Best wishes for a happy retirement, Mr Walesa

The announcement by Lech Walesa that he is leaving politics can be seen as the closing of an era. The shipyard electrician turned Nobel prize-winning revolutionary turned president played an invaluable role in helping Poland - and thus the rest of Eastern Europe - to achieve democracy. Few tears should, however, be shed over his departure, which serves as a reminder that Poland has reached normality, 20 years after Mr Walesa jumped over the shipyard fence in Gdansk and a decade after Communism collapsed.

The announcement by Lech Walesa that he is leaving politics can be seen as the closing of an era. The shipyard electrician turned Nobel prize-winning revolutionary turned president played an invaluable role in helping Poland - and thus the rest of Eastern Europe - to achieve democracy. Few tears should, however, be shed over his departure, which serves as a reminder that Poland has reached normality, 20 years after Mr Walesa jumped over the shipyard fence in Gdansk and a decade after Communism collapsed.

Internationally, Mr Walesa is better known than any other Pole except the Pope. His achievement as the leader of the Solidarity free trade union remains unmatched. At home, however, he is spurned by his compatriots; just 1 per cent voted for him in this month's elections.

Mr Walesa's mercurial personality and his legendary impatience were perfect for fomenting a revolution. The Communist authorities were frequently outfoxed by Mr Walesa's quick-witted defiance, which surprised even his own supporters. But those qualities are less valuable in a democracy.

Mr Walesa was roundly defeated in the presidential elections by the internationally less famous but calmer Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was re-elected to the post he has held since 1995. One notable feature about Mr Kwasniewski's victory is that he is a former Communist minister and was backed during the campaign by Poland's reformed Communist Party, the Democratic Left Alliance. Pessimists have in past years waxed lyrical about the dangers of Communists returning to power. In practice, however, Communists - reformed leftists, call them what you will - have not always played a destructive role. Poland is the best proof that a dubious political legacy does not mean that a party will remain poisoned for all time - a message that may yet give reason for hope in Belgrade, too.

President Kwasniewski gained 50 times as many votes as Mr Walesa, who was locked up for helping to bring democracy to Poland. That sounds unfair. But Poles trust Mr Kwasniewski more than Mr Walesa. In a democracy, that is all that matters. Heroes deserve to be remembered as heroes. They should not, however, seek to outstay their welcome. The 57-year-old Mr Walesa, a hero of his time, deserves his comfortable retirement. Polish politics, as the country prepares to embrace the European Union, may be better off without such a wayward leader. That does not diminish Mr Walesa's legacy. It is merely a tribute to the progress that Poland has made.

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