Walesa goes on attack to keep presidency

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President Lech Walesa of Poland has begun 1995 in the way he means to continue - pugnaciously. Since the beginning of the year, he has declared he will not pay higher rates of income tax, and urged his fellow countrymen to display similar defiance.

At the same time, he has threatened to veto this year's budget plans and lashed out at the Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak, over his refusal to accept the presidential nomination for the vacant post of defence minister.

Seasoned Walesa observers point out that such actions are in keeping with the somewhat abrasive style of presidency ushered in by the former electrician and Solidarity Trade Union leader when he assumed the post in 1990. But the ferocity of the current onslaught is largely motivated by one thing, they add: Mr Walesa's determination to win a second five-year term in the presidential election due in the autumn.

"Mr Walesa is deliberately trying to engender a series of crises so that he can once again be perceived as the man needed to restore stability," said a diplomatic source. "He is seeking to discredit all potential opponents, and going for every populist trick in the book ahead of the election."

Surprisingly, the tactics appear to be working. Just last autumn Mr Walesa was being roundly condemned by his former Solidarity colleagues for what they termed his autocratic tendencies and written off as a political has-been. At the time his popularity rating slumped to an all-time low of 5 per cent.

Never one to give up without a fight, Mr Walesa then went on the offence, striking out at Mr Pawlak when the Prime Minister's own popularity ratings appeared to be faltering, and jumping on the blatantly populist bandwagon of lower income tax bands for all.

According to recent opinion polls, Mr Walesa, who claims the government has itself behaved undemocratically by forcing through the higher tax rates, now commands 13 per cent support. He is still some way behind the man expected to be his main challenger,Aleksander Kwasniewski, leader of the reformed communist Democratic Left Alliance, who is on 19 per cent.

"Love him or hate him, Mr Walesa remains a master tactician," said the diplomat. "A few months ago he appeared to have been sidelined; now he has engineered things so that he is back on centre stage."

A lack of strong rivals looks certain to play into the President's hands. The right has no other suitable candidate, while Mr Walesa's former Solidarity allies remain deeply divided among themselves.

The only really credible alternative to date appears to be Mr Kwasniewski. In such a contest, the President would undoubtedly seek to focus on his opponent's former communist past.

At last Mr Walesa would be fighting the battle on the terrain of his choice, and he could once again project himself as the defender of the country's newly won democracy.