As ex-communist cruises toward re-election, Walesa barely registers

Friday, October 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHELM, Poland (AP) _ Hundreds of Poles throng a flag-bedecked stage, many in tears as they applaud the speaker and thrust pictures at him for autographs. It is a scene Westerners might associate with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa or Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

But the center of attraction is Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist sports minister, now coasting comfortably to a second term as president.

Ten years after the demise of the communist regime he once served, Kwasniewski, 46, is now Poland's best-loved politician and the overwhelming favorite in Sunday's presidential election.

He regularly tops 60 percent in voter opinion polls, while none of his dozen challengers has managed much over 10. Walesa, the national hero whom Kwasniewski unseated in 1995, can barely muster 3 percent, but is running anyway.

Kwasniewski took a 10-point dive in at least one poll this week after an opponent's ad showed video of him appearing to mock the hugely revered pope. Some pollsters believe it might cost enough votes to deny him the 50 percent needed to win outright and force a runoff ballot. But few doubt he would win it.

At the rally in Chelm, a city in Poland's poor southeastern farming region, he promised more jobs, less poverty, fewer crimes and better education.

``I'm a good president,'' he said. The crowd gave him fervent applause.

The post is largely ceremonial, but carries considerable moral authority in this country of 39 million people. The president also can veto legislation, and Kwasniewski has at times done so, to the fury of the center-right government.

He blocked tax reforms which he deemed unfair to workers, and a Roman Catholic Church-inspired pornography ban which he said was oppressive and unenforceable.

While he has endorsed painful market reforms, he also has managed to cast himself as the champion of millions who believe they have suffered in the tumultuous shift from communism to capitalism.

Kwasniewski has a ``warm voice, and he knows how to reach us,'' gushed Aneta Kozdra, a 26-year-old accountant displaying a freshly autographed photo of the president in Chelm. ``I cannot imagine another president. ... He is trying to make a better future for us young people.''

While the post-communist Solidarity movement struggled with market and social reforms, Kwasniewski transformed the ex-communists into a Western-style social democratic party that ran the country from 1993 to 1997 until Solidarity rebounded into office. Many believe next year's parliamentary elections could return the social democrats to power.

Kwasniewski's main challengers are Solidarity's current chairman, Marian Krzaklewski, and an independent economist, Andrzej Olechowski. But both are far behind in opinion polls.

His biggest setback so far is a video showing a senior adviser imitating a papal gesture and kissing the ground at Kwasniewski's encouragement as they left a helicopter during a visit to the town of Kalisz in 1997.

Church leaders in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland expressed outrage over the perceived mockery of the pope, and Krakow's city council and others declared the president persona non grata. Kwasniewski apologized, but claimed airing the tape was a dirty trick.

Still, it was an unusual slip for a politician who seems to have mastered being all things to all Poles.

Articulate, media-wise, Kwasniewski is a figure ``without sharp edges,'' says Slawomir Nowotny, a political analyst who heads the private polling agency Demoskop. ``He is an illusory politician, moving swiftly on the political scene. In fact he has no real program, no offer. He is not against anyone or anything.''

Commentator Janina Paradowska of the respected magazine Polityka says Walesa's was a ``chaotic, fighting presidency,'' which many Poles disapproved of, while Kwasniewski comes across as being above the political fray.

``It seems he has managed to meet the expectations,'' she says, ``and nothing can shake his image.''