Polish presidential election: a welcome end to a strange campaign

This has been the strangest political campaign anyone can remember, and no one, from any political faction in Poland, will be sorry to see it end.

The campaign has been strange because of its timing: under normal circumstances, no one would hold an election on what is, in effect, the first weekend of summer vacation. Nor would anyone hold an election just a few weeks after heavy rains caused major flooding throughout the country.

But July 4 is polling day because the Polish constitution said it had to be.

Following the death of the former president, Lech Kaczynski, in a tragic and uncanny plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, last April, the government was obliged to hold early elections, and Saturday is the day required.

The campaign has also been strange because of its participants – or rather because of one of its participants. Were it not for that plane crash, the late president would be running for re-election. Instead, his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is running in his place.

“Jarek” took the decision to carry on the family legacy at an extraordinary moment: after the crash, and after several weeks of national mourning, funerals and memorial services, not only for his brother but also for some 90 other politicians and public figures on board the president’s plane, many of whom he knew as well.

As a result, this election has had a peculiarly sombre air. Instead of the normal back and forth one would expect in a national campaign, the candidates have kept insults to a minimum. Major conflicts have been avoided. Accusations of treason and corruption never materialised. Although it is almost de rigeur in Polish politics to claim that one knows of the existence of compromising material in one’s opponents’ old communist police files, that kind of negative campaigning has emerged only on the margins of this election.

This funereal public atmosphere has put Kaczynski’s opponent, Bronislaw Komorowski, in a difficult position. Komorowski is the acting president and a member of the centre-right Civic Platform, the ruling party in Poland.

He has also been leading in most polls, was the victor during the first round of this presidential election, and defeated my husband, the Polish foreign minister, in party primaries last winter.

Nevertheless the tone of his campaign has been far from assertive or victorious. On the contrary, his language and his campaign slogan – “I build agreement” – have been kept deliberately mild. Clearly he has been trying not to sound too much like a critic of the dead president, even while carefully criticising his identical twin.

But Kaczynski, the bereaved twin brother, has trodden even more softly. He is trying not to sound – well, trying not to sound too much like himself. For here is another oddity of this election campaign: though no one much said so during the aftermath, the late President was extremely unpopular at the time his plane crashed.

His twin, who was prime minister of Poland for a brief but tumultuous term in 2006 and 2007, was even more widely disliked.

Both were known for their divisive tactics, for their abrasive language, for their general suspicion of foreigners and for their downright aggressive attacks on both Germany and Russia.

Since the Smolensk crash Jaroslaw Kacznyski has, he says, reinvented himself. His official slogan is even more deliberately dull than that of his opponent (“Poland is the Most Important”) and his unofficial argument requires a leap of faith: “Vote for me, because I have changed.”

His tactics have been restrained, his rhetoric limited. He has given few interviews, though he has made deliberate exceptions for a German newspaper, Die Welt, and for Russian television, as if to show he has no more hard feelings.

He hasn’t made many public appearances and he hasn’t said much about his opponent. In fact, he hasn’t said much at all, not even about the Smolensk crash, although there have been symbolic allusions to that event. Marta Kaczynska, the daughter of the late president and the late first lady, has appeared at her uncle’s side on a number of occasions, as if to remind voters of the tragedy.

When he does talk, Kaczynski sounds less like the right-wing radical he is reputed to be, and more like the left-wing ideologues against whom, as a member of the anti-communist opposition, he theoretically fought for so many years.

Hard though this will be for British voters to understand, Kaczynski, though usually described as “far right” and “Eurosceptic” in fact represents a peculiar form of anti-liberal, statist populism. He favours state interference in the economy, treats the word “privatisation” like a slur and threatens to veto liberal economic reforms.

In the past few days, he lavished some kind words on one of Poland’s former Communist Party secretaries, hinting at his admiration for the “authoritarianism with a human face” which Polish communists tried to propagate in the 1970s.

Like his late brother, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Gordon Brown last year, Kaczynski seems quite keen on raising state expenditures too.

And not only Poland’s state expenditures: during the second television debate on Wednesday night, he called for larger payments to Polish farmers from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, a position which probably doesn’t sound very “Eurosceptic” to British ears.

It will be even more difficult, however, for British voters to understand why Kaczynski’s relationship with the British Conservative party has also been an issue in this election.

For reasons best known to himself, David Cameron decided to receive Kaczynski in London last week, during the last week of the Polish campaign. For Kaczynski, this was a major coup: it allowed him to claim “support” from the Tory party for his campaign, and helped underline his “new” friendly attitude to foreigners.

I’m not sure what it did for Cameron, since – beyond the fact that he and Kaczynski are members of the same fraction in the European parliament – I don’t see that they have too much in common.

Never mind: perhaps it is best to treat that strange meeting as another odd twist in a campaign which has only grown odder as it has reached its conclusion.

Komorowski has the backing of the still-popular government. But Kaczynski has won much sympathy for his personal tragedy. Neither one of them has really had the heart to attack the other, or even to sing his own praises, as politicians usually do.

Because this is not a normal election, it may well not have a normal outcome, and I am not going to predict who will win.

I will join the rest of country, however, in feeling a deep sense of relief when it is over at last.

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