Presidential race reflects growing Polish confidence in democracy

WARSAW, Poland - Poland, the first Eastern European nation to shed communism, slides comfortably into its third popular presidential election Sunday after a predictable campaign reflecting the country's growing confidence in its democracy.

During a week that saw the last vestiges of the Iron Curtain fall in Yugoslavia, the country that started it all a decade ago was served a timely reminder that it has achieved the prize: a stable democracy and one of the most successful transition economies in the old communist bloc.

In Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, streets were filled this week with people protesting Europe's last dictator. Warsaw, by contrast, is a picture of post-communist success, the cobblestone streets of its Old Town filled with people walking, pushing strollers and eating ice cream on an idle fall weekend.

In the past decade Poland has smoothly ridden out transitions of power from anti-communists to ex-communists in both the presidency and the parliament. The days of the revolution here are long gone; its heroes have lost their political relevance. In fact, Poland's freedom fighter, Lech Walesa, is mounting a futile campaign to take back the presidency he lost in 1995. He is far back in a field of 12 candidates, scoring less than 3 percent in recent polls.

The incumbent, Alexander Kwasniewski, appeared headed for re-election with 50 to 60 percent of the vote, according to the latest polls. Even voters who say they would prefer a right-wing candidate from the Solidarity bloc concede that another term for the ex-communist president won't upset them.

''It will not be a great loss if Kwasniewski stays in office. He's good,'' Maciek Hajkiewicz said, chomping on a hamburger as he hung out with friends near the university on Warsaw's chic Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street.

The outcome will have so little impact on Poland's course, the 21-year-old economics student reasons, that he's not going to bother to travel 200 miles home to cast a ballot Sunday.

''It's not worth it,'' he said. ''It's evident who will win.''

The top candidates for the largely ceremonial presidency all agree on the major issues, including Polish preparations for joining the European Union. That has left little room for serious debate in what has been the least contested campaign in post-communist Poland.

As Poland's most popular politician, Kwasniewski dominated the race throughout, suffering a significant setback only recently when a conservative challenger aired attack ads showing the president encouraging an aide to mock the Polish-born Pope John Paul II. The 46-year-old former communist sports minister experienced only a slight dip in the polls, buoyed by a general sense that he's been a competent president who represents Poland well abroad.

Voter interest in the presidential race appears to have dipped since 1995, when Kwasniewski defeated Walesa. Polling agencies predicted turnout of 57 percent or less, compared with 65 percent five years ago.

''The election will not change the political situation in Poland,'' said Janina Paradowska, an analyst with the Polityka weekly magazine, adding that this was a sign that ''the political scene in Poland has solidified somewhat.''


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