Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Physically, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's right-wing opposition Law and Justice party, looks unchanged. But mentally, his party's candidate for Poland's presidency appears to be a completely different man - which is causing growing problems for the ruling Civic Platform party.
Until recently, Kaczynski was one of the least trusted politicians in the country, saddled with the odium of his 2005-2007 stint as prime minister when prosecutors ran wild trying, unsuccessfully, to validate his theory that the country was in the thrall of spies, criminals and bent politicians. But all that changed on April 10, when a Polish government aeroplane crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk killing 96, including Kaczynski's twin brother Lech, Poland's president.
Lech Kaczynski was less unpopular than his brother, but he was widely seen as a failed president, and polls showed that he had negligible chances of being re-elected for a five-year presidential term in the election originally scheduled for this autumn. But his tragic death on the way to pay homage to thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in 1940 suddenly turned him into a national martyr - he even lies buried in the crypts of Krakow's Wawel cathedral, the resting place of Polish kings and heroes.
Now it has become bad form to express any criticism about Kaczynski's presidency, which in reality was marked by constant conflicts with the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, frictions with Brussels, Berlin and Moscow, and overt support for his brother's political party. This aura of sainthood has been strongly supported by the powerful Catholic Church, as many senior prelates are ideologically closer to the Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS), and its potent mix of Catholicism and nationalism, than the PM's more secular and centrist Civic Platform. A fragment of the presidential Russian-built Tu-154 airliner has even been incorporated into the vestments of Poland's holiest icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
The most obvious beneficiary is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has become the PiS candidate for president in the June 20 election, as he has been able to soften his image. Now, instead of a confirmed bachelor, he has become a family man, going for tender walks with his dead brother's daughter. Instead of the combative Russophobe of the past, he has become a grandfatherly figure reaching out to Poland's historical enemies in a televised address to the Russians that had him uncharacteristically wearing glasses as he talked of how a Russian soldier had saved his father during the war.
Because of his loss, as well as the hours he spends by the bedside of his ill mother every day, Kaczynski has been spared the scrutiny that normally applies to politicians. The state media, controlled by a bizarre alliance of fervently anti-communist PiS and the former communists of the Democratic Left Alliance, enthusiastically sings Kaczynski's praises, while private TV channels are circumspect about criticising him. Kaczynski has made very few public appearances, preferring to communicate through his personable female campaign chief, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska. That has been a big advantage for a politician who has traditionally made inflammatory and controversial comments in almost every interview.
While Kaczynski has become quiet and mild-mannered, his parliamentary party has been on the warpath, accusing the government of kow-towing to the Russians in the investigation of the causes of the plane crash, while the public media make dark insinuations about possible Russian involvement in the accident. The resulting one-two punch has completely disoriented Civic Platform and its presidential candidate Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and acting president.
Komorowski is an uncharismatic man, and some have criticised his restrained approach to the period of national mourning that followed the air crash. He even promised that he would not actively campaign for president, concentrating instead on his tasks as acting head of state. But that restraint is being punished in the opinion polls.
While a few weeks ago, Komorowski was seen as winning outright in the first round of presidential elections on June 20, new polls have shown Kaczynski catching up. A May poll from Gfk Polonia showed Komorowski with 41%, while Kaczynski has 28%, meaning that Komorowski's advantage had narrowed by 8 percentage points in the previous two weeks. So far, all polls show Komorowski winning in the second round set for July 4, but the formerly overwhelming gap is narrowing.
For Civic Platform, the situation is uncomfortably reminiscent of the 2005 elections, where Tusk was ahead in the polls but ended up being defeated by Lech Kaczynski. Komorowski is now pledging to begin a real election campaign, and Tusk, the most popular politician in the country, is entering the fray, strongly backing Komorowski. "The future of the country depends to a greater degree than a few years ago on who wins these presidential elections," Tusk said recently, adding that a Kaczynski victory "would complicate the situation in Poland."
The problem for Civic Platform is how to conduct an aggressive campaign without falling afoul of the country's mood of sadness and introspection, while Kaczynski shows that he is taking full advantage of the new environment.
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