On this day in 1990, trade-union activist, former political prisoner and shipyard electrician Lech Walesa is elected President of Poland. Defeating Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki among others and succeeding Soviet-backed strongman Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the rough-hewn Walesa was Poland’s first freely-elected head of state in 63 years, and the first non-Communist head of state in 45 years.
The son of a carpenter who received only primary and vocational education, Walesa began work in 1967 at the huge Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. Seasoning into full manhood, Walesa witnessed the 1970 Gdansk food riots in which police killed a number of demonstrators, and came through the ranks the hard way. When new protests against Poland’s communist government erupted in 1976, Wałęsa emerged as an anti-government union activist, losing his job as a result.
He was persecuted by Communist authorities, placed under surveillance and arrested several times. In August 1980, Walesa was instrumental in political negotiations that led to the ground-breaking Gdańsk Agreement between striking workers and the government. He co-founded the Solidarity trade-union movement, but such early gains by Solidarity proved ephemeral; on December 13, 1981, the Polish government imposed martial law, Solidarity was outlawed, and most of its leaders were imprisoned, including Wałęsa, who was detained for nearly a year.
Undaunted, Walesa reached out to Pope John Paul II and doggedly placed Poland in the consciousness of dispersed Poles, Catholics and Western political observers at large.The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to Wałęsa in 1983 was hotly criticized by the Polish government, and fearing exile, he remained in Poland while his wife Danuta accepted his Oslo prize on his behalf.
In a stunning reversal of fortune, the prisoner ultimately became a symbol of freedom and free markets with his election in 1990. Walesa began a series of reforms unheard of prior to his elevation, leading Poland through privatization and transition to a free-market economy (the Balcerowicz Plan), Poland’s first completely free parliamentary elections, and a period of redefinition of the country’s foreign relations. He further successfully negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland, won a substantial reduction in foreign debts and began moves toward Poland’s entry into NATO and the European Union, both of which occurred after his presidency.
In the years following his tenure, there have been allegations Wałęsa had collaborated with the Communist secret police. In 2017 a lengthy investigation by the Institute of National Remembrance asserted that a handwriting study proved the authenticity of documents showing Wałęsa had agreed to collaborate with the communist secret police, a charge he alternatively dismisses or denies with an air of realpolitik.