MANY Poles would add President Lech Walesa's name to a list of democratic leaders, such as Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Peru's Alberto Fujimori, who have revealed an authoritarian streak.
Mr. Walesa enjoys worldwide renown. He won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize as the one-time leader of the Solidarity movement that freed Poland from communist rule, toppling the first domino in the Soviet empire.
But now Walesa is unpopular and under attack. Former Communists, along with some erstwhile Solidarity allies, describe him as a threat to the country's still-developing free-market and democratic order. His chief aim, critics add, is to retain and accumulate power.
``What scares me is that he says he is ready to apply authoritarian methods in the name of market and democratic reforms,'' says Bronislaw Geremek, a former Solidarity activist and a leader of the Freedom Union, a center-right political party.
Walesa has been battling Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak's coalition government, which has links to the ex-Communists who ruled Poland for 40-plus years.
Walesa and the coalition government first clashed in March 1994 - six months after the left swept to power in 1993 elections - over a finance minister's appointment. There's been plenty of acrimony since: When parliament overrode Walesa's veto of a tax increase late last year, the president called on people to disobey the law and pay the older, lower tax rates. ``I don't recognize the [tax] decree because it is not a good solution,'' he said.
Walesa is now clashing with government over filling the vacant posts of defense and foreign ministers, as well as over the adoption of the 1995 budget. He has threatened to dissolve parliament and call new elections if the stalemates aren't quickly resolved. He has also called for Prime Minister Pawlak's resignation, saying he is unqualified.
The president justifies his actions by casting himself as a bulwark of democracy and the governing coalition as a ``dictatorship of the majority.''
Bickering on the right
The two coalition parties make up a parliamentary majority, even though they won far less than 50 percent of the vote. They received disproportionately high representation because most right-leaning parties, which won collectively about 50 percent of the 1993 vote, failed individually to clear the 5 percent hurdle required for parliamentary representation.
``This parliament is bad for Polish democracy because it has too large a majority,'' Walesa recently told the Polish weekly Polityka.
Opponents call Walesa's rhetoric a campaign ruse aimed at ensuring his reelection. The presidential vote is expected late this year. With his popularity low, Walesa is trying to rally support by stirring up a political crisis, critics add.
``One thing is certain, the president wants to stay in power and he'll do anything to achieve that.... He operates on the margins of the law. It's difficult to predict what he'll do,'' says Zdzislaw Najder, a former Walesa adviser. ``He could have a big spoiling effect by dissolving parliament. It would sow confusion.''
Beneath the political conflict is a constitutional struggle. Poland currently has a transition Constitution that leaves executive authority ill-defined. Parliament is now working on a new document, and the presidential powers question is sparking intense debate.
Walesa, not surprisingly, wants a strong Polish presidency. But most other politicians favor a figurehead president.
``The rule of law was designed to insulate matters of state from the moods and character of individual politicians,'' Mr. Najder says.
The outcome of the constitutional debate will be a watershed moment for Poland, some political observers say. With a strong presidency, Poland would have a much more difficult time making a complete break with its authoritarian past. Many say the German model of a weak presidency is best suited for Poland.
``The German experience has shown that it had a stabilizing effect, helping Germany escape from its totalitarian system,'' says Piotr Nowina-Konopka, another Freedom Union leader.
Poland's last attempt at democracy - between the world wars - failed after weak coalition governments gave way to the virtual dictatorship of Jozef Pilsudski in 1926.
Walesa's reelection chances may look slim, but few count him out. ``He's a born fighter, an absolute political genius in fighting against a political adversary,'' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, another former Walesa adviser.
``The problem is, if he has no obvious enemy, he still continues to fight,'' he adds.
His reelection chances depend greatly on his election opponent and on the international political situation, observers say.
A likely presidential opponent is Alexander Kwasniewski, head of the Democratic Left Alliance, the largest party in the governing coalition. Many right-of-center politicians who now oppose Walesa may rally around the president to prevent the reconstituted Communists from taking over the executive branch.
Walesa's popularity might also benefit from a foreign crisis, particularly one from Russia, a long-time aggressor.
``In the case of danger, there's no better fighter than Walesa,'' Mr. Sliwinski says. ``But great generals during the war do not necessarily make the best leaders after the war.''