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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Walesa the 'Savior' Slides From Grace

WARSAW -- Four years after they elected Lech Walesa president and hailed him as a savior of free Poland, Poles are turning against the world's most famous electrician-turned-statesman. From the media to the marketplace, Poles relish roasting their president more than ever before. He is the butt of an endless stream of political jokes. A recent nationwide popularity poll placed him 19th out of 20 prominent politicians. With less than a year to go before Poland's next presidential election, his approval rating hovers around 5 percent. Political analysts caution that a year equals an era in fast-changing Poland where political fortunes, like Warsaw's fledgling stock market, climb and crash in days. But, they also agree, Walesa, 51, faces a troubled political future. The reasons for his slide from grace reflect the profound ambivalence that many Poles feel for the revolutionary fire sparked by their mustachioed leader -- a fire that led to the disintegration of the Communist Eastern Bloc. The ambivalence has already manifested itself at ballot boxes throughout Eastern Europe -- in Hungary last month and before that in Poland in September when parties with roots in the Communist past were voted back to power. While Walesa is still hailed abroad as a great revolutionary, in Poland he gets little credit for the benefits brought by his revolution. He does get blamed, however, for the downside: lost jobs, inflation and, in the view of many Poles, a decline in morality. "In 50 years there will be monuments for me all over this country and people will lay wreaths every chance they get," Walesa said in a recent interview. "Then I'll kick my coffin and shout, 'Where were you when I needed you?'" In a recent poll, half the respondents said they were happiest during socialism. Only 8 percent chose the present, even though Poland is the only country in Eastern Europe with a growing economy. The remainder were split between the years before World War II and 1989. In addition to nostalgia for the Communist past, Walesa's personality, described as "divisive," "hectoring" and "unstatesmanlike," has played a role in his decline in popularity. Last year, following a no-confidence vote in parliament, Walesa dissolved it and called elections. But instead of working to unite pro-reform forces, he set about turning one against the other in an apparent attempt to increase his power. The ploy only helped the leftist parties, which now have a majority in parliament. "His world is a boxing ring," said Bogdan Lis, a former campaign adviser who now runs an import-export business in Walesa's hometown of Gdansk. "He doesn't unite the forces of freedom, he makes us fight." This confrontational style has not helped Walesa deal with parliamentary squabbles and minor scandals. In November, one of his sons, Przemyslaw, was arrested for drunk driving after learning that his girlfriend was pregnant -- an embarrassment to Walesa, a prominent Catholic. Two months ago, Walesa moved into a new castle, the residence of Warsaw's Russian governor during Poland's 123 years of partition between Prussia and Germany before World War I. Walesa wanted $6 million to renovate the 17th-century palace. The parliament approved half. "Because he's the president, Walesa gets stuck with the bill," said Jacek Merkel, a former Solidarity activist, an official on Walesa's first presidential campaign and now a financial consultant in Gdansk. "But he's also got himself to blame." As Poland's revolution has moved from the stark struggle between Communism and freedom to the nuanced, but no less significant, contest for the shape of the future, Walesa finds himself something of a yesterday's man. A rift yawns between the intellectuals who rallied around the red-and-white banners of the Solidarity trade union and the union members themselves. "They were fighting for the freedom to think but we're still fighting for our jobs," said Macek Kmak, 56, a dockyard worker in Gdansk. Among Walesa's coterie of former advisers, only one, Bronislaw Geremek, a medieval historian who is now a member of parliament, still calls himself the president's friend. Part of Walesa's problem, Geremek said, is the nature of the Polish presidency, which resembles the weaker German office more than that of the United States or France. While Walesa signs all legislation, he cannot submit laws to parliament. His authority over foreign policy and national security is not written into Poland's interim constitution. He has little power to affect economic policy. Recently, Walesa has attempted to solidify control over the army but the parliament is fighting against this. Geremek said he believes Walesa's failure to achieve Poland's early entry into NATO hurt the president. "He should be either the guardian of stability and peace or the effective manager of enrichment, but he hasn't done either," Geremek said.