Walesa believes he's the man to stop the red rot

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Wherever he looks, President Lech Walesa of Poland sees red. To the north in Lithuania, to the south in Slovakia, further afield in Hungary - and even on his own doorstep - former Communists are back in power.

It is a disease gripping the whole of eastern Europe, he believes. And, as in his glory days as leader of the Solidarity trade union in the 1980s, he believes he is the man to stop the rot. 'I have been encouraged to fight again,' President Walesa declared earlier this week when announcing his intention to run for a second term of office. 'I have been encouraged by the post-Communists and all those now attacking me.'

Mr Walesa's declaration, which came just days after former Communists romped to victory in elections in Hungary, was not unexpected. For months he has been jockeying for position in a Polish political landscape that changed almost beyond recognition last September when the former Communist SLD party triumphed in parliamentary elections. After an initial stand-off, Mr Walesa went on the offensive this year, vetoing government-approved legislation and for months rejecting an SLD nominee for the vital post of finance minister. Justifying this, the President, in a typical piece of Walesa hyperbole, declared: 'They (the SLD) think that they are the Politburo. But I am no First Secretary. I am not going to carry out their decisions.'

According to most observers, Mr Walesa's fierce attack on the SLD has less to do with loathing for its policies (which, on the economic front, have been remarkably right of centre) than with a calculated guess that the main challenge to his re-election in the autumn of next year will come from the left. 'He is desperately trying to sound the anti-Communist bell for all it is worth,' said Dariusz Stola, of Warsaw's Institute of Political Studies. 'But at the moment, it is simply not ringing true.'

The hollowness of Mr Walesa's call stems from the fact that, as President, he has made a habit of switching causes at a moment's notice, leaving many people unsure of his true beliefs. While nobody doubts his anti-Communist credentials, none of the right-wing parties identified with that crusade has lent him its support. If presidential elections were held tomorrow, polls predict that Mr Walesa could expect just 6 per cent, well behind the man expected to be his main rival, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the SLD leader, on 16 per cent.