Solidarity gets back into line behind Walesa

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The Independent Online


"Gdansk shipyard supports Lech Walesa" proclaims a large banner above the famous gates over which a rebellious electrician once leapt to spark the strike that led to the formation of the Solidarity trade union.

Smaller placards pinned to the gate reinforce the point. "Walesa is the best helmsman in difficult times," reads one. "He is brave and valiant ... He overturned the system and removed the Soviet army," states another. "Lech Walesa has restored Polish honour."

Given the location - the formerly-named Lenin Shipyard which was the focal point of Solidarity's opposition to the Communist regime - the support for Mr Walesa in Sunday's presidential election is hardly surprising.

He worked at the shipyard for many years. All the money he received as Nobel Peace Prize-winner in 1983 went towards the construction of a new hospital in the shipyard grounds. And despite the attractions of a presidential palace in Warsaw, Mr Walesa's wife, Danuta, and family have always maintained their base in Gdansk.

"We are proud that a man from here is now our head of state," said Stanislaw Birna, a night watchman at the shipyard gate who participated in the 1980 strikes. "And we have to make sure he stays in office. Only he can keep the red devils [former Communists] out!"

Mr Walesa's main opponent in Sunday's poll is Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the successor to the Communist Party which was swept from power in the landmark elections of June 1989 but which has since re-emerged to be the dominant force in government.

Neither of the two men is likely to win the more than 50 per cent required for outright victory and they will therefore have to face each other in a run-off poll two weeks later.

For many the battle is the final showdown between the forces of the old regime, as represented by Mr Kwasniewski, and those of Solidarity, best exemplified in the form of Mr Walesa.

And despite the many criticisms that have been levelled against Mr Walesa during his first five-year term - that he is uneducated, impulsive and blatantly power-hungry - he is widely tipped to clinch it.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a man who this time last year had slumped to just 5 per cent support in the opinion polls and who was being openly attacked by some of his closest former allies as a threat to democracy.

Many of those attacking Mr Walesa had been with him in 1989 when, with a membership of 10 million, Solidarity was less a trade union than a massive civic movement pressing for the total transformation of the country.

Most of those in the intellectual wing of Solidarity turned against Mr Walesa as early as 1990 as the movement began to split and its membership dwindled.

But, with the obvious exception of the workers at the Gdansk shipyard, even his former colleagues in the trade union itself had turned distinctly cool towards their old leader.

"Many felt that, like all the others who had joined the Solidarity bandwagon, Mr Walesa quickly turned his back on the workers once in power," said Jacek Rybicki, Solidarity's vice-president. "The union felt it had been used as a vehicle for political ambitions."

In June, at Solidarity's annual congress, there was an extraordinary scene as Mr Walesa, still trailing badly in the polls, went back to his old power base with cap in hand to ask for support in the coming presidential poll.

"Powerful Communism is fighting against me, and so are others," Mr Walesa declared. "So for the second time I am asking you to come with me."

At first the union, which now boasts a membership of 1.8 million but which still sees itself as an instrument for wider change, declined the offer, saying only that it was waiting to see who would emerge as the strongest candidate on the Right to take on Mr Kwasniewski. Only last month as it became clear that Mr Walesa had pulled away from the rest of the anti-Communist camp, did the union finally come out in favour of Mr Walesa.

"I am glad we are now again supporting Mr Walesa," said Mr Birna, one of the 7,000 (out of an original 17,000) remaining workers at the Gdansk shipyard. "But it is hard not to feel some disappointment this time around. Fifteen years ago, when we were fighting for freedom, we were really together, there was real solidarity. Now we have freedom, it comes down to a fight about power. In the end, everybody wants to be in charge."