At the second Congress of Solidarity, held in Gdansk from April 19 to 25, Lech Walesa did nothing to deny the suggestions of his fellow unionists that he may soon be riding on a white horse to the Belweder, Poland’s White House–better known as the former residence of the prewar dictator, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Walesa thus confmed the persistent rumors that next year, in a further breach of last year’s “historic compromise,” Poland will stage a presidential election by universal suffrage, allowing Corporal Walesa to take over from General Jaruzelski. Especially in light of his landslide re-election as chair of Solidarity (he took 77 percent of the vote, up from 55 percent nine years ago), Walesa’s bid for the presidency can be interpreted as part of the irresistible rise of the electrician.

On closer scrutiny, however, his victory is not so triumphant, and the prospect of his ascent to the presidency not so glorious. Both his opponents at this congress were pushovers, one of them a complete unknown. It was not a real contest, and this time around it was not taking place in as exalted a league. Solidarity may rule Poland as a substitute for a political party, with Tadeusz Mazowiecki heading the government as Prime Minister. But as a labor union it is a shadow of its former self, claiming no more than a fifth of the membership of nearly 10 million it had nine years ago. Indeed, there is a direct link between its holding office and its dwindling members. The union is weak because Solidarity is defending an economic policy that badly hurts the interests of its rank and file.

Warsaw wits have revived the story of the man who wanted to train his horse to live without food. The experiment was proceeding quite successfully, but just as it was growing accustomed to permanent fasting the stupid animal died. Leszek Balcerowicz, the Finance Minister, can likewise claim that his harsh treatment is yielding results: The galloping inflation rate dropped to 5 percent in March and was probably even lower in April; the devalued zloty is preserving its parity with the dollar–without having to borrow from the special $1 billion currency stabilization fund set up by a consortium of fifteen industrialized nations; and Poland has a surplus in its trade with the West. But the cost is prohibitive. Since the beginning of the year industrial production has fallen by about one-third, and real wages, never very high, by even more. In the first quarter of 1990 unemployment, previously nonexistent, rose to 300,000. It,is expected to top 1 millio–or around 10 percent of the labor force–by the end of the year. “If we were purely a union,” Walesa admitted at the congress, “we would have had to call a general strike.”

But Walesa does not want a strike. Nor will he attack the government for the consequences of its determined drive toward capitalism, since it isa policy he himself advocates. Hence, he must invent some quarrels. He blames the “intellectuals” for having given him bad advice, or for their alleged contempt for his proletarian manners and vulgar accent. He attacks Mazowiecki for sticking to the letter of last year’s agreement with the Communist Party, for not showing enough zeal in kicking “communists” out of their jobs, including the presidency. Poland is in a paradoxical mood. When belts are so tightened, there is no euphoria. But people can still attribute the present predicament to the ancien régime and thus retain faith in their own government. They still trust Solidarity enough to elect its candidates in huge numbers in this month’s local elections. But workers no longer trust it enough to join the union in large numbers.

Political confidence, too, is a wasting asset, and Walesa’s presidential bid may well be dictated by the need for a strongman, as well as by his own undoubted ambition and vanity. (Unkind souls say that he is spurred to action whenever an opinion poll reveals that Mazowiecki has a higher popularity rating than his own.) Should economic discontent reach a dangerous level, “Commies,” “intellectuals” or other convenient scapegoats will have to be found. It is not clear how far Walesa himself is ready to go in this direction, but some of his current lieutenants who run the union weekly, Solidarnosc. would not balk at a right-wing nationalist regime that would conduct witch hunts against Reds and impose a moral order blessed by the Church. PiIsudski is not their only model; the Poles may invent their own version of Peronismo.

It is never sure that the worst will come to pass. Much will depend on the economic situation, and the government may yet revise its policies. In any case, electing the president through universal suffrage will require constitutional change, and that will take time. Should Lech Walesa nevertheless opt for the role of caudillo, it would be a sad ending for a man who less than ten years ago climbed over the fence in the Lenin Shipyards and helped spur the spectacular revival of an autonomous Polish labor movement. Has all that been lost forever?