Walesa rallies in presidential cliff-hanger

Polish election: Solidarity locks horns with communism again

ADRIAN BRIDGE

Warsaw

Only two weeks ago, President Lech Walesa was being described by Poland's biggest-selling newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, as "unpredictable, irresponsible, unreformable and incompetent". Two weeks is a long time in Polish politics. As Poles prepare to vote in tomorrow's second and final round of the presidential election, the paper has changed its tune.

"Despite it all - Walesa," it said earlier this week in a piece aimed at the many voters still undecided or simply confused. It may not have been the most ringing editorial endorsement of all time but it was still a pretty spectacular U-turn. The reason is simple: while 13 candidates contested the first round two weeks ago, only two went through to the second-round run-off. And whereas many do not see Mr Walesa as the ideal head of state, they are even more appalled at the prospect of victory for his rival, Aleksander Kwasniewski, leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and a former minister in the country's last truly communist government.

As Jacek Kuron, third-placed candidate in the first round and the man originally backed by Gazeta Wyborcza, put it, the choice is between "bad and bad". But when pushed, he conceded he was "fonder of Lech than of Aleksander".

Opinion polls indicate that a slender majority thinks likewise but tomorrow's contest promises to be close. Mr Walesa, whose first term was marred by disputes with parliament and many former allies, is generally given leads of 2-3 percentage points but some polls point to a victory for his rival. A key factor could be turn-out: if too many do not vote, it could play into the hands of Mr Kwasniewski, whose supporters are better organised.

For many, it is a rerun of the battle between communism (and its successors), in the form of Mr Kwasniewski, and the Solidarity movement, once led by Mr Walesa, that toppled it.

Unlike the run-up to the first round, both sides have resorted to dirty tricks. Mr Kwasniewski has been dogged by allegations that his wife enriched herself in an insider-trading scandal and that in his declaration of outside interests as an MP he forgot to mention her big shareholdings.

For the Walesa team, the claims are indicative of underhand ways in which former communists have enriched themselves since formally losing power and are an example of the sort of practice their man is determined to stamp out.

But the President has been questioned about whether he paid tax on $1m (pounds 650,000) he received from Warner Brothers in 1989 for the rights to film his life. He has also been accused of using the secret services in his attempt to be re-elected.

Both men deny impropriety and it has been impossible to gauge which has been hit hardest by the allegations. The effect has been to deflect attention from serious discussion on policy differences.

Not that they are that pronounced. Despite their different pasts, both candidates share similar visions of Poland's future. In television debates this week, both said they wanted to continue economic reform and see the country firmly established as a member of the European Union and Nato.

Mr Kwasniewski, the better educated and more articulate, says he is best placed to mend divisions in society. While expressing respect for Mr Walesa's achievements as Solidarity leader, he likens the President to an ageing sportsman who keeps going on about a gold medal he won many years ago.

It is not the first time Mr Walesa has been consigned to the dustbin of history. And it will probably not be the last.

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