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The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 17, 2010
Politics & Society
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Uncharted Territory
June 17, 2010   
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Sociologist Andrzej Rychard, a professor at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, talks to Witold Żygulski about the upcoming presidential election.

The campaign ahead of this year’s presidential election is the shortest and most peculiar one of all Polish election campaigns since communism fell in 1989. What else can we expect will happen?
I believe the campaign has only just begun. So far, it was overshadowed by the sense of overwhelming grief that set in across Poland after the tragic air crash near Smolensk April 10. To begin with, the mourning had a major impact on Jarosław Kaczyński, the presidential contender from the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which explains why he kept such a low profile during the first weeks of the campaign. The general atmosphere was also the reason behind the passivity of lower house speaker Bronisław Komorowski, who is running with the support of the senior coalition partner, Civic Platform (PO), and who has been acting president since the crash. Komorowski kept searching for a way to make his mark on the election campaign, but the atmosphere of national mourning made the task all the more difficult for him. I believe the time is up and the two hopefuls can no longer afford to take part in the campaign without getting involved in it personally.

The novelty of it all is that nobody can really tell what the race is going to look like. If Komorowski were competing against the late President Lech Kaczyński, it would be clear what kind of debate to expect. Komorowski and the PO would be focusing on criticizing Lech Kaczyński’s presidency, while Kaczyński and his political allies would be using their value system and ideas to appeal to voters.

The way it stands, nobody knows how Jarosław Kaczyński will project himself in the campaign, to what extent he will do what [his twin brother] Lech did and how and what new elements will be added to it all. This sense of uncertainty is the most prominent in the attitude of the PO which, somewhat nervously, claims that Jarosław Kaczyński’s current image as a quiet and serene politician is not his true face. PO leaders are calling on Kaczyński to reveal his true face and I take these calls as a sort of wish for Kaczyński to be the man the PO is familiar with and knows how to deal with. Uncertain of what Kaczyński will be like in the campaign, the PO finds it more difficult to convey its own message to voters.

Politicians and voters have been familiar with the views of Jarosław Kaczyński since at least 2005, when PiS won the parliamentary and presidential elections. What new traits of character can emerge now that he is running for president?
As a matter of fact, Kaczyński does not need any new catch phrase to win supporters. That is his advantage over his late brother, who would have had to find a slogan if he were running for president. The “Fourth Republic of Poland” slogan, which stood for radical reforms of the state founded on moral revival—which in practice meant strong centrist shifts—turned out to be hardly successful and, if anything, it would embolden Jarosław Kaczyński’s opponents today. I seriously doubt Jarosław Kaczyński will make generous use of this slogan in his addresses to voters. I think his main message will be that he aims to carry out the political ideals and plans of his late twin brother. The apparent social and moral movement triggered by the Smolensk tragedy seems to be a sufficient factor to bring people together. I expect this to be coupled with a touch of tranquillity in Kaczyński’s image and something about social solidarity. I believe that could do.

The PO, in turn, lacks such a clear-cut message and so it will be interesting to see what happens on their side of the political spectrum. I must say I find the PO’s current attitude totally unclear. The thing they like doing best and can do best is instigate fears of the Fourth Republic of Poland among the public, but that is not enough in the present situation. It is like chasing shadows when the opponent is ducking blows that are dealt somewhat blindly. If the PO wants to succeed, it has to understand it is no longer dealing with Lech Kaczyński. All the PO needed to do when he was president was to intensify the existing fear of Lech Kaczyński.

Furthermore, the public’s support for the PiS contender is much stronger at present than it was just two months ago, because the general public primarily considers the Smolensk crash a tremendous loss for PiS, even though we all know that PiS was not the only party to lose its people in the disaster. The PO thus has to come up with a message of its own, which I believe could be derived from the fact that the PO candidate is already acting president who is making important decisions for the country. As such, Komorowski is capable of clearly defining his identity in politics. He has made his own decision about the National Remembrance Institute [by signing a bill to reform the institute, a piece of legislation that PiS strongly opposed], which, without going into the details, was a good move that made him come across as an independent politician with a distinct image. I believe he needs to make more such decisions and his political associates should back him in his decisions. According to some observers of Polish politics, this support is not evident enough.

The presidential race seems to be dominated by two contenders, but the State Election Commission has registered 10 hopefuls. Can the other eight play any role and if so, what role will that be?
Opinion polls are merciless to the other eight candidates, more clearly than in previous presidential elections. None of them scores more than 10 percent in the polls, and few manage more than 5 percent. None of them seems to be able to tell the public why they should be considered a serious choice in the first place. I do not suppose any of them will play a major role. Not even Grzegorz Napieralski [leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD)] or Waldemar Pawlak [leader of the Polish People’s Party (PSL)] could have hoped to win or even make it to the second round when they decided to run. I would rather say they are in the race for their parties’ sake, in a bid to consolidate their groups and make them visible.

Today, you can only speculate if there will be a runoff. I believe there will, but you could hardly think of any other two contenders than Komorowski and Kaczyński in the second round.

What will happen, then, to the votes cast for the other eight candidates? Who will be able to count on these votes in the second round?
Those supporting the SLD and PSL will probably vote for Komorowski, but that should not be taken for granted, because some of these voters seem to have a strong preference for social welfare ideals. PiS may attract some of those people if it starts waving the flag of protecting citizens against the PO’s “wild liberalism.” But then again, the political reality of Poland is that the PO cannot fully convince the electorate that Jarosław Kaczyński will bring back the Fourth Republic of Poland, while PiS will fail at trying to label the PO as diehard liberals.

What will happen if Komorowski wins—the most likely scenario according to the polls?
If Komorowski wins, then after an initial euphoria, the PO will have to wake up and face the sober reality, because then there will be nobody left to hinder bills drafted to reform the economy and politics. Previously, these reforms could not enter into force because they were obstructed by President Lech Kaczyński. The new situation will be a test for the PO, because whatever happens in the PO-dominated administration, whatever errors and blunders are made, it all will be attributed to the government and that will make it difficult for the PO to retain high public support before next year’s parliamentary elections. But then again, the PO will get an opportunity to really make a difference, provided it really wants to carry out far-reaching reforms.

If Kaczyński wins, on the other hand, little will change for the PO. The party will again have to come to terms with difficult cohabitation with a president from an opposition party. It will be the very same cohabitation which the PO faced after the fall of 2007, when it won the parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government with the PSL. Obviously, Komorowski’s defeat would be a serious publicity blow to the PO after Prime Minister Donald Tusk chose not to run for president himself and instead put forward another strong candidate—an almost hands-down winner in the polls. If that man lost in the second round, the defeat would be particularly painful and take its toll on the PO’s ratings.

But the situation of PiS would be quite complicated as well. Sure, the PiS contender would become head of state, but at the same time he would have to quit as PiS leader. Jarosław Kaczyński is one of the key links if not the only link that holds PiS together and if he had to quit for formal reasons, PiS would have to redefine its image and that might even put a political end to the party.

Will the outcome of the presidential elections change the way Poland is seen abroad?
That will depend on how the hopefuls project themselves in the campaign and how the media portrays them. I am curious to see to what extent the media will exploit clichés such as “a liberal candidate from a liberal, pro-European party” with reference to Komorowski and “the candidate of a conservative and strongly Euroskeptic party” when they refer to Kaczyński. Such clichés influence the public, but I must say they are not entirely true, because Komorowski is not that liberal nor is Kaczyński so conservative.

I believe the reserve towards Poland would be greater if Kaczyński won than if Komorowski did, because the international community would recall the things that Jarosław’s brother Lech did which were criticized by the media abroad. However, Europe has to ask itself the question if its own conduct is really about solidarity and unity. The recent [financial and economic] crisis shows it is not, which may win Kaczyński some support for his Euroskeptic views. One way or another, I do not believe Poland’s perception abroad will change dramatically.

As far as Jarosław Kaczyński is concerned, I can think of a much more serious question, namely, what lies ahead for a country led by a man who has been through such an immense personal tragedy? That is what makes me feel most uncertain.
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