Poland yesterday farewelled the last of the 96 who perished in the Smoleńsk disaster, which claimed the lives of the president Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria Kaczyńska, and scores of important Polish officials. Although the official week of mourning came to a close more than 10 days ago, it is only today that the Polish people have started to move on to more pragmatic concerns.
With the shift comes the news that the President’s identical twin brother, and head of the opposition, Jarosław Kaczyński is now to run in the presidential elections. Of the four candidates who had originally planned to run for office in October, the only one who was not on board the ill-fated plane was Bronisław Komorowski, the now acting-President. Each of the other three candidates perished, including Lech Kaczyńśki, who had been seeking a second term. Jarosław Kaczyński has now stepped in to replace him as candidate.
Although approval ratings indicate that the centrist Komorowski is enjoying the support of more than half of Poland — twice as much as Jarosław Kaczyński — there is still concern that much may change in the next eight weeks. If the expedited June 20th elections require another round, they may coincide with Poland’s annual holiday period, taking away many the voters who would otherwise vote against Kaczyński and his right-wing Law and Peace party.
Sceptical of the EU, deliberately unco-operative with their Russian and German neighbours, the Kaczyński brothers maintained a nationalistic, pro-Catholic political line, with much of their support coming from rural, Catholic Poland. They were anti-abortion, homophobic and at odds with the EU’s stance on capital punishment. They actively pushed for the vetting of figures suspected of previous involvement with communist authorities — creating a powerful institution to look into such claims. The government lead by Jarosław Kaczyński in 2007 was so unpopular that it had to be dissolved, and new elections called.
Yet some worry that burying Lech Kaczyńśki on top of Wawel hill, an honour previously reserved for dead kings, poets and famous military figures, has only lead to the mythologising of a president who was himself deeply unpopular at the time of his death. Jarosław Kaczyński’s promise to continue his brother’s mission, in the capacity of president, as well as the eulogising at the hands of a powerful Catholic church, could secure Lech Kaczyńśki’s legacy as that of martyr, instead of failed politician.
Of similar concern is Komorowski’s pre-electoral role, which remains precarious. As speaker of the house, he automatically became acting-President after Kaczyński’s death. Although such a role carries all the same responsibilities as that of an elected president, he cannot be seen to be exercising political influence, especially with his Civic Platform party enjoying a majority in parliament. This, however, is not an easy balance to strike. Many important people perished alongside Lech Kaczyński, including the head of the Central Bank, the top army generals, and the director of the National Institute of Remembrance, all of whom the acting-President is now seeking to replace. For Komorowski, acting too little could be as dangerous as acting too much.
Despite the turmoil, the Polish public is optimistic. Although there are concerns Kaczyński may once more be elected, there is also hope that the Smoleńsk tragedy will herald a new period of politics. For a young democracy, whose political campaigns have often been littered with slander and litigation and who has recently suffered a great shock, a calmer, more diplomatic politics is now very much desired.