Lech Walesa mixes it up

The hero of Solidarity says it would be a ‘disaster’ if Jaroslaw Kaczynski succeeds his dead brother as president

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

The strangest election in Poland’s post-Communist history took another wrong turn last week with the entry into the fray of famed anti-Communist Lech Walesa. The former Solidarity leader told Poles it would be a “disaster” if they elected Jaroslaw Kaczynski: identical twin of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president killed in an April plane crash.

“Kaczynski is an irresponsible and dangerous politician,” Walesa said, shattering the sympathetic calm that had blanketed the campaign. It launched mere weeks after the tragedy, which wiped out much of the country’s political and military elite. “We could pay a high price if he wins,” he added.

Walesa’s attack came hours after a first round of voting put Kaczynski just five per cent behind interim President Bronislaw Komorowski, who heads the Civic Platform party, which controls the legislature. Komorowski saw his once-formidable lead collapse as Kaczynski, his main rival and himself a former prime minister, earned a boost from public sympathy.

Kaczynski, who interrupted his final day on the campaign trail to visit his brother’s grave on their shared birthday, has undergone a dramatic change since his death. He’s lost weight and grown more sombre and pale. But the real change is political. Kaczynski leads the Law and Justice party he and his brother founded, and he’s long been seen as a reactionary, Euro-sceptic and populist bruiser. But he’s now pushing warm ties to Germany and Russia, and to have Poland added to the G20, a group he once mocked.

Walesa—an old Kaczynski foe—has also undergone a recent rehabilitation. He beat an ignominious retreat from the political scene after capturing just one per cent of the vote in presidential elections in 2000. But he was returned from the cold amid celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Poles were reminded of grander times, when Communism and Walesa ushered in the democratic future. Krzysztof Jasiewicz, a leading expert on voting behaviour and political change in Poland, says Walesa is again considered Poland’s most trusted statesmen. Although his impact on this election is “negligible,” Jasiewicz says his analysis is sound. He, too, figures Kaczynski’s transformation is skin deep.

Like Kaczynski, Komorowski is also a conservative, family-values Catholic. But he’s seen as the more pro-market and Euro-friendly of the two. Repeated gaffes have marred his campaign. In one case, Komorowski demanded that Poland pull out of NATO. He meant Afghanistan. The country, he said, should hold off joining the euro, then days later said they should quickly join. A joke about people from Krakow being cheap (an old Polish stereotype) fell more than flat. And his tendency to greet women by kissing them on the hand makes many groan. With neither candidate having secured an absolute majority, they’ll go head-to-head in a runoff vote on July 4.

A win for Kaczynski would mark a dramatic final chapter to this most unusual election. Although the odds are long, Jasiewicz, who’s been analyzing Polish elections for 30 years, isn’t writing him off. This one, he says, is too close to call.

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