Flowers wreathed the gates of the Gdansk shipyard, where the trade union movement that helped overthrow communism in Poland was born 25 years ago. In Solidarity Square, named after that movement, patriotism bloomed, too, as crowds chanted "Polska! Polska!" at a ceremony last month celebrating Solidarity's founding. For Lech Kaczynski, 56, mayor of Warsaw and leader of the Law and Justice Party, it was an emotional moment. Lech and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, helped establish Solidarity, and returned to Gdansk for the commemorations. "I was thinking of all those years of underground struggle," Lech told Time last week, sipping a coke in a dimly lit office in central Warsaw. "I was thinking of my brother being released from prison and of the struggle that lay ahead."
The struggle that lies ahead of Lech Kaczynski now is an attempt to win parliamentary and presidential elections over the next three weeks. On Sunday, Poles choose a new parliament; then, on Oct. 9, Kaczynski and 12 other candidates face voters in the presidential poll. The elections are unique because the frontrunners for president Kaczynski and Donald Tusk, head of the Civic Platform are both prominent Solidarity figures, and because for the first time since 1989 economics is as important as ideology in determining the outcome. "There's always been a disconnect between politics and the economy," says Witold Orlowski, an adviser to outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski. No party ever gets the blame, for example, for Poland's groaning state finances. But now, Orlowski argues, persuading voters to accept the need for painful structural reforms and a slimmer welfare state "will be the main political task of the new government." Are the two Solidarity veterans up to it?
They'd better be. Since joining the E.U. last year, Poland's been on something of a roll. The country has enjoyed impressive growth (an expected 4% this year), booming exports of food and some manufactured goods to the rest of the Union, and a higher profile on the world stage. This has instilled a new confidence in the burgeoning entrepreneurial class, emboldening its members to demand solutions to problems like the 17.9% unemployment rate, stifling bureaucracy and spiraling government spending. "I'd like to slam all those politicians in the head and shake them!" shouts Andrzej Kuzmicki, 40, owner of an underwear company in the northeastern city of Bialystok. "We need real change."
Tusk and his Civic Platform say they're offering just that. He's been campaigning hard on promises to bring in a 15% flat tax on corporate and personal income, ease the rules for hiring and firing, and radically streamline government bureaucracy though he's stopped short of suggesting specific spending cuts. Policies like these would suit Kuzmicki just fine. He saw his exports of lingerie rise 700% last year, but says "economic policy still favors the interests of the working class and trade unions." Wieslaw Grzyb, 44, the owner of a bicycle manufacturer that employs 750 people in Poland and Ukraine, agrees that Civic Platform "has a better program" for business. He wants government off his back: "I don't expect the government to help me with my business. I count on myself."
Kaczynski is counting on voters still wanting a bigger role for government. Once Lech Walesa's designated successor to lead Solidarity, Kaczynski left politics in the early 1990s and later taught law at Warsaw University. He returned in 2000 as Justice Minister, and he and his brother founded Law and Justice the next year. His party promises a "strong" state and higher social benefits for union members. Kaczynski calls Tusk's flat tax "extremely dangerous," and socially unjust because it would mainly benefit the rich.