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Kwasniewski Victory Results From Seized Opportunities

By Dean E. Murphy
Los Angeles Times
WARSAW, Poland

At a meeting with journalists not long ago, Aleksander Kwasniewski was asked by an American what role President Lech Walesa should play in Poland if Walesa lost Sunday's election.

Relaxed and smiling, legs crossed casually beneath the table, Kwasniewski answered confidently in English.

"The role of ex-presidents in the United States is very impressive, I would like to study such examples," he said. "Ex-presidents can be very useful, and sometimes an ex-president is much more useful than when he was president."

The reply got a laugh, but when a local television journalist asked Kwasniewski to repeat it in Polish, he refused.

"Now I will have to translate you for Polish viewers," the reporter protested.

"Yes, but they will see that I can speak English," Kwasniewski responded.

Kwasniewski, 41, the former Communist whom Poles elected over Walesa on Sunday to be their next president, never misses a chance to shine, no matter how small it may seem. His election victory -- just six years after the Polish United Workers' Party, or PZPR, Poland's Communist Party, ceased to exist -- is the culmination of two decades of exploiting every opportunity -- good, bad and indifferent.

From his college days in the 1970s as a new member of the PZPR to his role in the 1989 round-table talks that brought democracy to Poland, Kwasniewski has displayed a remarkable political savvy that has allowed him to survive -- and ultimately master -- opposing forces of history.

"He is a brilliant man, the most intelligent politician among the young generation in Poland," said Mieczyslaw Rakowski, prime minister in the last Communist government who served as Kwasniewski's political mentor under communism. "There are opportunities in politics in every step you take, and Kwasniewski is a politician who takes into account all possibilities."

Down and out in 1989, having lost his first democratic election to an unknown organ player, Kwasniewski rallied his newly created party of reformed ex-Communists and quickly worked a political miracle.

Within two years the Democratic Left Alliance, a coalition of leftist parties dominated by his Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland, had become the second-largest entity in Parliament. At first ostracized by Solidarity-bred parties, Kwasniewski later was courted by fractious Solidarity governments that could not muster enough votes of their own to pass important legislation.

In 1993, his party finished first in parliamentary elections and took the reins of government with the help of a junior partner. On Sunday, Kwasniewski completed the sweep, collecting the votes of nearly 10 million Poles to defeat Walesa, the father of the anti-Communist revolution in Poland.

"It is his great personal success," said Janusz Lewandowski, a college colleague of Kwasniewski who parted ways when Kwasniewski joined the PZPR in 1976. "He managed to create his own image as the man of the future, an image that is much better than his own party's."

Tanned, athletic, well-coiffured and always watching his weight, Kwasniewski was a natural new-look choice among the dejected Communist apparatchiks, or bureaucrats, scrambling to find a political niche in newly democratic Poland. His smarts and affability had served him well under communism, landing him a Cabinet post at age 31 after several years as an editor at political publications.

Despite his smooth veneer, however, he is known to be sloppy with facts and is subject to criticism that his motivations are opportunistic, not principled. It was disclosed during the campaign that he never graduated from Gdansk University, despite a resume that claims he did. He also failed to disclose controversial investments made by his wife, and he once avoided journalists by sneaking out a window in the Parliament.

"You say you have culture and education, but you have neither one nor the other," Walesa said to him in a debate last week.

Lewandowski said he was astonished when Kwasniewski abruptly severed ties with a club of young economic students interested in civil rights and free markets to sign up with the Communists.

"He was fully aware that communism was a dead end, but there was great promise of a career, and the rewards were great," said Lewandowski, who served as privatization minister in a Solidarity-led government. "The cost was to join the party, and to my surprise he was willing to pay that price."