Poland faces the mourning after

By bne IntelliNews April 20, 2010

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

Poland's nine-days of official mourning have come to a close following the national shock caused by the death of the president and many other senior officials in the April 10 air crash, but the political and economic effects of the catastrophe are only beginning to be felt.

On the economic front, the most direct impact was the death of Slawomir Skrzypek, the governor of the National Bank of Poland. Within hours of Skrzypek's death, the bank announced his place would be taken by his deputy, Piotr Wiesolek. However, legal questions quickly arose as to what powers he has. While Skrzyepk was nominated by the president and approved by parliament, Wiesiolek was not, so there are worries he doesn't have the legal authority to call meetings of the nine-member interest-rate setting Monetary Policy Council and to vote on the Council.

The Council has decided he does, and Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and acting president, has said he won't nominate a permanent successor if the bank seems to be functioning well. "I would rather not make a hasty decision, but if the legal opinion is that something has to be done, I will do it," Komorowski said in a radio interview.

Skrzypek had been a controversial choice to head the bank because of his lack of academic economic credentials; he was given the job mainly because he was a close political ally of Lech Kaczynski, the recently deceased president. However, Skrzypek ended up doing a reasonable job of managing the bank and of providing leadership during the economic crisis. His death came at a time when the Polish economy is doing well, after being the only EU country not to fall into recession last year. The banking system is stable and inflation is not yet a worry - meaning there is no pressure to rapidly increase interest rates. "The bank is not really undertaking any crucial decisions at the moment," says Janusz Jankowiak, a Polish economist.

At the time of Skrzypek's death, the bank was embroiled in a conflict with the government and some members of the Council over calls to pay out most of last year's profits into the government budget, which the government wants to do to reduce debt, but which Skrzypek was fiercely resisting. The nomination of a new central bank chief by Komorowski would likely reduce the conflict, because the nominee's views would probably be more closely aligned with those of the government.

The bank and the finance ministry also differed over whether Poland should apply for an extension of the $20.6bn flexible credit line provided last year by the International Monetary Fund. Skrzypek had been opposed.

Election time

The more immediate impact of the disaster is political, as the crash in Smolensk killed not only Kaczynski, but also many leading members of the right-wing Law and Justice party that he founded in 2001 with his twin brother Jaroslaw.

The crash also killed Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the presidential nominee of the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance, as well as some of that party's most prominent MPs. Under the constitution, acting-President Komorowski must set the date for early presidential election by April 21, and the date for the first round of elections will be June 20. He has waited as long as legally possible in order to allow both stricken parties to get through their mourning periods and begin to organise for elections.

Both face crucial decisions in the next few days - which will decide their fortunes for the next years.

Law and Justice (PiS) is a top-down party tightly controlled by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The party's only viable candidate for presidential elections originally scheduled for this autumn was his brother Lech. Now, there is growing pressure on Jaroslaw to take his dead twin's place, but Jaroslaw has a much more biting tongue and a huge negative electorate. He has even admitted in past interviews that he stands no chance of being elected president.

However, the loss he suffered, and his obvious pain as he walked behind his brother's casket during Sunday's pomp-filled state funeral, has created a wave of sympathy for him. "PiS is the closest to my views, and the party has to do something to ensure it wins the election," says Bozena Wojtas, as she watched a column of soldiers slowly march out of Krakow's mediaeval town square after Kaczynski's funeral.

The Democratic Left Alliance also has a dearth of potential candidates. There has been some talk of the party uniting behind an outside candidate, but that would further marginalise a party that has not yet recovered from a devastating 2003 corruption scandal that drove it from power.

That leaves Komorowski, the nominee of the ruling Civic Platform party, in the best position to take the country's top job. As the country's acting president, he has been giving speeches and presiding at the funerals that have captured Poland's attention. Although he is uncharismatic, and has not shown much emotion during a time of national grief, he has been sober and sensible - which may be enough to become president.

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