Walesa starts to lose his winner's touch

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The Independent Online
WITH less than 18 months before Poland's presidential election, President Lech Walesa's popularity has sunk to an all-time low and his chances of re-election look grimmer by the day. It is a harsh turn of fortune for the man who led Poland's peaceful overthrow of Communism and was a hero to millions in the 1980s.

Mr Walesa, 50, won Poland's first post-Communist presidential election in 1990 and is the only politician to have declared for the next one, set for December 1995. But an opinion poll published last Monday suggested that he was the preferred choice of only 8 per cent of Poles.

Even more humiliating, the poll, conducted by the Demoskop research centre, suggested that the voters' favourite was Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), who attracted 21 per cent support. The SLD is an outgrowth of the Communist Party that Mr Walesa dedicated most of his life to removing from power.

Mr Walesa cannot be entirely written off, for he is an astute politician with a proven talent for gauging the national mood. 'I cannot lose, because I have more proposals than the others, I have a concept and I know how to implement it. I know where I make mistakes, and I know that I will be judged fairly . . . I never lose,' Mr Walesa told Polish radio last week.

For all his jaunty confidence, there are signs that the president's touch is deserting him. In last September's parliamentary elections Mr Walesa made plain his distaste for the former Communists, yet the SLD and the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), another with Communist roots, swept to an emphatic victory. Mr Walesa's movement, the Non-Party Bloc to Support Reform, trailed badly.

Even if the electorate's mood changes in the next 18 months, it is unclear that Mr Walesa will be the beneficiary. The centre-right Freedom Union, the main party to emerge from Mr Walesa's Solidarity movement, will not support his re-election campaign, and neither will parties further to the right.

Part of the problem is the public perception that, since becoming president, Mr Walesa has become a rather divisive figure. When the post-Solidarity parties were in power from 1989 until last September, he was locked in constant bickering with his ministers. Equally sharp quarrels have flared between Mr Walesa and the new left-wing government, headed by Waldemar Pawlak of the PSL. Once Mr Walesa embodied national unity in the crusade against Communism, but now he is just one more politician.

He has angered parliamentarians, from left and right alike, by trying to boost the presidency's powers at the expense of the legislature. His abrupt, rough-hewn manner, which delighted many when he was a shipyard electrician defying the might of the Communists, seems less suited to the dignity of the presidential office.

Mr Walesa predicted last year that the 'silly behaviour' of the Solidarity-based governments would be followed by a 'mess' created by the new left-wing coalition. Inevitably, he said, Poland would turn to him as the only man capable of sorting out the chaos.

For some, his words revived memories of the 1920s, when Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, Mr Walesa's greatest hero, governed as an autocrat. But whether Poles want another Pilsudski is far from certain.