Poland: Two Years after Walesa

By Mihas, D. E. M. | Contemporary Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Poland: Two Years after Walesa


Mihas, D. E. M., Contemporary Review


Far from being unexpected, the final result of Poland's presidential election in November 1995 came to strengthen an already 'stable trend' in Eastern Europe during the mid-1990s which saw the return to power of revamped communists who appeared to have acquired 'democratic credentials' by renouncing the authoritarian past and espousing social democratic beliefs. Until 1996, with the exception of the centre-right minority government in the Czech Republic, all other former communist states were governed by post-communist or at least left-wing administrations. Almost everywhere in East-Central Europe, the former communists pledged to promote political liberalisation and market economy or even to complete the transition to a market economy, as in the case of Hungary.

In Poland, the ex-communists swept back to power by winning all national elections, to the lower House, the Sejm, the Senate in 1993, and the presidency in 1995. However, the second round of the presidential election of November 1995 was of particular significance if not because it brought an end to the so-called 'Walesa era' which lasted about fifteen years. These years witnessed Walesa's rising from electrician to trade union leader to opposition leader to president of the republic and his removal from office.

Nevertheless, his demise from political power does not necessarily mean that his political life has been terminated. Walesa has shown that, to say the least, he is a difficult loser who finds it extremely hard to concede defeat. He might regain control of the reins of Solidarnosc and launch a relentless campaign against President Aleksander Kwasniewski - possibly in an effort to prevent his re-election in 2000 - who, in Walesa's eyes, almost personifies the restoration of communism in Poland.

Kwasniewski's victory might be relatively narrow since he won 51.72 per cent of the vote, but the reasons for Walesa's defeat are far more important than pure arithmetics. Towards the end of his presidency Walesa appeared to be a spent force, at least in opinion polls. However, during the presidential electoral campaign he recovered part of the lost ground, mainly by warning the voters of the dire consequences of a communist domination, but not enough to secure his re-election.

Throughout his term in office Walesa lost his charisma. The voters were worried about their president's increasingly authoritarian tendencies and his fervent desire to cling to power for as long as possible. His rough manners and lack of respect for his political opponents, let alone for the country's democratic institutions, could only disappoint former supporters. Therefore, it could be claimed that the presidency was lost to Kwasniewski not necessarily on the grounds of his merits but because of Walesa's demerits.

Another factor which seems to have led to Walesa's demise was that the ex-president had not established his own political party, depending on the support of alternative organised milieux one of which, the Catholic Church, decided to continue backing Walesa because of his anti-communist and religious credentials. Moreover, during the Walesa mandate the Church succeeded in promoting what could be termed 'clericalisation of the institutions', e.g. the issue of abortion. The campaign, however, was launched against a background of increasing secularisation within Polish society and, as a consequence, it prompted a backlash which proved to be electorally fatal for the Church's favourite presidential candidate.

The loser was not only Walesa but also the Catholic Church as an institution. However, if considered within a European framework and in the light of the Church's defeat in the Irish divorce referendum held only a week after the Polish presidential election, the Church's 'defeat' in Poland cannot but be a serious blow to its authority and influence. In the Irish case, and despite the arithmetically marginal defeat of the Church, the Pope's appeal to the Irish electorate not to vote in favour of divorce helped turn the defeat in Ireland into an even graver one than that in Poland. …

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