The Smoleńsk air crash on April 10 2010 was reminiscent of 9/11. Not because of its scale, the number of people killed, its international significance nor the straightforward fact that this was an accident and not a deliberate attack. Rather it was similar because from that moment on it felt as though everything had changed – that politics in Poland would never be the same again.
During the week following the tragedy Polish society did what it does best during a time of crisis – it united. A nation grieved for the near 100 victims – from all sides of the political spectrum – who had fallen in an accident whose symbolism was all too evident. But within a week this had changed. Firstly, the media exceeded all boundaries of taste and responsibility, bombarding viewers with its endless coverage that verged on an exploitation of the tragedy. This was accompanied by some on the conservative right using the crash for their own political gain. The victims became 'martyrs' and on the edges of the political debate conspiracy theories were aired. However, the major rupture in society's unity came when it was announced that Lech Kaczyński would be buried in Wawel Castle, a place previously reserved for kings and national heroes.
Another political cloud hung over the mourning society. The Smoleńsk tragedy had inadvertently handed the ruling Citizens' Platform (PO) party almost total political power. Not only had the President of Poland been killed, but also high ranking figures such as the President of the National Bank of Poland died in the crash. When Lech Kaczyński was in the Presidential Palace some of the most liberal economic policies of the PO government had been vetoed – such as the proposal to 'commercialise' (it seems we're no longer able to say privatise) the health service. Lech Kaczyński was not from the left and his social rhetoric was generally just that – rhetoric. However, he – more so than his brother Jarosław – had often sought to win the support of sections of the left – as shown when he employed former Solidarity left-winger Ryszard Bugaj as one of his economic advisers. Therefore, although when in government his party the Law and Justice party (PiS) had forged ahead with a liberal economic programme, having Lech Kaczyński as President at least provided some political balance in circumstances where the left was virtually absent. With this equilibrium now destroyed, the neo-liberal vultures began to circulate and urge a speeding up of 'essential reforms'.
It was in this context that the presidential election campaign began. In the presence of terrible floods in many areas of the country the campaign started in an eerie and almost surreal atmosphere. Rather than PiS candidate Jarosław Kaczyński deploying his normal aggressive tone of conservatism, he adopted the language of conciliation and compromise. He built upon the personal sympathy that was felt for him and this seasoned political campaigner changed his political image almost beyond recognition. This pulled the rug from under his rival Bronisław Komorowski's feet. PO's political strategy had previously been to build upon the fear of a return of Jarosław Kaczyński and PiS to power – reminding the electorate about PiS's project of building a Fourth Republic in Poland (a project that PO incidentally had initially supported.) However, with Kaczyński now occupying the centre ground of the political discourse, Komorowski's campaign seemed unsure, unclear and full of self-inflicted errors.
As we move towards the second round of elections the farce intensifies. Two conservative right-wing parties are undergoing political gymnastics in an attempt to win the support of SLD voters. Kaczyński has announced that the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) are no longer 'post-communists' but rather just the left (sic) and that on economic issues PiS should be regarded as being left-wing. All this comes from someone who as Prime Minister had even suggested banning the SLD as a party and who had led an offensive against all those associated with the previous system. Concurrently, after months of denegrading the SLD leader Grzegorz Napieralski, PO are now trying to lure him by presenting themselves as being culturally liberal and hinting at the possibility of a future PO-SLD coalition government. Thankfully Napieralski has refused to back either of these two right-wing candidates in the second round of elections.
Both PO and PiS are desperately trying to draw a clear political line between themselves. Kaczyński is endeavouring to return to the political divide of 2005 and present PiS as being the party of the 'losers' of the transition and PO as representing the 'winners'. In recent days Komorowski has gone on an offensive against PiS – moving away from his previous tactic of spreading fear, to revealling alleged quotes made by Kaczyński when he was Prime Minister that he would support the eradication of EU subsidies for farmers in order to fund a European army. This is obviously potentially damaging for a candidate whose support comes mainly from the countryside. As an aside it is amusing to note how PO followed this up by claiming that PiS's alliance with the British Conservative Party in the European parliament is an example of how PiS align with political forces who are against agricultural subsidies. During the British election campaign the Tories were also attacked for their alliance with PiS.
On Sunday we shall know who the next President of Poland will be, which will then take us towards the parliamentary elections in 2011. One thing is for sure: the present farce in Polish politics is bound to continue as long as it is dominated by two parties from the conservative right.