Aleksander Kwasniewski, surprise victor in Poland's presidential election, yesterday sought to calm fears about his Communist past by promising that Poland would not stray from the path of reform.
He also appealed to the man he defeated, Lech Walesa, to join forces with him in trying to heal the deep divisions that had been reopened as a result of the campaign. "A presidential election can't be a moment we go different roads," he said. "Our task can only be carried out if we all work together."
Mr Walesa was in no mood for reconciliation. "There is nothing we can talk about," he said shortly after conceding. He made it clear he would not take his defeat lying down. "I still have a lot of energy . . . the tango will start for real now."
Official results confirmed Mr Kwasniewski got 51.7 per cent of the vote compared to his rival's 48.3 per cent.
For Mr Walesa, who as leader of the Solidarity trade union played a key role in the downfall of Communism in 1989, defeat, particularly at the hands of a former Communist minister, was a bitter pill. But he said the closeness of the contest proved "the Solidarity ideal is still alive in the hearts of millions of Poles".
For Mr Walesa, the election represented a re-run of the Solidarity-Communism conflict. He dubbed his opponent a "Bolshevik" whose victory would mean Poland falling into the clutches of "a clique of old comrades linked in a 'Red spider-web'." Although many also perceived it that way, a lot agreed with Mr Kwasniewski that instead of dwelling on the past, it was time to look to the future. Many also felt that while he had undoubtedly served a vital purpose in getting rid of Communism, Mr Walesa's abrasive personality and his performance as president left much to be desired.
Mr Kwasniewski, a sports minister in the last Communist government and who now calls himself a social democrat, received strong support from younger voters whose memories of the old regime had clearly faded. "These young people, without historical sentiments or prejudices, are our greatest chance and our greatest hope," said the president-elect.
Although he was a member of the Communist Party from 1977 until it dissolved itself in 1990, Mr Kwasniewski says he was too young and junior to have been involved in anything too unsavoury. He defends his decision to remain in the party after the declaration of martial law in 1981 on grounds that he wanted to help reform it. In 1989 he was at talks with Solidarity that paved the way for the first partially free elections in Eastern Europe in 40 years.
Mr Kwasniewski, intelligent, articulate and attractive, emerged as the natural leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) that emerged from the ashes of the old Communist party in 1990. Under his leadership, he and the party have never looked back.
In 1993, on a ticket of softening the hardships of economic transformation, the SLD romped to victory in parliamentary elections. With Mr Kwasniewski's triumph in the presidential election, the party has come almost full circle.
To critics who accuse him of being a Moscow-leaning Communist stooge, he says that, contrary to predictions, the SLD-led government has not reversed economic reform nor backtracked on Poland's attempt to join Nato and the European Union. Nor will he as president, he promises.