An inconclusive first round threw the question of the Polish presidency – to be decided in a 4 July run-off – wide open. To nobody’s surprise, Bronisław Komorowski of the governing Civic Platform (PO) beat Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński and leader of right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), into second place. His margin of victory was rather narrower than that promised by opinion polls, which seem to consistently overrate support for the party of the establishment and its candidates. So far, so predictable. But as usual, you have to read the fine print.
First, Komorowski’s 41.54 percent to Kaczyński’s 36.46 percent was something of a disappointment for the PO and its leader, Prime Minister Donald Tusk. In 2005, facing off against Lech Kaczyński, Tusk himself managed to win the first round by an even smaller margin of 3.2 percentage points before losing in the run-off by 8.1 points. Could the other twin repeat his fallen brother’s trick?
It now appears more likely than just a couple of weeks ago, but the election is still Komorowski’s to win. If he can hold on to the support won in the first round, Komorowski needs just two-thirds of the 13.68 percent votes that went to third-placed Grzegorz Napieralski of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) to guarantee a narrow victory. For all his new-found charm and moderation, Jarosław Kaczyński is hardly an obvious choice for the voters of the post-communist left. That has not, however, stopped him from trying.
After a spell in the political wilderness in the mid-1990s, Jarosław Kaczyński staged a comeback on the back of his brother’s stint as “the sheriff”, a tough-talking minister looking to crack down on corruption, which he blamed on residues of the former communist system. A cosy network of ties between politics, business, secret services and organised crime, dubbed “układ”, which loosely translates as “the deal”, was blamed for nigh on all of the country’s problems. So when, after the first round, he vowed never again to use the term “post-communism”, this came as something of a shock to his most ardent supporters. Right-wing commentators sounded the alarm that he might alienate his base without managing to win over Napieralski’s supporters. But such concerns may be misplaced. The secret of Kaczyński’s success has been his ability to move to the middle while retaining the loyalty of elderly followers of Father Tadeusz Rydzyk – the charismatic Redemptorist monk whose Radio Maryja seems to creatively adapt the talk-radio model of conservative U.S. hosts such as Glenn Beck.
Insensitive as it may sound, his twin brother’s tragic death provided Kaczyński with a golden opportunity to blunt his divisive image. The PiS leader seized the opening with both hands, appointing moderate Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and technocratic Paweł Poncyljusz – previously second-tier MPs and junior ministers in his cabinet of 2005-2007 – to front his campaign. Previously the voice of those left behind by Poland’s wrenching transformation from communism to (post)modern democracy, PiS has broadened its appeal to include people disaffected with the PO government’s perceived skirting of all hard choices and perceived obsession with spin and poll ratings.
For Komorowski, on the other hand, President Kaczyński’s sudden death proved a spoiler for his entire plan. Prior to the 10 April plane crash, the speaker of the Sejm (the powerful lower chamber of parliament) could have looked forward to an easy campaign, lambasting the incompetent incumbent. Shortly before his death, President Kaczyński was in Vilnius, a key destination for his foreign policy geared towards friendly relations with the United States, Israel and the countries precariously lying between Poland and Russia. During his visit, the Lithuanian parliament voted to reject a law that would end discrimination against the Polish minority there – a humiliation that would have provided just one example of the president’s ineffectiveness for Komorowski to exploit. Given the friendliness of most media outlets – except the PiS-controlled public television stations – the plan was likely to prove successful, perhaps delivering the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a run-off.
After the crash, and the outpouring of public emotion that followed, the vehemence of the elites’ dislike of President Kaczyński has sometimes proved a liability for his opponent. Personal attacks on the PiS leader, for faults ranging from childlessness and living alone with his mother and a cat to his (no longer evident) aggressiveness and paranoia, have seemed tasteless in the wake of his family tragedy.
Deprived of a core message, Komorowski has run a lacklustre campaign, blundering badly on a number of occasions. His slip-ups may have been minor embarrassments – such as calling for a “clear plan to walk out of NATO” when he meant Afghanistan – but together with the blandness of his message, they contributed to an impression of a directionless, purposeless candidacy.
But that may be a sign of a wider malaise afflicting the governing party. In 2005, the PO ran against corruption-tainted post-communists while promising to form a coalition government with PiS. When talks between the two parties broke down acrimoniously, the PO naturally gravitated towards the position of an establishment party. But the party’s moderately conservative outlook makes it a poor champion of the left-leaning elites – leaving its anti-PiS stance at the core of its identity. When President Kaczyński’s death blunted that edge, it left the PO with no apparent purpose but to hang on to power.
And that, paradoxically, seems to leave the PO – a radically pro-market, tough-on-corruption party in 2005 – at the mercy of the post-communist left to win the presidency in 2010. The SLD’s Napieralski managed to increase his support to nearly 14 percent at the booths from a mere three percent when he launched his candidacy just two months earlier. Somewhat unexpectedly finding himself a kingmaker, he subsequently declared that he was not backing either candidate.
When Lech Kaczyński managed to win over most of the other candidates’ supporters five years ago, he managed it by cleverly framing the run-off as a confrontation between two visions of Poland – solidarity (good) versus liberalism (bad). His twin brother will not be able to pull off a similar trick. And his strong showing in the first round may eventually work against Kaczyński. Many of Komorowski’s more affluent voters, who will be on holiday on the first weekend of July, may make an extra effort to vote wherever they find themselves. The race may look wide open – but in reality, one horse is still heavily favoured to win.
See also: Second Round of Campaigning Begins