Lech Walesa, well-known Polish labor leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is sworn in as the first noncommunist president of Poland since the end of World War II. His victory was another sign of the Soviet Union’s lessening power and communism’s waning influence in Eastern Europe.
Walesa first came into prominence in Poland in 1980 when he took over the leadership of a strike of shipyard workers. The action was a success, with Poland’s communist government agreeing to the union’s right to exist. This was the birth of the so-called “Solidarity” movement in Poland, a broad-based movement designed to remove communist control over labor organizations. Though forced to give in during the strike, the government plotted to eliminate this new threat to its power. Martial law was imposed in 1981 and shortly thereafter Walesa was arrested and put into solitary confinement for nearly a year. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in organizing Polish labor and protesting communist oppression in his nation.
Upon his release from prison, Walesa resumed his union efforts. The Solidarity movement rapidly gained in strength and popularity. In 1989, the Polish government allowed semi-free elections and Solidarity candidates won seats in the national parliament. In 1990, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader of Poland, agreed to step down and allow free elections. Walesa, though he initially shunned political office, ran for president as the Solidarity candidate and won. His election was another blow to Soviet power in East Europe and marked another defection from the communist Iron Curtain nations of Europe.
Walesa’s five years in office were marked by Poland’s rapid transformation to a growing free-market economy, though Walesa himself was often criticized for his leadership style, which included replacing government staffers almost yearly. He lost the presidential election in 1995 and ostensibly retired from public life. He ran for president again in 2000, but received less than one percent of the vote.