A marching band. a standing-room-only crowd. Cameras flashing. Rapturous applause. Broad smiles and waving hands all around. Lech Walesa's campaign stop last week in the eastern Polish town of Wyszkow had all the earmarks of a political bandwagon building momentum as the country heads into the first round of presidential elections on Oct. 8. Walesa's rambling, often confusing remarks did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the diverse crowd of young and old, workers and businesspeople. But the Nobel laureate who is given a large share of the credit for the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe faces just one problem: few, if any, of the assembled crowd plan to vote for him.
Revolutions are expected to eat their young. But counterrevolutions? Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity who was elected in 1990 as Poland's first post-communist President, is on the verge of electoral oblivion. He lost the presidency in 1995 by less than 1% of the vote. But this time, if the latest public opinion polls are accurate, he could be lucky to receive 1% of the total vote. Walesa says he is running to unify the Solidarity movement he helped launch in August 1980. But even his political allies think it is more about ego than politics. "He wants to be active in public life," says Maciej Plazynski, 42, speaker of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. "He doesn't want to be a monument, and for him that means he has to be a political candidate."
Walesa's campaign highlights the desperate straits of Poland's political right. Although he has frequently expressed his disdain for Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former communist apparatchik who beat him in 1995, Walesa saves his most virulent rhetoric for Marian Krzaklewski, 50, leader of the Solidarity coalition, the A.W.S. Krzaklewski engineered the Polish right's remarkable comeback in 1997 and is regarded as a brilliant political tactician. But the man who inherited Walesa's role as leader of the Solidarity trade union used his skills as an infighter to push the legend aside when it came time to choose the A.W.S. presidential candidate. Said Walesa in Wyszkow: "[Krzaklewski] was doing everything to destroy me, and he succeeded."
Even without Walesa to stir the pot, the right wing of Polish politics is a mess. The parties that have assembled themselves into the A.W.S. are united by little more than their desire to remain in power and by their hatred of the former communists, now known as the Democratic Left Alliance (S.L.D.).
Walesa's campaign slogan is "Black is Black. White is White." By that he means that everyone knows who worked for the regime before 1989, and who were the good guys who opposed it. But Poles also know that their country faces difficult choices as it attempts to join the European Union. Complicated negotiations with Brussels and controversial legislation must be completed. What Poles don't need is a political movement trapped by its past and unconvinced about the future. And they certainly don't need to be governed by the gang that can't shoot straight. "This government is incompetent," says journalist Piotr Aleksandrovicz. The best face that Sejm speaker Plazynski can put on his party's abysmal record of the past two years is, "This team may have made many mistakes, but it tried to make fundamental changes."
Unfortunately, Solidarity's muddled ideology also works against it. The movement takes a rightist stance on social issues like abortion and the importance of the Catholic Church. But because it is dominated by trade unions, the a.w.s sounds remarkably like its hated adversary, the S.L.D., when it comes to economic issues such as privatization, labor standards and tax rates. The upshot, says Leszek Balcerowicz, the internationally respected former Finance Minister and leader of the small liberal party the Freedom Union: "In Poland we have two left wings."
That creates opportunities for the Freedom Union. Pawel Piskorski, the dynamic 32-year-old mayor of Warsaw, hopes his party will eventually benefit from Solidarity's inability to develop into a center-right political force. "Nobody knows how large the center will be," says Piskorski, "but it could be bigger than the proportion of the vote that the A.W.S. gets." An indication of that potential can be seen in the popular support for Andrzej Olechowski, a former key Walesa adviser running for President as an independent. Freedom Union leader Balcerowicz, who, by his own admission, is "not very good at political theater," is not a candidate. Although Olechowski isn't a card-carrying member, the Freedom Union has thrown its informal support behind him. According to some polls, that backing has helped him pull ahead of Solidarity candidate Krzaklewski.
For now, however, the main beneficiary of Solidarity's incompetence and muddled platform is its hated enemy, the left. President Kwasniewski has built what appears to be an insurmountable lead. Even after an embarrassing video was aired in which he seemed to be making fun of Pope John Paul II, polls indicate the incumbent could well win on the first round. If that happens, the S.L.D. is expected to take an outright majority in next year's arguably more important parliamentary elections.
That would really drive Solidarity's electoral coalition into the political wilderness. Says Slawomir Majman, political analyst for the weekly Warsaw Voice: "After the parliamentary elections, there will be a dramatic decomposition of Solidarity." But that may be just what it needs. A crushing defeat could reduce the stranglehold of the unions and open the way for a new generation of leaders. "We have to look at the regional and local levels for new politicians," says Plazynski, who was himself governor of the Gdansk region 1990-96. "And that means separation from the trade unions."
But the organization Walesa created in August 1980 and Krzaklewski honed into an electoral machine in 1997 will also have to reshape itself into a true political party united behind an identifiable economic policy rather than jingoistic nationalism and historic grudges. If it does nothing more than assemble a new leadership, then this election could turn out to be the political epitaph not just for Walesa, but for Solidarity as well.
With reporting by Tadeusz Kucharski/Warsaw