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Solidarity Chief Gathers Political Steam in Poland

September 23, 1997|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — When Marian Krzaklewski succeeded Lech Walesa in early 1991 as leader of the Solidarity trade union, the computer scientist paid tribute to his predecessor turned president and then promised a very different future.

"I support the idea of a pure trade union not involved in any politics," Krzaklewski said back then, when he was a little-known Solidarity insider.

Miffed that the union had bypassed "old proven activists," including his handpicked replacement, Walesa reminded Krzaklewski of the historic responsibility he was shouldering. "It is on him, and on the trade union, that the shape of all Polish reforms will depend," the president said in an open letter.

Six years later, Krzaklewski, 47, is the most influential politician in Poland, and his trade union is enjoying a popular renaissance only the truest of believers thought possible. Walesa, defeated for reelection two years ago, has met his Solidarity match and is now relegated to a supporting--or at worst spoiling--role in the ever-unfolding democratic revolution he once commanded.

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"He has replaced Walesa, and now his mind is on the presidency," said Andrzej Wroblewski, an analyst for the respected magazine Polityka. "He wants job No. 1."

Solidarity Election Action, an assortment of rightist political groups assembled last year by Krzaklewski under his trade-union umbrella, collected one-third of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to unofficial results. Never before, even at the peak of Walesa's popularity, had so many groups with roots in the anti-Communist past managed to unite and stay that way.

The first-place finish virtually ensures that Poland will be governed by forces from the staunchly pro-Roman Catholic labor movement for the first time in four years. Krzaklewski, a Silesian who is leader of both the trade union and the election coalition, said Monday that talks will begin today with potential governing partners. Although he has expressed no interest in a top government post, he will remain as head of the union and the election bloc.

It is a particularly sweet victory for Krzaklewski, who was blamed for the collapse of the last Solidarity-based government in 1993, when he and then-Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka clashed over wage demands for state-paid workers. Walesa called new elections, and the former Communists unexpectedly swept to power, leaving the trade union and its allies in disarray and without a single seat in the lower house of Parliament.

"Never in the history of Polish free parliamentary elections has one group gotten such a huge number of votes," Krzaklewski boasted Monday of his remarkable change in electoral fortunes, with the latest projections giving his political bloc 199 seats in the 460-seat lower house.

The dramatic turnaround is as extraordinary as its main architect is mystifying.

A meticulously groomed technocrat with a disarming, boyish smile, Krzaklewski has been compared alternately to Mussolini--he has a habit of raising his chin when addressing audiences--and to a bookish computer nerd--he has a doctorate in computer science and has sometimes written the union's software programs.

"He is an enigmatic figure," said Edward Wnuk-Lipinski, director of the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. "We don't have a clear vision of who he is."

Gaining national prominence only after the collapse of communism, Krzaklewski belongs to the B team in Solidarity mythology, having never scaled a shipyard wall or stared down a water cannon. When he was briefly jailed in 1984, he was a member of the Solidarity chapter at the Polish Academy of Sciences, not a laborer in the fiery coal mines of his gritty hometown.

Krzaklewski reportedly suffers bouts of insecurity about his dissident credentials. But he remains immensely popular with rank-and-file union members, in large part because he is not Walesa, who spent more time politicking than tending to union matters. As a sign of the respect and authority he commands, members address Krzaklewski as wodz, the Polish word for "chief' and a title once reserved exclusively for Walesa.

According to the union, Krzaklewski clocks more than 60,000 miles a year traveling across Poland to meetings, labor rallies and negotiating sessions. The newspaper Rzeczpospolita dubbed him "the roving chairman" and reported that the father of two sons often spends nights sleeping in his car between destinations.

Though the shift from diligent labor chief to anti-Communist political leader is a change Krzaklewski has willingly made, it was thrust upon him by the circumstances of Poland's intractable rift between those who toppled communism and those who tolerated it.

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