Poland's unique election

The choice of a successor to the president killed in the "second Katyn" tragedy was always going to be an emotionally and politically complex process. The result suggests that the Poles and their institutions have passed both tests, says Adam Szostkiewicz.
Adam Szostkiewicz
13 July 2010

Elections even in mature democratic countries can be bitter affairs that leave the society more fragmented than before. Not so in the Poland of 2010. This time it was more of a national rite than a tough political contest. At least in the beginning. And the beginning was unique.

On 10 April 2010, the country’s president Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in Russia on the way to a ceremony in Katyn where he was to honour 22,000 Polish military officers murdered in April 1940 by Stalin’s security-police. This alone would have made the incident a national tragedy, but the grief was magnified by the death alongside the president of his   wife Maria and almost a hundred Polish dignitaries representing various public institutions and political factions. The sudden, unimaginable loss of so many respected figures from Poland’s state elite - who were in the very act of preparing to commemorate an earlier such trauma - was a moment of profound - collective and individual - bereavement.

Poles in their millions solemnly bid farewell to the fallen of the “second Katyn” in a series of dignified state funerals and other Catholic church-led rituals of national mourning. As they did so, Polish public life and institutions were presented with an unprecedented test: how to return quickly and smoothly to normal functioning after the death of the president, his entourage, and the chief commanders of the Polish armed forces. Polish politics too was in turmoil, in particular because two leading candidates in the presidential election already due in October 2010 had perished in the crash: Lech Kaczynski himself (the incumbent, elected in September 2005 and seeking re-election), and Jerzy Szmajdzinski of the Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left Alliance / SLD).

The Polish constitution specifies that the choice of a new president is a decision for the Polish people as a whole. The sudden vacuum in the highest state office had thus to be filled, with an election scheduled (in two rounds) for 20 June and 4 July 2010. 

A people’s choice

The overall constitutional arrangement is rooted in the Polish transition of 1989 and after, when an agreement between the Solidarity movement and the communist authorities that had ruled the country since 1945 paved the way to the re-establishment of a liberal democracy and market economy. The idea of the president being chosen by the people in a direct vote was somewhat at odds with the notion of limiting presidential powers, and contrasted with procedures in other democratic states (for example, Germany - and indeed in pre-1939 Poland) where the president was elected by parliamentary representatives; but the Poles preferred this option after more than four decades of unfreedom during the so-called “people’s republic”.

The impending presidential contest took shape around the respective rival figures of Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the twin brother of the deceased president) and Bronislaw Komorowski (the speaker of the Sejm [lower chamber of parliament] and the choice of the ruling Platforma Obywatelska [Civic Platform / PO] party of prime minister Donald Tusk). The campaign’s early days, even weeks, were overshadowed by the tragedy that had occasioned it - and the virtual absence of electioneering made it as untypical for a liberal democracy as can be imagined.  

The days after the tragedy had already seen the eruption of a controversy with political reverberations: over the decision to bury Lech and Maria Kaczynski in Wawel castle, Krakow, the historic resting-place of Polish monarchs. It was inevitable, then, that as the first voting-day approached so political argument would more and more regain its rightful place at the election’s heart.

A debate stifled

The pro-Kaczynski camp had the unsought advantage of popular sympathy following the “second Katyn”. They also had the advantage of commanding the dominant public narrative of what had happened and of how it was to be understood. Here, a clear “discursive” as well as political contrast became apparent, broadly reflecting two strands of Polish national tradition, as the religious, romantic and messianic tones of the Jaroslaw Kaczynski campaign overwhelmed the pragmatic, secular, and reformist rhetoric of the Bronislaw Komorowski side. 

The dead president, who had been highly unpopular before the crash and faced very likely defeat in his re-election effort, suddenly became the martyred icon of the pro-Kaczynski current. Jaroslaw Kaczynski sought to capitalise on the mood by announcing a radical change of political image: his populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość [Law & Justice / PiS]) party - which had been in power for two years from September 2005 and grown increasingly unpopular in the process - was now all in favour of national reconciliation and the cooperation of Poland’s main political forces for the entire society’s benefit. The Civic Platform, hidebound by the inhibition in Polish culture against saying bad things about the dead, found it difficult to adapt to this new challenge. The effect was to an extent to stifle legitimate public debate.

A political opening

In the last days of the campaign, however, prime minister Donald Tusk took the initiative in confronting the Kaczynski campaign, noting that the PiS’s newly benign political facade left its core beliefs unchanged. The PO and the PiS in fact share centre-right leanings, but they lean different ways: Tusk towards Europe, an open society and social-market economy, the PiS towards a centralised state that exploits popular emotions, champions national interests and proclaims its defence of the marginalised and excluded. It is telling here that the PO joined the European People’s Party (EPP) faction in the European parliament, while the PiS opted for the hardline Conservative Reformist faction (along with Britain’s now-ruling Conservatives).   

The approach of the first-round vote saw the PiS, its media supporters and the church launch strong attacks on Bronislaw Komorowski. They failed to prevent this practicing Catholic and former Solidarity activist from winning a clear victory: by 41.5% to 35.6% on 20 June (in a field of ten candidates), and by 53% to 47% in the runoff with Jaroslaw Kaczynski on 4 July.

The “second Katyn” showed democratic Poland’s constitutional and political maturity, and the country’s capacity for national unity in times of crisis. Its aftermath confirmed that deep political divisions remain. Bronislaw Komorowski, the new president, now has the opportunity to heal wounds, mend fences, and take Poland forward.  

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