WARSAW, SEPT. 19 -- President Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Communist general whose 1981 declaration of martial law snuffed out post-war Poland's first experiment in democracy, announced today that he will resign as soon as a new president can be elected.
A spokesman in the president's office said that Jaruzelski will resign because "it will be helpful for the process of democratization" and because "there is an opinion in some political circles that it would be helpful for the nation."
Jaruzelski sent a letter to Parliament calling for a speedy presidential election and asking that his six-year term of office be shortened so that there can be an "orderly transfer."
Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa, who announced Monday that he is running for Jaruzelski's job, has been demanding the general's resignation for months. Four of five Poles surveyed earlier this month said Jaruzelski should not finish his term. Today, police dragged members of a small ultra-nationalist party from the gates of the president's office, where they were shouting, "Jaruzelski must go."
"The general is against any kind of difficulties that would be concentrated on his personality," presidential spokesman Wlodzimierz Lozinski said.
Parliament begins debate on Thursday to schedule presidential and parliamentary elections. According to leaders in Parliament, the presidential election will be held in November or December, and the parliamentary election next spring.
Jaruzelski, 67, the Communist Party leader throughout most of the 1980s, was elected president in the summer of 1989 as part of a power-sharing arrangement between the Communist Party and the Solidarity movement.
That arrangement, which followed a nationwide election in which the Communists were humiliated, was a way of appeasing Soviet concern about rapid democratic change in Poland. But as Communist regimes crumpled one after another across Eastern Europe last fall, the deal became an anachronism and an embarrassment to many Poles.
Walesa, who opted last year to take no formal office in the Solidarity-led government he helped create, has complained that Poland sparked the changes in Eastern Europe and yet remains the only country in the region not to have held completely free presidential and parliamentary elections.
Jaruzelski, whose ramrod posture, bald pate and dark glasses became an internationally caricatured symbol of Communist intolerance, is the only former Communist leader in Eastern Europe still in office after democratic change.
After he was chosen president last year, Jaruzelski attempted to change his public image. He dropped his Communist Party membership and retreated into the political shadows.
Jaruzelski steadfastly refrained from exercising his considerable constitutional powers and has been a self-effacing supporter of the Solidarity government. He said in an interview this year that he got along well with the prime minister, long-time Solidarity activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
Indeed, Jaruzelski has been a more reliable supporter of the current government than Walesa, who handpicked most of its leaders, including Mazowiecki. Walesa has accused the government of being too soft on former Communists and of forgetting workers' needs.
Mazowiecki, who has emerged as Walesa's most likely challenger in the presidential race, said in an interview this year that his political "cohabitation" with Jaruzelski was serving Poland well and that he had no problems working with the general who jailed him after ordering martial law.
But it is Poland's collective memory of that Dec. 13, 1981, order that Jaruzelski has been unable to overcome. He acknowledged last summer that "I must take social realities into account. I know well that public opinion associates me with martial law."
Jaruzelski has never apologized for the order. Neither has he acknowledged responsibility for the subsequent political and economic stalemate that hobbled Poland throughout most of the 1980s.
"I don't regret the decision," he has said, "but I regret that the situation was created that led to the decision."
Former defense secretary Caspar A. Weinberger once called Jaruzelski "a Soviet general in a Polish uniform." While many working-class Poles agree with that assessment, others here argue that Jaruzelski acted in the best interests of the country when he imposed martial law. In doing so, they say, he preempted a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland.
Recent interviews with senior Czechoslovak military officers support the argument that Warsaw Pact forces were planning to move into Poland in 1981.
The one major issue that Jaruzelski became passionately and publicly involved in during the last year was the German question. He joined Mazowiecki in demanding that Germany renounce any future claim to former territory that became part of Poland after World War II.
That war transformed Jaruzelski's life, as it did those of most Poles of his generation. His family, with roots in the Polish nobility, was deported to Siberia. It was there, while he worked as a lumberjack in blinding snow fields, that Jaruzelski's eyes were damaged -- forcing him to wear dark glasses. Later, as a lieutenant in the Polish army, he led patrols behind German lines.
Jaruzelski has said his war experience led him to renounce his Roman Catholic faith and become an atheist. After the war, he joined the Communist Party. At 33, he become the youngest general in the Polish army.
Always punctilious about military discipline -- he was nicknamed "Boy Scout" -- he rose rapidly in the army and the party.
When shipyard workers in Gdansk went on strike in 1970, Jaruzelski commanded the soldiers sent into the city. The soldiers, however, did not attack citizens. The general was then quoted as saying: "Polish soldiers will not fire on Polish workers."
His spokesman said today that Jaruzelski "must relax a little bit" after he resigns and that he plans to write a book.