On This Day

lech walesa, lech walesa v sign, lech walesa victory sign
Margret Pfeil/AP
Lech Walesa, 1989.

On This Day: Lech Walesa Becomes Poland’s First Popularly Elected Leader

December 09, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 9, 1990, Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity trade union and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, won Poland's presidential election.

Election of Lech Walesa

Lech Walesa spent two decades fighting on behalf of Polish workers against the Communist Polish government. His work as head of the Solidarity movement forced the government to hold free elections in 1989 for select parliamentary seats, the first free elections since before World War II.

Solidarity won a majority of the seats and formed a government without the involvement of Communists, but Walesa turned down an opportunity to serve as premier, allowing his colleague Tadeusz Mazowiecki to lead the government.

A year later, Walesa ran against Mazowiecki in Poland’s first-ever direct presidential election. He won more than 74 percent of the votes cast and was sworn in two weeks later.

“With this moment, the Third Republic of Poland is solemnly beginning,” he declared. “Nobody, nothing can lessen this fact. The bad time, when the authorities of our state were elected under pressure from aliens or in effect of imposed compromises is coming to an end.”

Background: Walesa and Solidarity

Lech Walesa began working as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in the late 1960s and soon became involved in dissident activity. He participated in the mass protests over food prices in December 1970, during which at least 39 protesters were killed by government forces.

In the early ‘70s, Walesa became a leading advocate of free trade unions, which were barred under the Communist government. He would “organize Shipyard workers’ actions, distribute underground leaflets, hold meetings to teach workers about their rights and educate them,” according to the Lech Walesa Institute. He also organized public commemorations for the slain protesters of 1970.

Walesa’s actions caused him to be fired from the shipyard in 1976, and he later lost two other shipyard jobs. He was still unemployed on Aug. 14, 1980, when Lenin Shipyard workers began protesting food prices. The 36-year-old Walesa jumped over a fence and took charge of the strikers.

The strikers were soon joined by strikers from other shipyards and factories from the surrounding area. Walesa led the negotiations for the unions, called the Interfactory Strike Committee; on Aug. 31 he secured an agreement making it legal for workers to organize and strike.

The Interfactory Strike Committee gained members from across Poland and in September was renamed Solidarity. Elected chairman, Walesa was given the task of leading the 10 million workers of Solidarity. He tried to take a moderate and non-confrontational approach, but the younger, more militant union members pushed for stronger action.

Solidarity launched several strikes during 1981, and challenged the Communist government. In December 1981, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the Polish government declared martial law, outlawed Solidarity, and arrested Walesa and other leaders.
Time magazine named Walesa its Man of the Year for 1981. “As 1981 came to a close,” it wrote, “the courageous little electrician from Gdansk stood out not only as the heart and soul of Poland's battle with a corrupt Communist regime, but as an international symbol of the struggle for freedom and dignity.”

Walesa was released a year later and he resumed working underground for the Solidarity movement. His fame continued to spread, leading to meetings with President George H.W. Bush and Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. In his acceptance speech, read by his wife Danuta, Walesa proclaimed, “We desire peace—and that is why we have never resorted to physical force. We crave for justice—and that is why we are so persistent in the struggle for our rights, We seek freedom of convictions—and that is why we have never attempted to enslave man's conscience nor shall we ever attempt to do so.”

The Polish economy continued to struggle through the mid-‘80s and the government grew more unpopular. With the Soviet Union withdrawing support for its satellite countries, the government did not have the power to put down Solidarity. After a rash of strikes in 1988, Poland agreed to lift the ban on Solidarity and hold free elections.

Walesa’s Term in Office

Walesa’s time as president was a disappointment. From the beginning, he faced political disarray, charged with healing a Solidarity coalition that became divided during the presidential campaign. His term in office was marked by disenchantment and many Poles came to identify Walesa with his old enemy: authoritarianism.

He ran for re-election in 1995, but lost by 1 percent to former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski. University of Maryland professor Bartlomiej Kaminski explained to PBS that the Polish people wanted to “look into the future,” but “Walesa was leaning towards the past. He was emphasizing the period that many Poles want to forget.”

The defeat of Walesa, a devout Catholic, also represented a growing disapproval of the Catholic Church in Poland, according to The New York Times. “There was a big percentage of voters who voted for Kwasniewski because of the negative feelings they had about Walesa, and the church's approval of Walesa added to that,” said Catholic intellectual Marcin Krol.

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