Pulling the plug on the Great Electrician

The Poles have deposed Lech Walesa and shown solidarity with an ex-Communist. It could be a rough ride, warns Neal Ascherson

The lights went out on the Great Electrician when Sunday's presidential election in Poland brought defeat to Lech Walesa. For 15 years, since he created Solidarity in the Gdansk shipyard strike, he has been the decisive personality in his own country: as union leader, as prisoner, as leader of the mass political movement that overthrew Communism in 1989, as president of the republic since 1990. Now his own compatriots have rejected him, by a narrow margin, and the Walesa show - for the moment - is over.

Before Sunday's run-off election, one of the Polish bishops burst out that Poland would make itself scandalous and the laughing-stock of the world if this intensely Catholic country elected an ex-Communist "enemy of the Church" as president. But it is always unwise to lecture Poles from on high. They went and elected Aleksander Kwasniewski, junior minister in the last Polish Communist government within the Soviet empire, as head of state of the nation whose crest is a white eagle wearing the crown of the Madonna, Queen of Poland. And the world is not laughing.

For some Poles, this result must seem a catastrophe. It is not just that the post-Communists, who already dominate the government, now hold the presidency as well. Neither is it only the fear (groundless, on the evidence so far) that they will steer Poland back into some subordinate relationship with Russia. It is, rather, that the nation will be divided and polarised. In one camp will be the great pro-Western forces of traditional Catholic patriotism of which - in spite of countless quarrels and disillusions - Lech Walesa was a member. These forces will now be voiceless, or at least without any foothold in authority. Triumphant in the other camp will be godless modernisers and Marxists, placemen from the old Communist bureaucracy and traitors secretly in league with a reviving Russian Empire.

But this is not how the real split ran. Workers and small peasants voted about equally for Kwasniewski and Walesa in the first round on 6 November. So it was not about class - but neither was it much to do with faith or ideology. Kwasniewski's vote came from medium and small towns, from the northern and western regions annexed from Germany in 1945, and from the young and those with higher education. Walesa's supporters, in contrast, tended to live in the big cities and in the traditionalist south-east of Poland, to be older and to lack further education. Lech Walesa tried to turn the campaign into a fateful choice between Communists and patriots. But it was nothing of the kind, and most Poles knew it. This was a social struggle, between an impatient, self-reliant Poland and an older, more deferential Poland whose values are still rooted in history.

There are many reasons why Lech Walesa lost his grip on the nation. Some of them were political. In 1990, before his first presidential campaign, Walesa coarsely and brutally turned on the Solidarity movement in an effort to purge those who questioned his authority; the result was to split the whole centre-right of Polish politics and to deprive President Walesa of any solid and reliable block of support in parliament or outside it. His spectacular ham-handedness over constitutional change and the political command of the armed forces also alienated people. But the perception which probably pushed most waverers to vote against him on Sunday was that a man so erratic was not right for the presidency. The lurid episodes when his bodyguard and chauffeur seemed to be running the presidency were painful for Polish dignity. His wildness and apparent lack of grasp shown in his TV duels with Kwasniewski on the eve of the election put off many viewers, who felt that Kwasniewski had a better understanding of the democratic rules.

On the face of things, Poland and Europe do not need to worry about President Kwasniewski. On the main issues, the policies of his party and government are well-known and not very controversial. As president, he will push ahead with getting Poland into Nato and the European Union. The privatisation of the economy and its transformation into a free-market operation acceptable to Brussels will trudge ahead, though more slowly than some international bankers would wish. In negotiating a new constitution, including a definition of presidential powers, Kwasniewski may well show more caution and tact in dealing with political opposition and the Catholic church than Walesa would have done.

And yet this election result still leaves a queasy feeling. Superficially, it poses no obvious threat to the five-year-old democracy, promises no striking turn in policy. But it is an odd outcome for Poland. Another period of "cohabitation" - of sharp political contrast between president and government - might have given a better picture of the passionate divisions in Polish opinion. After all, this was a very close result, and now the centre and right - almost half the political nation, including many of the new capitalist class - have lost all central power. That sort of result is familiar in Britain, with our "winner takes all" electoral system. But Poles are more explosive, and less easily reconciled to impotence.

A second problem is Lech Walesa himself. In the past, he used to talk expansively about how happy he would be to lay down his burden, when Poland no longer required him, and go fishing with his tribe of children. In practice, there is some danger that Walesa will find rejection impossible to accept and will accuse history of not having learnt its lines properly.

His idol Jozef Pilsudski, who dominated Poland between the wars, "retired" to his country house at Sulejowek but used it as a centre of intrigue which made Poland almost ungovernable. If Walesa set up his own Sulejowek (or Colombey-les-deux-Eglises), it would probably be a farce. Just possibly, however, he could gather round him and unite the scattered forces of barmy, authoritarian, bigoted nationalism. The picture of the Great Electrician's return as a messianic "man on a white horse" is not funny at all.

But, in the end, the danger of Aleksander Kwasniewski's victory is not chaos but its opposite: stagnation. It seems to be true that the younger and more vigorous Poles voted for him, impatient to turn their backs on recent history. They do not want any restoration of pre-1989 Communism, but neither do they want to pick over the rights and wrongs of the 50-year Communist period. The trouble is that recent history is alive and sitting behind many a desk. The victories of Polish "social- democracy" since 1993 have restored old Communist hacks to their chairs all over the land, especially at local level. President Kwasniewski may want change and modernity. They do not, and they are sly enough to stay in power.

Post-Communism means different things in different places. With the Czechs, it is the party of state control and unemployed bureaucrats. In eastern Germany, it stands for the defence of regional identities; in Lithuania, for nationalism with a practical face; in Romania and Serbia, for state despotism in nationalist uniform. Poland, as usual, is different. There, post-Communism means the transition to capitalism at a humane pace.

It's a blameless policy. The new young president standing handsome beside his pretty wife seems too American to be true. But Poland's political tradition is not at all Americanised, preferring turbulence and collision to beaming consensus. My hunch is that the Kwasniewski presidency will turn into a rough ride. GRAPHICS OMITTED

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