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Issues Matter Little As Walesa Faces Stiff Challenge From Ex-Communist

October 26, 1995

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Maria Kwiatek, a retired cook living on a meager pension, is disillusioned with free-market reforms and is voting for an ex-communist in next week’s presidential election.

She hopes Aleksander Kwasniewski, a handsome, dynamic 41-year-old former Communist sports minister, can help reverse her fortune.

Jadwiga Zyro, a 40ish bookkeeper, also is disillusioned. But she says any of the candidates would be better than Kwasniewski. Zyro believes the incumbent, Lech Walesa, is the only one who truly cares about Poland.

Six years after toppling the communists and embarking on democratic reforms, Poles are vote Nov. 5 in their second presidential elections.

But it has hardly been an issue-oriented campaign. The platforms of the 17 candidates _ when they can be discerned _ differ little.

``The divisions in this campaign are based largely on differences in ideology and fundamental viewpoints,″ said Andrzej Rychard, a sociologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Beliefs and sentiments forged in the Cold War struggle between communists and Solidarity will be more important for most voters than economic or social issues, Rychard said.

Political scientists note that Kwasniewski has the strongest political organization behind him, a party grounded on 40 years ruling experience whose leaders include Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy.

That’s why many Poles feel there are 16 candidates plus Kwasniewski. They still believe that voting for ``the red,″ no matter how attractive or earnest he appears, would be treason.

And herein lie Walesa’s re-election chances. The ``incumbent electrician,″ as many intellectuals mockingly call Walesa, is seen as the only candidate who can prevent the ex-communists from holding both of Poland’s highest political offices.

The charismatic former shipyard worker and Solidarity leader has the endorsement of the trade union movement and the Catholic church, whose opinion, one in three Poles, say influences their voting.

In contrast, the candidate of the centrist Freedom Union, former labor minister and Solidarity hero Jacek Kuron, has no solid constituencies. Nor do the other two leading candidates, central bank president Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and Tadeusz Zielinski, human rights ombudsman.

For months, Kwasniewski was far ahead of the pack in opinion polls, enjoying the steady support of one in four voters. After lagging way back, Walesa, 52, surged from 12 percent in July to 22 percent this month in surveys by the CBOS state polling agency.

In the latest CBOS survey, Walesa would edge Kwasniewski 40 percent to 39 percent in the expected runoff election set for Nov. 19 if no single candidate wins a simple majority in the initial balloting.

``Kwasniewski has a beautiful program. But with his past record, he is out of the question,″ said Zyro, the bookkeeper.

But pre-1989 history doesn’t influence many younger Poles.

``Splitting the society into bad communists and good Solidarity guys does not make any sense any more,″ said Tomek, a 26-year-old law student. He intends to vote for Kwasniewski.

``One cannot associate Kwasniewski with the old order, ″ he said. ``I am impressed by his personality, by his education, by his qualifications.″

Academics say this election is about image, message and then biography. Zyro said that although she is disappointed with many of Walesa’s decisions a president, she thinks ``one should give him a second chance.″

``He did not succeed in everything, but at least he has tried, at least I can be sure he is honest,″ she said.

If there is a central issue in this election, it is the diminishing purchase power of people on fixed-incomes like Kwiatek, the retired cook, whose monthly pension is just $89.

And that could benefit Kwasniewski.

``I lived a much better life when the communists were in power,″ Kwiatek said bitterly. ``I do not care, whether Kwasniewski is a communist or not. I just hope he will do something for retirees. Walesa has done nothing.″

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