The Polish minefield

Karolina Gniewowska
22 September 2005

Most presidential campaigns resemble minefields. In Poland, there is a peculiar quality to the mines: post-communist Poland is familiar with the frequent accusations of collaboration with previous regimes and people are ruthless in their judgments of the candidates’ backgrounds. But the first thing they look for is erudition and stage presence.

At my primary school I was taught not to use Polish in the same way as our Nobel peace laureate, Lech Wałęsa. I remember my teacher exclaiming in horror: “Do you want to speak Polish or sound like our president?” Wałęsa’s errors and sayings were collected and published in mini-books as jokes. They were cruelly quoted and recycled as a party-piece. As a result, Wałęsa was never as popular and respected at home as he was abroad: Polish people just could not forget his lack of education.

Also about Poland’s politics and society in openDemocracy:

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s nervous ‘return’ to Europe” (April 2004)

Neal Ascherson, Pope John Paul II and democracy” (April 2005)

Neal Ascherson, The victory and defeat of Solidarność (September 2005)

Adam Szostkiewicz, “The Polish lifeboat” (September 2005)

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Aleksander Kwasniewski did not face that problem when he became president in 1995. He was a graduate in economics and was well spoken and knowledgeable. The nation, however, observed him closely. Not having found anything to disapprove of in his formidable intellect, people concentrated on his appearance. As a result he had to conduct a public fight against an expanding waistline, with national magazines publishing his diets and accusing him of using solariums to create a tan. The intense scrutiny extended to Kwasniewski’s wife, Jolanta, who at one point seemed likely to become Poland’s first female president.

Since the 1990s, this routine climate of suspicion and mockery in Poland has taken another turn. Sixteen months after their country joined the European Union, after witnessing an endless cycle of economic and political scandals, Polish people are simply fed up. Instead of the usual microscopic examination of all the political candidates, they turn off the TV whenever one appears. The two – formerly three – remaining figures in the presidential are in different ways disconnected from their compatriots even before the polling booths open.

Donald Tusk did not have an easy start in life. His grandparents were held in Nazi concentration camps and his father died while Donald was still in primary school. He joined the opposition at a very early age, while working as a labourer to support his family. He combines a political with a literary career, and has published several historical books about his native Baltic region. Tusk is the favourite to win as the 9 October election approaches, but remains – despite his “pedigree” narrative – an elusive, unapproachable figure to many.

Lech Kaczynski has been a public person from his very early years, when he and his twin brother Jarosław shared the leading roles in a famous 1962 children’s film, O dwoch takich, co ukradli ksiezyc (“About a Pair who Stole the Moon”). He became minister of justice in 2000 and successfully implemented stricter, anti-liberal reforms of the legal code. In 2002, he was elected mayor of Warsaw. His priority there was to eliminate corruption, especially the worryingly close connections between politicians and the capital’s business world.

Again, people accepted his bold approach – until he made the unforgivable decision to refuse authorisation for a homosexual parade in the centre of Warsaw. Young, more tolerant and open Poles believe that Poland was humiliated internationally that day – something a potential president should never allow.

Alongside these prominent current candidates is the cautionary tale of former centre-left prime minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. He has a doctorate in law and spent a year in the United States on a student exchange with an American university, so his level of education is enough to satisfy Polish voters. In the 1980s, the last decade of communist rule, he also immersed himself in agriculture, which might enable him to score points amongst the notoriously, perennially discontented Polish farmers. But Cimoszewicz fell from grace: first assailed by patriotic Poles because family relatives emigrated to the American Eldorado, he was then targeted by allegations that he had falsified his tax returns. Another possible president turned out to have feet of clay in the eyes of hypercritical Poles.

The heart of the problem

As interesting and varied as these characters are, do Poles know them well enough to choose any of them as their president?

Poles have been always demanding towards those aiming and claiming to represent them. Their forlorn, desperate search in the post-communist years for leaders who would live up to their ideals has left them hopeless. The people have been let down by virtually everyone who appeared in the Polish political arena: from Lech Walesa to Jerzy Buzek, from Leszek Miller to Marek Belka, and in the end to Aleksander Kwasniewski. After this bitter experience, what Poles are looking for this time is someone – anyone – they can trust.

An article about Angela Merkel (James Button, “The Reichstag stuff”, 17 September 2005) describes the leader of Germany’s CDU and possible next chancellor as distant, cold and distrustful, qualities attributed to her upbringing in communist East Germany, on the “wrong” side of the iron curtain. Does that also apply to people from my country?

In his openDemocracy article “The Polish lifeboat”, Adam Szostkiewicz concludes that “despite everything, we Poles still believe in democracy”. This is true, but empowering people with democratic rights when there is no trust on either side leaves a country a partial invalid.

Therefore, no political reform will enable Poland fully to become (Szostkiewicz again) “a proud member of the democratic family” unless Poles first free themselves from the communist mentality where everyone suspects everyone of betrayal, corruption and evil deeds. We must relearn how to trust our neighbours; then – maybe – we will be able to teach our politicians how to regain our trust.

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