Has Walesa's Time Come ... and Gone?

WARSAW -- In tracking the baffling career of Polish President Lech Walesa, one can't help but wonder: How has the father of Polish democracy also become one of its most despised offspring?

Walesa, after all, was the extraordinary leader who helped awaken Eastern Europe from its communist nightmare, the humble shipyard electrician who pressed for freedom under the bright banner of a union called Solidarity.

In doing so, he captured the world's imagination, a Nobel Peace Prize and the first freely elected Polish presidency in 1990.

Now the complaints against Walesa are legion and brutally blunt: He's incompetent, inarticulate and remote, a simple-minded peasant who's in over his head.

But perhaps the most damning accusation is that he has become a power-hungry threat to the freedoms he once fought for.

"Walesa's only aim is Walesa," says one-time ally Jaroslaw Kaczynski. "There is no larger goal, and this is extremely destructive in a country trying to reorganize its whole economy. He does not understand things that even an average citizen would. He has childish opinions."

In all his years as an electrician, Walesa never faced problems as colossal as those destroying his popularity; and if he can't fix them soon, he risks being turned out of office in this fall's elections.

The latest polls show him running a distant fourth, supported by a mere 8 percent of the voters. In one survey last year, his competence rated below that of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former despot who imposed martial law in 1981 and threw Walesa in jail.

Walesa puts the blame for his unpopularity on the uncertainties of the transition to a free-market economy. Despite a healthy trend of economic growth and a boom in exports, Poles have been unnerved by thousands of layoffs and an inflation rate that has usually outstripped wage increases.

In written responses to questions submitted by The Baltimore Sun, an aide wrote on Walesa's behalf that Poles "feel abandoned and wronged. Many personally accuse the president for such a situation and often like to see him as somebody who can put things in order.

"They find it difficult to understand that in a democratic country there is a very strict division of power and that the president is not almighty," the statement continued.

Walesa's presidential image hasn't been helped by the chaos swirling around the first few years of democracy. Since the first parliamentary elections in 1989, there have been seven prime ministers, and the electorate radically shifted course in late 1993, turning power over to the former communists, who have divided into two parties that rule in coalition, the Democratic Left Alliance and the Peasant Party.

The once powerful Solidarity Party has splintered into competing factions, none of which supports Walesa.

But Walesa's critics say his long slide goes far beyond either economic uncertainty or democratic growing pains. His faults of leadership and judgment, they say, can be found in his daily decisions -- such as his appointment of his driver to one of his top advisory posts -- and in the ineptness of his daily pronouncements.

When Walesa isn't coming up with bad ideas, critics say, he's more often not coming up with any ideas at all.

"He is very good at tearing down things, which is necessary when you're trying to end a totalitarian state," says another former ally, Bogdan Borusewicz, now a lawmaker with the centrist Union of Liberty Party. "But he is not very good at building things up, which is necessary in a democracy."

Nor does he have the ability or the work ethic to change such tendencies, critics say.

"Someone who worked in a shipyard for 20 years could not be a lazy person, because this is very hard work," says Kaczynski. "But having quit physical work, he considers this job in many ways to be a holiday. Like many people who do physical work, he doesn't consider intellectual work to be 'real' work."

Some analysts now say he is so politically weak that he might not even run for re-election.

Others point out that he has beaten the odds before, and few are willing to pronounce him politically dead.

The prospect offered by Borusewicz might be the cruelest of all for someone who has earned a place in European history.

"I had always assumed he would progress, but he never did," Borusewicz says. "He will just fade away."