The Great Electrician is playing a game with Poland's faith in democracy

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The Independent Online
Some lucky nations have history which goes in a straight line. One thing leads to another, and a look back suggests steady progress. Another group of nations has history like a bad cardiogram, all sudden zigzags, leaps and bounds. And then there are countries whose history goes round and round in circles.

Poland used to have a reputation for living in circles - or cycles. Salvador de Madariaga's cliche - that those who did not know their own history were condemned to repeat it - was hopeless there; Poles knew their own history all too well, yet were unable to stop it recurring. Uprisings for independence, hopeful beginnings which turned sour, defeat, martyrdom, resurrection ... the same old cyclical script required from every generation the same old cast of heroes, scoundrels and trimmers.

In 1989, when Communism was overthrown, everyone hoped that Poland would finally escape from its cycles and have a nice linear history instead. But now, again, there is political crisis in Poland. President Lech Walesa, the shipyard electrician who led the Solidarity trade union against the Communist regime 15 years ago, is trying to dissolve parliament . But parliament does not want to dissolve - protests, indeed, that the President has no right to dissolve it. President Walesa, whose interference in governments has cost the country a finance minister, a defence minister and a foreign minister in the past year alone, storms that he is speaking in the name of the people.

What mesmerises and depresses Poles is that this all seems to have happened before. They call Walesa, ironically, "the Great Electrician", but it looks as if he has connected up a historical short-circuit. In character, he seems to have something in common with Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who restored Poland's freedom in 1918 and dominated the nation until his death in 1935. Both were born with impulsive natures and short fuses, intolerant of the quibbling and squabbling of politicians. And if a head-on collision between president and parliament really takes place, it will remind many people of how Pilsudski overthrew the constitution and took full powers in 1926.

The drama took place on a bridge over the Vistula, in Warsaw. Pilsudski was no longer president, but came roaring out of retirement to challenge a newly-appointed government he did not fancy. Troops loyal to him were on one side of the bridge; the government soldiers on the other. Pilsudski, whiskers bristling with rage, marched to the middle of the bridge and met the frock-coated President Wojciechowski, who bowed, touched his top-hat, and requested Pilsudski to get his men back to barracks.

The Marshal hesitated. But shooting broke out before he had made up his mind, and after three days of fighting (and the pointless deaths of 379 soldiers), the legal government surrendered. Political life never recovered. Between 1926 and the Nazi invasion in September 1939, Poland decayed into a right-wing authoritarian regime run by a clique of mediocre officers - neither democracy nor dictatorship, but without the energy of either.

This is the history which politicians in Warsaw now remember in dread. What will happen if Lech Walesa does not get his way? Could it really come to a military siege of the parliament building in Warsaw, with MPs sleeping on the desks and sofas - the fate of the Russian Parliament in 1993, but repeated as farce? Could it all end in a suspension of parliamentary democracy and a president ruling by decree, with the support of army officers? Could the wheel of history turn Poland back to the 1920s and 1930s?

Logically, there is no earthly reason why this particular bit of history should repeat itself. There is plenty of ground for compromise. The Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak of the Peasants' Party, is reluctantly resigning and there is already a potential successor. The government itself, a coalition between the SLD (reformed Communists) and the Peasants, enjoys a large majority and seems to have plenty of life left in it.

In fact a change of prime minister and a bolder set of policies would do the coalition a lot of good. There are economic problems but no crisis; on the contrary, the economy grew by 4.5 per cent last year, and exports increased by 20 per cent. If new faces and programmes are what Lech Walesa wants, then he can have them without dissolving parliament.

Neither, really, is the Great Electrician all that much like Pilsudski. He is a proletarian who likes to pretend that he has never read a book, while the Marshal came from a land-owning family and was a gifted writer. Even their common impatience is deceptive. Pilsudski, whose youth was spent in armed conspiracy against the Russians, genuinely did believe in force and "the sword" as an ultimate answer to political problems. Walesa, for all his autocratic rudeness, is a man of peace; a leader who gets his way by muddling and dividing his opponents, by baffling inconsistencies, by cunning .

Officers are not his sort of people. If Lech Walesa ever gets to that bridge over the Vistula, among all the solemn epaulettes and top-hats, he will probably burst out laughing and change his mind before he is halfway across.

And yet the past is horribly hypnotic. It can take charge of people against their saner judgement. The Great Electrician and the Marshal both liberated their nation. Both have felt that they are "the greatest democrat" (in Walesa's words) who "never makes mistakes"; both have had a messianic conviction that they are plugged in to what ordinary people feel and think. So, when President Walesa stands at his shaving-mirror and wonders irritably how to unhorse some pesky prime minister, he almost certainly asks: "What would you do?" And he is not talking to his reflection.

The danger with this sort of identification is that it encourages a phoney sense of destiny. There is no sensible reason why Walesa in 1995 should act like Pilsudski in 1926. Yet he might come to feel that there was no other way to act - that a free parliamentary system can never work in Poland because, once before, his great predecessor decided that it should not work.

Personally, I do not think that disaster threatens Polish democracy. Lech Walesa, although revered for his leadership in the 1980s, is now losing popularity and his chances of re-election as president are small. When he retires, after a fair and square electoral defeat, he is unlikely to become the sort of exiled giant whose threatened return unbalances political life, like de Gaulle at Colombey - or like Pilsudski himself, sullenly waiting his hour in his country house at Sulejowek until the "call" finally came in 1926.

But belief in cyclical history is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Poles know the dates of their past obsessively, and the name of each month is also shorthand for some insurrection (January, August, October, November), or invasion (September), or coup d'etat (December, May). To say meaningly that "May is not far off!" is to suggest that boots will soon tramp across the bridge and the events of May 1926 will inexorably repeat themselves.

The problem is not that Lech Walesa will become a dictator - he won't. It is that democratic self-confidence, faith that the future really will be new and not just the same old past, is still fragile in his country. Even today, too many Poles think that history lives in a prison exercise yard, walking round in circles.