As Poles prepare to go to the polling booths this Sunday, any hopes of having an election resting on questions about Poland’s future are quickly fading. It will be the Smolensk plane crash, which took the lives of the president Lech Kaczynski and 95 of the country’s civic leaders in April , as well as the present unabating flood waters, which will dictate who will become Poland’s next president.
Although there are 10 official candidates, only the centrist Bronislaw Komorowski, and the right-wing Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the late president’s twin brother — are considered viable options.
It is with Komorowski and Kaczynski that we can see how the two catastrophes could potentially affect results. Whereas the Smolensk disaster mainly evoked images of smartly clad Warsaw-based mourners, the floods brought images of a Poland populated by poverty-stricken farmers, trying to push back the heaving sandbags as the Vistula river started to break its banks. This is Kaczynski’s deeply religious electorate, a demographic easily mobilised by the church and demonstrating a higher voter turnout than elsewhere. It is a demographic he also has a long-standing relationship with, and whom he often addresses in his politics. Often delivering pathos-laden, symbolic speeches, Kaczynski has a natural rapport with the voters who are now seeking answers.
Compare this with Komorowski, who although considered responsible, is also regarded as a relatively uncharismatic leader. This combined with his predominantly nouveau-riche electorate, which, although sympathetic to his liberal Civic Platform party, are generally too blase to go to the polls, could lead to Kaczynski having a strong advantage. More significantly, the high likelihood that a second round will be called in July (a candidate must receive at least 50% of the votes to become president in the first round) will only further complicate Komorowski’s chances, as much of his electorate will be overseas on holiday. Were it not for the accident in Smolensk, the elections would have been held in September.
A second round would also give Kaczynski the opportunity to gain ground, as he has steadily been doing since announcing his intention to run, after Smolensk. It was incidentally his increasing popularity that, in turn, kept the Civic Platform-led government from calling a state-of-emergency to alleviate the flood crisis. Had it been called, the elections would have had to be pushed back a further 90 days — a potentially disastrous move for Komorowski.
Realistically though, Komorowski’s party is in a bind. The chaotic nature of Poland’s infrastructure and completely unregulated housing zones cause floods such as this at least once a decade. But political memory is short in Poland, and it is the present government that is being pilloried for the damage. Furthermore, not calling a state-of-emergency to help those who lost their homes could be politically disastrous in a different way altogether.
Komorowski is not helped by the fact that he was already trying to strike a balance between not acting too much, and not acting too little. As the speaker-of-the house, he automatically became acting-president after Lech Kaczynski died, a role that automatically left him open to criticism — for having too much political sway, or not enough. These may not be deciding factors on Sunday, though, as it is likely that Komorowski will win the first round. These factors may be more telling in the month to come.
After the financial crisis in Greece, Poland would do well to concentrate on positioning itself as an economically and politically sound country — the rest of the EU will now approach new economies such as Poland more tentatively. Before Smolensk, questions about Poland’s place in Europe were at the centre of the original presidential campaign. Neither Komorowski nor Kaczynski’s political campaigns reflect these concerns now. Instead, the media has started calling it the “nothing-said campaign” — with neither able to to show too much zeal or enthusiasm after Lech Kaczynski’s death. Instead, it will be the continued fall-out from Smolensk and the floods that will continue to propel the campaign forward.