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Ex-Communist set to be new Polish PM

As the combatants in Poland's bloody and protracted political infighting retired to their corners yesterday, most observers declared President Lech Walesa the winner - on points.

Although constitutionally Mr Walesa does not have the power to sack the Prime Minister, he had in effect achieved just that. Through a sustained mixture of ridicule, sniping and outright bludgeoning, he had rendered the position of Waldemar Pawlak untenable.

On Tuesday, having also been deserted by key figures within his own Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Mr Pawlak threw in the towel. And for the seventh time since the downfall of Communist rule in 1989, Poland was heading for a change of prime minister.

In the deal hastily stitched together by the PSL and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the successor to the Communist Party and the dominant player in the coalition, Mr Pawlak is to be replaced by Jozef Oleksy, the current speaker of parliament and a senior figure in the SLD.

If, as seems likely, the nomination of Mr Oleksy wins parliamentary and presidential approval, there will be an obvious irony. Mr Walesa, who built his name in the fight against Communism, will have played a key part in bringing about the appointment of a former Communist to the post of Prime Minister for the first time since 1989.

That, however, may be what he wants. Having an ex-Communist as Prime Minister will provide Mr Walesa with a much clearer target against which to strike and a point of reference against whom he hopes to be compared favourably.

With a presidential election looming in November and badly behind in opinion polls, Mr Walesa is hoping he can once again be seen as the guarantor of democracy and economic reform, which, he will argue, have been put in peril by the return of the Communists.

Such a scenario does not bode well for political peace. The conflict between President and Prime Minister may intensify.

"If Mr Oleksy is appointed there is likely to be a temporary truce but then the fighting will undoubtedly resume," said a Western diplomat in Warsaw. "Mr Oleksy will represent a prime target for Mr Walesa. And do not forget, with the departure of Mr Pawlak the President has now tasted blood."

While undoubtedly pleased with his recent efforts, Mr Walesa's joy was not undiluted. He had achieved the removal of Mr Pawlak, whom he accused of stalling on economic reform and presiding over a corrupt administration. But he had failed to secure the nomination of the man he really wanted to see as prime minister: Aleksander Kwasniewski, the SLD leader.

According to most observers, Mr Kwasniewski represents the most dangerous threat to Mr Walesa's chances of re-election. By manoeuvring him into the Prime Minister's post, Mr Walesa had been hoping to remove his greatest rival. At the same time, it is suggested, he had hoped to diminish Mr Kwasniewski's popularity by forcing him to take responsibility for unpopular government decisions.

Mr Kwasniewski, sports minister in Poland's last Communist government, has still not declared whether he will run in the presidential race. But he was pleased with himself yesterday. "I am not unhappy that I am not the candidate for prime minister," he said, enigmatically.