Forward into the Past

WARSAW: The safe prediction about the presidency of Aleksander Kwasniewski is that predictions will be unsafe. The politician in Mr Kwasniewski (most of the man) was schooled in a communist party which taught its pupils to dance to the tune of the hour. The way in which he reconstructed in part the communist machine after its collapse in 1989 confirms Kwasniewski as a nimble-footed leaper on opportunities rather than a plodder after principles. And the platform on which he rolled into the presidency of Poland turns out to consist of four pairs of roller skates pointing to the West, to the East, to the future, and to the past. Such a man, on such a vehicle, could end up anywhere even if he declares that his real objectives are the future and the West.

Kwasniewski's victory exposes a string of paradoxes. The country that boasted of its primacy in undermining the Soviet empire chose as president, a mere six years after Solidarity's triumph, the leader of a party that never repudiated its communist roots. The second paradox extends beyond Poland, posing a challenge for all countries in transition from communism: elections that reflect democratic norms may, in fact, destabilize democracy.

As a man, Kwasniewski may be unalarming, though his heroes -- the interwar Polish national hero (and a man with not the best democratic credentials) Jozef Pilsudski, the communist leaders Wladyslaw Gomulka, Edward Gierek and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the man who tried to crush Solidarity by imposing martial law -- send shudders down any democrat's spine. He appears to be no rote ideologue, just a pragmatist as he likes to describe himself. He may not wish to be Marxist about the Polish economy. He claims to see the lure of Europe and Nato. Left to himself, Kwasniewski might be a plausible - if cynical - alternative to the defeated Mr. Walesa.

The case against Kwasniewski is that he will not be left to himself. His Democratic Left movement contains a hard core of unreconstructed party members who control many seats in parliament as well as chunks of the trade unions. From the disgrace of 1989 transformed communists rebounded brilliantly (like the ex-communists of Hungary, Bulgaria, and Lithuania), playing on feelings of loss, fear, and anxiety experienced by many in the wake of speedy reforms enacted by Poland's first post-communist government. Reeling, many imagine the ex-communists a force capable of synthesizing the positive features of socialism -- guaranteed jobs, adequate pensions -- with the good in today's open society. Here is the ultimate paradox of the Polish election: to escape the costs of transition people turn to the heirs of the political order responsible for inciting Poland's catastrophe in the first place.