(b. Popowo, 29 Sept. 1943)
Polish; chairman of Solidarity 1981–90, President 1990–95 Wałęsa was the son of a carpenter. After elementary education and three years' vocational training he moved to Gdańsk, where he worked as an electrician in the Lenin Shipyards. He was determined to secure recognition for the workers shot by the regime after the food riots of 1970. In 1976 he joined in demonstrations against the government's watering-down of the economic concessions it had made in 1970 and as a result was dismissed from his job. From 1976 to 1980 he was unemployed and edited an underground newspaper. At the same time he was a prominent member of the Workers' Self-Defence Committee, an unofficial organization which had close links with the Catholic intelligentsia. In August 1980 the workers of Gdańsk went on strike at the government's raising food prices. Wałęsa climbed into the Lenin Shipyards where his former colleagues recognized him as leader of the strike which soon spread. At the end of the month, Wałęsa led a committee which negotiated with the Communist regime. On 30 August the government granted the workers' right to form independent trade unions and their right to strike as well as general freedom of expression. These concessions were unprecedented in the Soviet Bloc. In September 1980, Wałęsa became chairman of Solidarity, the newly created national organization of the independent trade unions. By the time of its first congress in September 1981, Solidarity had 9½ million members. Wałęsa tried to play a moderating role within the organization. A devout Catholic himself he was in close touch with the primate of Poland, Cardinal Glemp, and was advised by members of the Catholic intelligentsia, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He was unable to restrain the radical wing of Solidarity, which pushed for a greater share of political power. After General Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in December 1981, Wałęsa was put under house arrest for eleven months. Upon his release he resumed leadership of the now underground Solidarity organization. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his defence of the Polish workers. He donated the money to charity. Solidarity refused to co-operate with Jaruzelski's programme of economic reform, which failed.
In January 1989 the Communist regime legalized Solidarity and Wałęsa played a key role in the negotiations between trade union, church, and state which led to the partially free elections of May 1989. In September 1989 Wałęsa's candidate, Mazowiecki, formed the first non-Communist government since the 1940s. In April 1990 Wałęsa was re-elected chairman of Solidarity. Over the year a split within Solidarity grew, partly because of Wałęsa's criticism of the slow pace of political reform and the harsh social consequences of rapid marketization. When Jaruzelski resigned as President in November he stood against Mazowiecki and Polish-born Canadian émigré, Tymiński. In the first electoral round he gained only 40 per cent of the vote against Tymiński's 23 per cent and Mazowiecki's 18 per cent. But in the second round he won a decisive victory with 74 per cent of the vote against Tymiński's 26 per cent, and became President in December 1990. His popularity continued to be eroded by austerity and his confrontational manner, and he was narrowly defeated by the reformed Communist candidate, Aleksander Kwasniewski, in the presidential elections of January 1996. He stood again in the 2000 elections but received less than 1 per cent of the vote, this performance being influenced by allegations (officially dismissed) that he had once spied on other dissidents in the 1970s. He has retired from active politics but remains a highly regarded hero of the campaign to overthrow Communism.