LECH WALESA was the first to send his congratulations. ``I hope,'' he wrote in his telegram, ``your mandate brings us freedom and democracy.''
The warm message was addressed to none other than the newly elected Polish President, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski - the general who imprisoned the Solidarity leader in 1981. It upset many hard-line anticommunists within the first legal opposition movement in the Soviet bloc, who want nothing to do with the hated general.
But in Mr. Walesa's view, the transition to democracy is a delicate operation that requires cooperation. That is why he met Tuesday in Warsaw with General Jaruzelski to work out a power-sharing formula.
At the meeting, he proposed for the first time that Solidarity form a government following its smashing electoral victory last month. The move showed once again how Walesa is willing to lead his movement in an unpopular direction. A majority of Solidarity leaders fear losing their credibility by cohabitating with a Communist President.
Jaruzelski's Communists so far have shown little willingness to meet Walesa's conditions, which include a Solidarity prime minister, defense minister, and interior minister. They would prefer that Solidarity join a coalition government under a Communist prime minister.
Although Walesa rules out such a deal, he is flexible. After Tuesday's meeting, he said that he would not stop Solidarity leaders from accepting posts in a Communist-led government ``on their own account'' without committing the movement to a formal coalition. No final decisions on the composition of the new government will be made before a Communist Party Central Committee meeting at the end of this week.
``It's like a man taking too big a jump,'' the Solidarity leader recently told the Monitor. ``If we push too hard, then we'll break our leg.''
This moderation shows a shift in Walesa's stature and aspirations. Gone is the sharp-tongued, workers' leader who led the historic strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980. In his place stands Walesa the statesman, a man striving to stay above partisan politics, the patriotic hero who unites all Poles, communist and noncommunist, believers and nonbelievers.
He no longer wears working-man overalls or squeezes his eight children and wife, Danuta, into an apartment in a drab housing project. Instead he dresses in fashionable West German sports jackets and owns a spacious prewar villa.
``Walesa is a charismatic politician, much more than a simple union leader,'' says Andrzej Stelmachowski, the president of the Senate. ``He has become a symbol of Poland.''
The model is clear: prewar leader Jozef Pilsudski. A drawing of Pilsudski's proud face hangs prominently in almost all Solidarity buildings - and in Walesa's office.
Pilsudski is Poland's George Washington. He first helped win the country its independence in 1918 and then saved it by beating the Russians in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war. But when Poland's democracy faltered, he engineered a coup d''etat and ruled as an autocrat until his death in 1935.
Walesa insists on his commitment to democracy and fends off questions about his Pilsudski-like pretensions with witty repartees - which both refute and confirm criticisms.
Some Solidarity supporters reprimand Walesa as both too soft and too hard, too conciliatory and too dictatorial. When Walesa first negotiated with the communists, the critics protested. They again protested when he agreed to partially free elections and permitted Jaruzelski to become president. Walesa didn't even bother to listen.
``Look, if I don't make a decision, nobody else will,'' he responds. ``Nothing will be solved if we just keep going around throwing stones and stomping feet.''
One recent dispute exploded after Walesa accepted an offer to become honorary chairman of the official Polish Peace Association. In an emotional, publicly televised meeting, Jacek Czaputowicz, leader of the independent youth movement Freedom and Peace, denounced the move.
``I couldn't believe it. Walesa the hero becoming president of that farce of a peace movement,'' Mr. Czaputowicz recalls. ``He responded [to my objections] like an autocrat. He became furious. He told me, `That's the end of you, Czaputowicz.'''
Walesa's power is unquestionable. Government polls show he enjoys 80 percent support nationwide. Dissidents who ran against him in the June elections were badly beaten.
``I only represent a marginal minority,'' Czaputowicz admits. ``So Walesa feels he can squash me.''
For the large majority, Walesa is the charismatic cement which keeps together an ideologically varied, regionally disparate movement. To workers, he represents the sole public figure who speaks their language. Like most of them, he is the son of a peasant. He has also toiled in unsafe working conditions for a salary that barely sufficed to feed his family. Even though he has begun to take long leaves of absence, he continues to hold his post as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard here.
``Walesa has become first and foremost a politician,'' admits Alojzy Szablewski, Solidarity chief at the shipyard. ``But he still understands the workers.''
While guarding these ties with workers, Walesa has managed to win respect from intellectuals. To them, Walesa is a man who never went beyond high school but enjoys a rare native intelligence for absorbing different opinions and making pragmatic decisions. Poland's best and brightest have congregated around him.
``Lech probably has never read a book in his life,'' says Kryszstof Sliwinski, a close advisor. ``But every day I am around him, the more impressed I am.''
Walesa will need all his talents in the coming days. He must turn Solidarity from a political opposition movement into a partner of the Communists without destroying its independence. This tricky balancing act offers Walesa the possibility of great power, of becoming almost a tacit co-ruler with the communists. But it also puts him in the uncomfortable position of propping up an unpopular leader like Jaruzelski.
If the strategy fails, his own public support could vanish. If it succeeds, Walesa could succeed Jaruzelski in six years' time as Poland's first postwar noncommunist president.
``Everything depends on Walesa, on how he wants to use his immense power,'' says Andrzej Machalski, a Solidarity senator. ``He is capable of using it in a selfish fashion ... to build up his own power and prepare himself to become president. He also is capable of being a clever, wise politician, using his incredible popularity in the world and at home to build a true democracy here.''