In the most stunning upset since the end of communism in Eastern Europe, a telegenic, 41-year-old former Communist appeared set to defeat Lech Walesa, the icon of democracy and anti-communism, in Poland’s presidential election Sunday, early results showed.
The outcome of the election, the second democratic ballot for president since the fall of the communists, teetered all night and would probably be decided by as few as several thousand votes, analysts said.
With votes counted from 1,150 of 22,472 polling places, the former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, led with 51.4 percent to Walesa’s 48.6 percent.
Despite the small number of votes counted, polling experts said the trend was against Walesa and public television’s chief electoral analyst said he doubted the president would win a second term.
The prospect of a victory by Kwasniewski, who has packaged himself as a social democrat with economic and foreign policies akin to Walesa’s, sent deep tremors through a society which just six years ago was euphoric over the collapse of communism.
The downfall of Walesa, 52, would end an era that he began 14 years ago as a shipyard worker determined to topple communism from his base as the leader of the Solidarity trade union.
A triumph by Kwasniewski would give the former Communists, who won legislative elections two years ago, control Poland’s Parliament, government and the presidency, furthering a trend throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In the last 18 months former Communists have won parliamentary elections in Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Walesa’s supporters, bewildered and bitter as they appeared on television talk shows Sunday night, acknowledged that Kwasniewski’s ascendancy would not mean that voters chose a return to communism or that they even felt a deep nostalgia for the past. The election fight was more over symbols and style than over differences on the transformation from communism to capitalism.
But with the highest voter turnout - 67.2 percent - since democratic elections returned to Poland in 1990, the results showed a society deeply divided. Speaking before early results were available, Kwasniewski recognized the divisions in a short, conciliatory statement before his supporters at a crowded headquarters in Warsaw.
“The biggest sin would be to divide Poles,” he said. “This is not about who has power or no power. Our argument is about vision. In Poland there is a lot of space.”
He added that Poland had to move toward Western Europe and could only do so with the combined efforts of his voters, Walesa’s voters and those who abstained.
Walesa’s failure appeared to be largely the result of his frittering away the moral authority he earned as the imprisoned leader of the Solidarity movement.While these tactics may have gained him some votes, they also alienated his own supporters.