Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1990: Lech Wałęsa became Poland’s first freely elected president in 64 years

On December 22, 1990, the leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Wałęsa, became Poland’s first freely elected president since 1926 after defeating Polish-Canadian businessman Stanisław Tymiński in the country’s first direct presidential elections.

Born in 1943, in German-occupied Poland, Lech Wałęsa became interested in workers’ concerns early in his career. An electrician working at Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyard, Wałęsa encouraged colleagues to boycott official rallies that condemned the student strikes of March 1968, and helped organize the illegal protests against the government’s decree raising food prices in 1970.

As a result, Wałęsa came under constant surveillance by the Communist authorities, his house and workplace bugged, and was even arrested several times for taking part in illegal strikes. He was eventually fired from the Gdańsk Shipyard in 1976 because of his continued involvement in dissident activities.

The Gdańsk Agreement

In the summer of 1980, another rise in food prices sparked two months of social unrest, marred by a wave of strikes and factory occupations. At the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, a popular crane operator, five months before she was due to retire, for participation in the illegal trade union, galvanized the outraged workers into action.

Led by a 35-year-old Lech Wałęsa, the workers joined the strikes, demanding the rehiring of Walentynowicz and Wałęsa, as well as the respect of workers’ rights and other social concerns. The workers held out until the government gave in to their demands, and Wałęsa declared the end of the strike on national television after representatives of the workers and the government signed the so-called Gdańsk Agreement.

The historic deal ratified many of the workers’ demands, including the right to strike, and enabled the creation of Solidarność (Solidarity), the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, which attracted an assorted membership of different citizens, managing to unite 10 million members – almost four times as many as the ruling communist party. Meanwhile, Wałęsa’s role in the strike, in the negotiations, and in the newly formed independent trade union gained him fame on the international stage.

Martial Law

But in December 1981, pressured by the Soviet leadership to put an end to the “counterrevolution” taking place in Poland, First Secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in the country in an attempt to throttle political opposition, embodied by the Solidarity movement. Lech Wałęsa and many other Solidarity leaders and activists were arrested.

Jaruzelski initially intended to remold Solidarity into a compliant union, stripped of its intelligentsia advisers and compatible with the state socialist system. But the failure to incite most ranking Solidarity leaders to collaborate resulted in the government adopting the goal of total liquidation of the union movement. In October 1982, the military junta officially banned Solidarity. Incarcerated for 11 months, Wałęsa was released the following in November.

Martial law in Poland was formally lifted in July 1983, though many heightened controls on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, remained in place throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. As a consequence of economic hardship and political repression, an exodus of Poles saw 700,000 emigrate to the West between 1981 and 1989.

The Round Table Talks

In 1983, Lech Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but was unable to accept it himself, fearing the Polish government would not let him back into the country. By September 1988, following a new wave of strikes, a secret meeting was held which included Lech Wałęsa and Minister of Internal Affairs Czesław Kiszczak, during which the two parties agreed to hold the so-called Round Table talks in the near future to plan out the course of action to be undertaken in the country. A list was drawn up of members of the main negotiating teams.

With Wałęsa leading the non-governmental side of the negotiations, the meetings resulted in legalization of the Solidarity movement and enabled partially free elections in June 1989, during which Solidarity persuaded the Communists’ two satellite parties to switch their support to Solidarity, all but forcing General Jaruzelski to appoint a Solidarity member as Prime Minister.

Lech Wałęsa picked the former editor-in-chief of the Tygodnik Solidarność magazine, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, to lead the coming administration, thus becoming the first non-communist prime minister in Central and Eastern Europe in over 40 years.

Wałęsa president

Wałęsa became disgruntled by the fact that some of his former fellow campaigners and activists seemed satisfied to govern alongside former Communists, and in 1990, he decided to run for the newly re-established office of president, claiming “I don’t want to, but I have to” (“Nie chcę, ale muszę“).

Lech Wałęsa, won the first round but failed to secure a majority. This led to a runoff election, during which he easily defeated Polish-Canadian businessman Stanisław Tymiński, to become Poland’s first freely elected head of state since the May Coup of 1926, and the first President of Poland ever elected in a popular vote – before World War II, presidents were elected by the Sejm.

Lech Wałęsa presided over Poland’s successful transition from communism into a free-market liberal democracy, but his active role in Polish politics diminished after he narrowly lost the 1995 presidential election.

Since 1980, Wałęsa has received hundreds of prizes, honors and awards from many countries of the world, and in 1999, he was named one of Time’s 100 most important people of the 20th century.

But allegations that Wałęsa had been an informant for the communist security services in his youth have regularly resurfaced, tainting his legacy. And while Wałęsa has repeatedly denied these accusations, the exact nature of the relationship of the Solidarity leader with the communist security services remains, to this day, a contentious question.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.