The vote was close, nail-bitingly close. Last week, Polish voters narrowly elected a smooth-faced, smooth-talking former Communist to the presidency of Poland, ousting Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa and ending an era in Polish politics. Even Aleksander Kwasniewski's senior handlers could hardly believe that their candidate, only 41, had toppled the legendary Walesa: while the ballots were still being counted, they prepared for a narrow defeat. But Kwasniewski squeaked in with 51.3 per cent of the vote, and when he finally stepped in front of the cameras on election night, his speech was confident and politically astute, calling for unity in Poland's fractured parliament and extending an olive branch to his enemies.
The ever-feisty Walesa, 52, however, would have none of it. With an eye on parliamentary elections due in 1997, he vowed to work tirelessly against the new president. "Kwasniewski will get a blow on his jaw," Walesa declared. "Now, I have a lot of time to travel across Poland and unite the Poles against Communists."
Such comments seemed to signal that the election had done little to calm Poland's turbulent political seas. Against a backdrop of economic reforms so sweeping they are known as "shock therapy," the country has endured three parliaments, five governments, and five prime ministers during Walesa's five-year tenure as president. Poverty has spread, and unemployment has risen to nearly 15 per cent from virtually none in 1989, despite a 5.5-per-cent economic growth rate in recent years, one of the highest in Europe. Privatization, the centrepiece of the reforms, has slowed; half the economy is still run by the state. During his presidency, Walesa also came to be widely viewed as mercurial, combative - and ultimately, destructive. In 1993, discontented voters turned back to the left, electing a parliamentary coalition dominated by former Communists, and throwing the right, led by Walesa, into disarray.
Into this breach stepped the handsome, articulate and reassuring Kwasniewski. Poles were clearly attracted by his promises of political stability and wider prosperity, which seemed more realistic than those of Walesa's opponent in 1990, Canadian businessman Stanislaw Tyminski, who now runs a small electronics company near Warsaw. Many voters willingly overlooked Kwasniewski's past as an eager young Communist. He became a rising star in Poland's last Communist government, which collapsed in 1989 under pressure from Walesa's Solidarity trade union.
Immediately after the Communist defeat, Kwasniewski formed the Left Democratic Alliance, which espouses a pragmatic blend of capitalism and liberal social policies, and now has the support of Poles from almost every class. Kwasniewski, says business leader Marek Goliszewski approvingly, "has a common-sense approach to the economy." As president, he will have powers of appointment to key economic and political positions after his inauguration on Dec. 23.
Many Polish political observers, however, question Kwasniewski's credibility. They are suspicious of his emphasis on appearances - he is known for his year-round tan, apparently endless supply of good suits, and preference for playing tennis and going to discos with his fashionable wife. He was also faulted for being less than candid during his American-style campaign. It emerged that he did not have the academic credentials he claimed, and that his wife may have profited from insider dealing. To his critics, Kwasniewski is a political opportunist, comfortable with any ideology and driven only by ambition.
Walesa, on the other hand, seemed deliberately intent on alienating Polish voters with overkill. He constantly harped on the evils of the deposed Communist regime and claimed that Kwasniewski was surrounded by "thugs." His overt alliance with the Roman Catholic Church also seemed distasteful to many. He told one television journalist, for example, that if abortion were legal, as Kwasniewski proposed, "you would probably have gone down the drain." The election result was a serious blow to the church, whose priests had backed Walesa from the pulpit.
Poles now hope that the fractious infighting will not derail the country's hopes for future prosperity. After years of economic pain, inflation and unemployment have steadied and the currency has stabilized. Foreign investment since 1989 totals $8 billion, including $97 million from Canada. Politically, however, there are no guarantees. "Poland was divided in half by the elections," says Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Poland's largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. "There may be a Cold War here at home." The past, it seems, will be part of Poland's future for some time to come.
Maclean's December 4, 1995