Poland's Fiery Ex-Leader Shifts to Role as Gadfly

HE may have lost a reelection bid, but the political life of Lech Walesa is far from over.

Poland's lame-duck president, who fought a long struggle to bring down Communism in 1989, is known as a fighter. Though Mr. Walesa narrowly lost to a former Communist official, Alexander Kwasniewski, in a Nov. 19 election, he is too young to retire and unlikely to return to his former profession as a shipyard electrician.

But he may be in a better political position now than when he was president.

"Now the dance will really begin," said a pugnacious Walesa at a press conference after the Nov. 19 election. "Soon we will regain what we have lost."

First, Walesa's campaign team will challenge the election results in Poland's high court. His Solidarity party will accuse Mr. Kwasniewski of making misleading statements about his educational and financial background during the campaign. The Walesa camp also says that it has evidence of ballot-box stuffing.

Kwasniewski, who resigned as leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) on Saturday in an attempt to broaden his appeal, falsely claimed during the campaign to have a master's degree in economics from the University of Gdansk. He stressed that he was better educated than Walesa, who only attended trade school.

By the weekend, the Polish Supreme Court had received 600,000 letters of protest asking that the election be annulled. The protests have been gathered by the Solidarity trade union, which Walesa led in protests against Communism during the 1980s.

"Many people voted for Mr. Kwasniewski because of his higher education, and that is why they are protesting," says Andrzej Adamczyk, head of the international department of Solidarity.

The judges have until Dec. 9 to make a decision on whether Kwasniewski and his followers broke the law.

Mr. Adamczyk said the decision probably will not change the election result. But he says it is a great success for Solidarity to mobilize more than a half a million people in a few days.

This could signal a serious conflict ahead between Solidarity and the SLD, which has its roots in Communism and now holds the presidency and a majority in parliament.

Walesa has always been better at attacking the system from the outside than at working in the frustrating role of head of state.

Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, will try to unite the political right, Roman Catholic parties, and Solidarity into an effective opposition. Walesa says he wants to form a foundation called "Free Poland" to organize opposition for the parliamentary elections in the fall of 1997. These moves show he "is learning how to work with democratic mechanisms," says Piotr Sztompke, political sociologist at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.

Walesa will try to unite the right over a national referendum on privatization to be held in February. Solidarity members of parliament want to widely distribute coupons to the public that can be used to buy state assets. But the SLD prefers to sell off state assets. Its long-delayed program, which will sell shares in more than 400 companies, began last week.

"This defeat is a victory," says Andrzej Zakrewski, a minister in Walesa's government. "Walesa never had this support from different political strengths on the right. He is ready to build a camp something like the SLD, but on the right."

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