody in Poland more suited to the job.

On the campaign trail, Walesa has made much of his revolutionary past. After all, in 1980, when he was working as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard, it was he who sparked the strike that led to the formation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the former Eastern bloc.

When General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law at the end of 1981, Mr Walesa, along with several other Solidarity leaders, was imprisoned for almost a year. In 1983, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. And in the late Eighties, as Polish Communism was tottering on its last legs, he was instrumental in transforming Solidarity into a 10-million-strong mass movement for reform that ultimately led to the collapse of the old regime.

For that alone, Mr Walesa's place in history is secured. And as far as he is concerned, it gives him a unique right to shape his country's destiny.

"The secret police are no longer watching us, but there is still a long way to go," he told a rally last weekend in Koscierzyn, a market town near Dziemiany and just 50 miles south-west of Walesa's old power-base in Gdansk. "These post-communists [the SLD] are like wolves in sheep's clothing. They control everything from local governments to banks, from parliament to government. Now they want the presidency!"

A man who once worked with Walesa at the Gdansk shipyard complained that, as a pensioner, he now had to survive on just 390 zlotys a month (pounds 100). The Polish economy may be booming - GDP levels, having tumbled in 1990- 91, have been steadily rising ever since, and services and goods in shops are light years away from those available in 1989 - but he, he said, had now been reduced to the level of a beggar. What was the president, with his monthly income of 6,000 zlotys, going to do about it?

Others in the crowd moaned that while prices had rocketed, health and social services were being run down and corruption was still rife in the police.

Walesa shook his head and conceded that things had not worked out exactly as everyone had hoped in 1989 and that some had suffered. For one thing, the country had been brought almost to its knees by the collapse of trade with the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, he said. For another, many of the old guard had never been properly flushed out of the system.

"It has been tough, but I am the only one who has your real interests at heart," he said. "I am the only one who comes from the same side of the fence [the working class] as you ... I am the only one who can lead Poland where it needs to go."

While such populist claims win applause in small towns like Koscierzyn, they are greeted with dismay - and even ridicule - by many in Warsaw. Needless to say, Kwasniewski and his SLD colleagues remain implacably opposed to the president. But in the six years since the overthrow of the old system, Walesa has also lost the support of nearly all his former allies in Solidarity.

Many of those who formed the intellectual wing of the old Solidarity never forgave Walesa for splitting the movement in 1990 when, in the country's first post-Communist presidential contest, he challenged and defeated the former Solidarity Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

As far as they were concerned, Walesa played a vital role in bringing down Communism, but that did not qualify him to be head of state. Once Walesa was elected, they felt their gloomy forecasts confirmed as he clashed repeatedly with successive governments (since 1989, Poland has had five changes of government and six changes of prime minister - at least two of whom were brought down by the president), embarrassed himself on trips abroad and steadily alienated those who had backed him.

As Adam Michnik, a former Solidarity ally, put it earlier this year: "Mr Walesa is one of the outstanding political figures of the 20th century. His power lies in his ability to destroy. His tragedy lies in his inability to build."

Although Walesa's abrasive personality undoubtedly played a key role, many of the clashes of the past five years stemmed from the confusion over the division of powers between presidency and parliament. Under the provisional constitution drawn up in 1989, the president can nominate the key foreign, defence and interior ministers, but is not really meant to exercise executive power. The model, devised as a means of transferring power from the Communist Party to freely elected bodies, falls somewhere between the German one (a largely ceremonial presidency) and the French and American ones (of powerful presidencies).

As such, it suits no one, least of all Walesa, who has spent much of the past five years trying to secure as much power for himself as possible and who has made it clear that if he wins the current election by a large margin, he will see that as a mandate to introduce a powerful presidency on the French or American models.

The prospect of Walesa wielding real power in Poland is one that leaves many of his countrymen apprehensive. But they worry, too, about what could happen if he loses the election. Many fear that, sidelined, he could cause even more trouble. The former trade union leader has not lost his touch when it comes to whipping up a crowd, and it would not take him long to mobilise the masses in his support.

There is another, more nightmarish scenario: a defeated Walesa would refuse to relinquish the reins of power and, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, would stage a coup. During his first term, Walesa, a man of clear authoritarian tendencies, has frequently hinted that he might be driven to such a course of action. In the end, though, he has always backed down. "Don't worry," he once said, as ever, only half in jest. "I will not send the army and police into action - even if only for the reason that I have a Nobel Peace Prize".

Grudgingly, even Walesa's sternest critics concede that, for all his faults and eccentricities, the president has helped to tilt the country towards reform and the western institutions of the EU and Nato over the past five years and, although he sails close to the wind, has never actually acted undemocratically. They acknowledge that, given a popularity rating that had slumped to just 5 per cent one year ago, he has staged a remarkable comeback.

Walesa, a man who once described himself as "an ordinary electrician with just three years of education and all the cunning of a farmer from Mazowsze", fervently believes that Poland is not yet out of the Communist woods. He believes, too, that he is the man to ensure that one day it will be. On Sunday, his famous political instinct will once again be put to the test.