POLES were convinced by Alexander Kwasniewski's campaign slogan, ''Let's Choose the Future,'' when they defeated President Lech Walesa. But now the former Communist must prove that his party's vision of the future will not be a return to the past.
President-elect Kwasniewski will not have an easy task of uniting Poland for the future. His election ends an era of the legendary Mr. Walesa, who started out as a young electrician leading protests in 1980 at the Gdansk shipyard with the Solidarity trade union against Communist treatment of workers.
That era peaked with the fall of Communism in 1989 and Walesa's election as president five years ago.
Before Sunday's election, his post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance party (SLD) controlled the government and parliament. But by gaining the presidency as well, the SLD now has what Polish political analysts call a ''triple.'' The SLD will directly affect democratic reforms, developing a new constitution, relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church, and entry into NATO and the European Union.
''Tomorrow you will wake up in the same Poland,'' assured Kwasniewski at his election-night party once it seemed certain he would win.
Early exit polls had Walesa and Kwasniewski running virtually even, but Kwasniewski ultimately beat Walesa 51.7 percent to 48.28 percent, with more than two-thirds of Poland's electorate voting.
During the campaign, much of the rhetoric against Kwasniewski declared he would halt democratic reforms and return government back to the days of the Polish People's Republic. The rhetoric polarized the electorate, but Kwasniewski fought to shed that image of his past. He paid tribute to democracy during the presidential debates for allowing him the chance to run for president, a chance he would not have had under the old system, he said.
But politicians from the center and the right still mistrust Kwasniewski and the SLD. Economist Leszek Balcerowicz, leader of the centrist Freedom Union party and architect of ''shock therapy'' reforms in Poland, says that over the last two years (since the SLD won a majority in parliament) the SLD has slowed privatization. Many opposition politicians also say ex-Communists will rebuild the old Communist Party nomenclature.
''Behind Kwasniewski there are a lot of people who come from the elite of the former regime,'' says Piotr Sztompke, a political sociologist at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.
''These people disappeared from political life over the last six years and took part in economic life to become affluent through industrial ventures. Now they are ready to come back to political life with their old habits and they are economically stronger,'' he adds.
Adam Michnik, a former dissident and editor of Poland's most popular newspaper, wrote that the results signify ''the return of the inheritors of Poland's Communist dictatorship.''
He wrote that ''Poles were tired of Lech Walesa,'' but cautioned that ''although Poles chose the more professional politician, the future is unknown.''
Political analysts say new tensions will develop in the streets because the parties on the right and anti-Communist groups are outside the political system. But Walesa said that he ''will respect the verdict of democracy whether it is for or against'' him.
EU officials say they expect Kwasniewski to continue reforms. But since he is a former Communist, his victory may inspire other, less-reform minded ex-Communists to seek electoral office.
A wary senator
US Sen. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado told Polish TV that if Kwasniewski were elected Brown would take a wait-and-see attitude over Poland's joining NATO. He said membership in NATO and the EU ''could be troublesome'' if the reforms don't continue.
''I have no doubts about my pro-European Union and pro-NATO orientation,'' said Kwasniewski during electoral debates. ''Poland can be in NATO with a President Kwasniewski.''
In order to unite the country as he says he wants to, Kwasniewski will also have to convince Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church that he is not an enemy. Early on voting day, Poland's Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, released a statement that the vote is a choice between ''Christian values and pagan values.''
But once it seemed Kwasniewski was winning, the secretary of the Episcopate said the church was ''ready to cooperate'' with the new president.
The church, which was a partner with Solidarity in the defeat of Communism, has been critical of the SLD's secularization of Polish society; Kwasniewski favors the separation of church and state.
Mr. Sztompke says the SLD will have great influence over a new Polish constitution. With the right and center parties playing a minor part in the political process this could lead to a restricted press law, which has been proposed, and other restrictions.
''We haven't had much experience in democracy since World War II,'' he says. ''We haven't developed the things needed to run an established democracy and we can't stop the process of advancing toward [one].''