Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Aleksander Kwasniewski, the man who helped lead Poland into the EU as president, is staging a political comeback in opposition to the country's ruling Kaczynski twins.
Kwasniewski, whose second term of office ended in 2005 and who is precluded by the constitution from running again, has become the head of the programme council for the Left and Democrats (LiD), a left-of-centre party that aims to encompass everyone from former communists to social democrats from the old Solidarity trade union.
He has even reconciled with Lech Walesa, the legendary Solidarity leader and independent Poland's first president, who, although he has not joined the party, is an open foe of the Kaczynskis, recently calling Lech, the president, an "S.O.B." and an "idiot."
Other prominent politicians involved in the new movement include Bronislaw Geremek, a former Solidarity foreign minister, as well as Dariusz Rosati, a Euro MP and an ex-communist foreign minister.
The ability to unite former ideological enemies, who have put aside their differences in order to oppose the Kaczynskis, makes Kwasniewski one of the most prominent political rivals of the twins and their ruling Law and Justice party. The goal is to build something akin to the Olive Branch coalition created by Italy's Romano Prodi, which united all the left-of-centre parties and in doing so gained power.
"The left can only rebuild itself if it moves beyond its core supporters," says Kwasniewski. The leading ex-communist party, the Democratic Left Alliance, ruled from 2001 to 2005, but was defeated in the last elections after being involved in numerous corruption scandals
Removing the platform
Kwasniewski's return also creates enormous danger for the largest opposition party, Civic Platform, which has been spinning its wheels ineffectually ever since the Kaczynskis came to power in late 2005. Civic Platform has the same anti-communist opposition roots as the ruling Law and Justice, and the two parties were supposed to form a coalition after the elections, a project that collapsed because of differences between leaders. However, the party is competing for many of the same voters as Law and Justice, which has made its opposition role difficult.
While Donald Tusk, the Civic Platform leader, often attacks the Kaczynskis, his party supports many of their ideas, such as lustration or opening the communist-era secret police files to expose people who were informants for the old regime. Civic Platform also backed the government during last week's EU summit, when the Kaczynski went to battle for a new European voting formula based on the square root of a country's population using the-less-than riveting slogan, "The square root or death!"
For many voters disaffected with the Kaczynskis, Civic Platform has been a natural destination. Opinion polls show it slightly ahead of Law and Justice, with a recent survey giving Civic Platform 31% to Law and Justice's 27%.
Although LiD is further back at 12%, Kwasniewski's presence could make the party much more attractive. He remains one of Poland's most-liked politicians. A recent survey found that 58% of those polled trusted Kwasniewski, while only 38% trusted Lech Kaczynski and 36% trusted Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the prime minister.
It was the left's corruption problems that helped bring Law and Justice to power, as it ran on a programme of bringing probity back to public life, exposing communist spies, ending the tradition of stuffing cronies into government jobs, and fundamentally restructuring the state. But many of those promises have not panned out, and there is rising disaffection with the Kaczynskis.
Playing the EU card
One of the greatest areas of traction for Kwasniewski's new party could be Poland's relationship with Europe. Opinion polls show that about 86% of Poles support their country's membership in the EU, the highest level in the bloc, while the government has a much more prickly relationship with Brussels.
Another is a response to the Kaczynskis frequent attacks on Polish institutions like the courts, the civil service, large businesses and the media, which have posed obstacles to their political revolution.
The common points of all the parties in the left-wing coalition will likely be defending democracy and the EU, says political scientist Kazimierz Kik.
Kwasniewski cautions his supporters that they face a steep climb to regain credibility and become a powerful force in Polish politics.
"In some respects we face a larger challenge than in 1990," says Mr Kwasniewski, referring to the time when the defeated Communist Party attempted to transform itself into a social democratic party.
Even so, Kwasniewski predicts that if things go well, the LiD could capture as much as a quarter of the vote in elections slated for 2009 - a result that would no doubt go down very well in Brussels.
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