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Lech Walesa : Eager to Scale Another Wall: The Presidency of Poland

October 14, 1990|Adrian Karatnycky | Adrian Karatnycky, director of research in the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department, is co-author, with Nadia Diuk, of "The Hidden Nations: The People Challenge the Soviet Union" (William Morrow). Walesa was interviewed a few hundred yards from the wall of the Lenin shipyard he climbed 10 years ago to lead the strike against the government

GDANSK, POLAND — Lech Walesa, who helped launch the democratic revolution that reshaped the political map of Eastern and Central Europe, has a new mission. After more than a year on the sidelines, the Solidarity chairman has returned to the center of his country's tumultuous political life by announcing his candidacy for the presidency.

Walesa, 47, would barely resemble the man who scaled the wall of the Lenin shipyard in August, 1980, to lead a strike that resulted in the legalization of Solidarity--except for his trademark mustache and warm, sparkling eyes. Still, the qualities that made him a leader then--his nose for what the common man wants, his political savvy and never-quit attitude--are as sharp as ever.

In recent weeks, Walesa has raised the political temperature by striving to undo the April, 1989, roundtable agreement, to force new elections in which Poles can elect all their parliamentary deputies, to accelerate economic reforms and to purge government agencies and industry of holdover Communists.

The unfolding presidential campaign will be filled with contrasts. It pits Walesa against Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in a battle that will be less over ideas than styles. The self-made electrician vs. the learned writer. The sharp-tongued labor leader who relishes the limelight vs. the quiet, taciturn intellectual who regards the camera as a burdensome necessity of modern political life.

The campaign will be laced with irony as well. It was Walesa who first invited Mazowiecki into his inner circle of advisers and pressed last summer for his then-ally to become Poland's prime minister.

A public-opinion poll published in mid-September showed Walesa trailing Mazowiecki, 50%-35%, with 15% undecided. But no one should dare count Walesa out: Tens of thousands of Solidarity activists are eager to work for his candidacy.

During the interview, Walesa was self-assured, relaxed, cheerful and, above all, at peace with his place in the world. As he was 10 years ago, Walesa was convinced that Poland needs him.

Question: In recent weeks, you have deliberately tried to split Solidarity into various political parties and movements. Why?

Answer: The beautiful child Solidarity has completed primary school. Now we've got to choose the secondary school to which it should be sent. The school that I propose is the school of democracy. I propose pluralism. I propose a division that will be a guarantee of democracy.

Before Solidarity even came into existence, I always used to say that Poland has to stand on two legs--the right and the left. Others think differently. They think that because I am trying to divide our movement into its political tendencies, I am somehow opposed to democracy.

Q: Are you happy with the people you and Solidarity helped to install in high office? A: I have great misgivings against those whom I designated to make the reforms. When the Communist Party dissolved itself, they should have authorized new elections. In failing to do so, they made me into a clown; they made society into a clown.

Now we've got a situation in Poland where the Communist Party has vanished, there are no other strong parties, the new authorities are fiddling about and I'm on ice.

So this isn't a matter of personal ambition. It's just that I promised the people 100% democracy. What we have now isn't democracy. Sixty percent of the people didn't even bother to vote in the local elections--and (the nation's leaders) tell me "Don't do anything." But I've sworn an oath to faithfully lead my country to democracy. . . . I'll only be satisfied after real elections.

Q: Then you want to be president?

A: No. I am well aware of how difficult a job it is. I wouldn't mind being president of the U.S. or another country where democracy already is well-established. But in Poland, it's the worst job of all--worse than that of a street sweeper.

It would be far easier if I could just travel to the U.S. on a holiday or a lecture tour, gabbing about how I ruined communism, explaining how I built Solidarity. I would be living a better life, and I would have more, too.

But my patriotic responsibility tells me that world opinion has invested a lot in me. . . . I've got to pay back this investment of trust that people have made. It's not that I want to be president. It's that the people want it, and so I will have to be president.

The problem is whether I will be president with 60% of the vote or whether I'll win an even greater majority. I am convinced that I will be able to defeat any potential opponent. After all, I have 10 years of experience in waging a political fight.

But if I win the presidency without an overwhelming mandate, it will be difficult for me to implement the necessary reforms. I want to be president with at least 80% support, because, as president, I will carry on my shoulders a very heavy burden. . . . Fifty-one percent support is not enough.

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