Ryszard C., the 62-year-old former taxi driver who shot dead one activist of the main opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party and slit the throat of another, had set his sights higher. After his arrest, he demanded a press conference, shouting that he had wanted to kill PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, but his weapons had proved “too small”.
He may have taken his dislike of the former prime minister and the identical twin brother of President Lech Kaczyński, who died in an air crash in Russia this past April, further than most. But he was not alone in wishing the remaining twin dead: Janusz Palikot, then deputy chairman of the governing Civic Platform (PO) party, had mused on his blog that, were Jarosław Kaczyński to die by the New Year, it would make 2010 a really good year.
Small wonder, perhaps, that Kaczyński was quick to denounce the murder as the latest act in a hate campaign against his party, singling out Palikot as one of those responsible for the “Łódź murder”, so named after Poland’s second-largest city where it took place. Less obviously, he dated the beginning of this campaign to Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s sarcastic comment about “mohair berets”, the favoured attire of older ladies of lower-than-average incomes and above-average piety, as the symbol for PiS. Sartorial snobbery may not be the most commendable quality in a politician, but, surely, Kaczyński could have dug out stronger stuff. How about his own words that “our political opponents” now “stand in place of ZOMO”, the riot police of the 1980s martial law era, notorious for brutally beating and shooting peaceful pro-democracy protesters?
Indeed, Kaczyński rarely pulls punches. When he ran for president this summer, seeking to fill the post prematurely vacated by his deceased brother, his rhetoric was markedly softer and it seemed to deliver results: in a mere ten weeks, he managed to narrow the gap to Bronisław Komorowski, the PO candidate, from 20 percentage points to low single digits (and this takes as starting point the time just after his brother’s tragic death, when the sympathy effect would be at its strongest). But, rather than seeing the gain as impressive, Kaczyński concluded the softened rhetoric cost him a winnable election. He now denies ever approving his campaign strategy and says he was in no fit state to make such a decision due to the influence of strong tranquilizers.
An admission to running for the highest office in the land on debilitating drugs may not sound like the most promising start to recapturing political initiative after a lost election. Even some of his long-standing fans mourn Kaczyński’s apparent fixation on avenging all the slurs his twin suffered in life and, sadly, in death. This fixation has, pundits say, taken place of political strategy. But others think the PiS leader is playing the long game, hoping to capture both the presidency and parliamentary majority five years from now.
In the run-up to this year’s local government and next year’s parliamentary elections, Kaczyński’s belligerence seems to suit his opponents. When President Lech Kaczyński was alive, the government blamed him for its own unwillingness to address the country’s structural problems: even if it got important bills through parliament, the argument went, the president would veto them wholesale. So the government never bothered to push its visionary policies or so much as submit the bills. Now that the prime minister, president and speaker of Parliament all hail from the same party, the government can no longer claim to have a vision for Poland. The case it now makes to voters is simpler: if not us, then PiS will be in power. The less lovable Kaczyński sounds, the stronger PO’s argument.
But the PiS leader appears to believe that all-out confrontation between the main parties is in his long-term interest. Poland may have weathered the global financial crisis rather better than any other European country, but that was in large part through luck. Structural weaknesses remain and the government’s strategy is based on a willful failure to address them. So long as the PO expends all its energy on furious attacks on Kaczyński, his position as the only serious alternative will actually be strengthened. And, come the presidential and parliamentary ballots of 2015, an alternative will be desperately needed. After eight years in wilderness, the now-reviled winner will take all.
Whether this calculation works, it remains to be seen. What is clear now is that neither side is genuinely interested in reconciliation. This war of words will not, hopefully, claim any more victims in the real world. But cessation of hostilities is nowhere in sight.