IT IS a fitting finale to the legendary rise of Lech Walesa that he should at last have reached the presidential palace of Poland. He won the presidency in a landslide in the runoff of Poland's first popular presidential election.
Walesa became a world figure in 1980, when he led the Solidarity strike that shook the entire Communist world. A year later, he was in prison as the government struck back with martial law. But the handwriting was on the wall for the entire Communist system.
It has been a remarkable journey for Walesa, who was born in a hut to impoverished peasants and then became a electrician at the Gdansk shipyards and the leader of an underground union. As a teen-ager, he saw mass demonstrations propel Wladyslaw Gomulka to power in 1956, and in 1970 he led his first strike and helped to bring about Gomulka's downfall.
While Walesa has until now played an important background role as the Solidarity leader while others led the government, he now will take over as president at a time of crucial change and tough challenges.
His most difficult task will be to continue the economic reform plan of the retiring prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, despite the hardships resulting from the change to a market economy. Mazowiecki was on the right track, but he lacked the charisma needed to sell the program to the people, and as a result he was quickly rebuffed at the polls. Walesa may be more successful, especially if the reforms start to show some results soon.
Walesa will also face formidable political problems. He is succeeding Wojciech Jaruzelski, the man who once put him in jail, but, until parliamentary elections next spring, he will have to work with former Communists in the Parliament, as well as with the Mazowiecki wing of Solidarity. Mazowiecki and his intellectual followers feel disillusioned and let down by the voters.
Walesa has had no experience in government whatsoever, but he has displayed considerable political skill over the years in organizing the underground labor movement, bringing it into confrontation with the government and then negotiating remarkable concessions from it.
In the dialogue that developed in 1989 it finally became evident that the government needed Solidarity more than Solidarity needed the government. This paved the way for free elections and the formation of the first Solidarity-led government.
Walesa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, was warmly greeted when he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress last year. American economic assistance will no doubt be continued to Poland, both directly and through international organizations such as the World Bank.
The new president will have a large reservoir of good will as he embarks on his task of rebuilding Poland economically, attempting to make it, as he bravely phrased it, "one of the pillars of peace and calm in Europe."