WARSAW, Poland — The opening shot in Poland's upcoming parliamentary elections was fired not over budget deficits or foreign policy but over death — specifically the death of Lech Kaczynski, Poland's president, in an air disaster over Smolensk, Russia, a year ago.
This month Poland has been consumed with commemorations of the crash that killed Kaczynski and 95 others as their Russian-built Tu-154 airliner plowed into the ground on the foggy morning of April 10, 2010. But while the official government commemorations have been somber affairs with speeches by dignitaries and soldiers standing tall, other ceremonies were altogether wild.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the presidential palace in central Warsaw waving flags and carrying photographs of Kaczynski and his wife. In the crush to lay flowers in front of the palace, members of parliament from Kaczynski's right-wing Law and Justice party jumped over crowd-control barriers and got into shoving matches with police. Meanwhile the crowd yelled “Gestapo” at the officers.
“No matter what the cause of the accident was, what was responsible for the airplane crashing, from what we know we can say today that they were betrayed at dawn,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the dead president's twin brother and leader of the opposition, told the wildly enthusiastic crowd.
It was the opening shot in the campaign for parliament this October. His party has been winning about 30 percent of the vote in recent contests, but if Kaczynski can stir emotions he might also stir up a larger turnout than the half of the electorate that usually shows up at the polls.
The effect of his efforts is already apparent.
The night before the anniversary, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the sprawling Russian embassy, waving signs accusing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the crash and Donald Tusk, Poland's premier, of being a Russian puppet.
“In the October elections we have to elect a new, true Polish government,” yelled Andrzej Melak, a Law and Justice politician. “Then we can re-open the investigation [into the crash] and those responsible for the tragedy can be sent to court and punished.”
The crowd then moved up the hill to the residence of Poland's current president, Bronislaw Komorowski, chanting for him to be sent to Moscow, and then further up the road to Tusk's office, where they cried, “Tusk to court!”
Later, Law and Justice activists got into fights with opponents at the foot of Poland's ancient Wawel royal castle in Krakow, the burial place of Polish kings and of Kaczynski.
The division in the nation is mirrored by a split in Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church. While one archbishop said that, a year after the crash, it was time to stop mourning — a sentiment that earned him an attack from the ostensibly pro-church Kaczynski — other clerics have embraced the mythology of Lech Kaczynski as the latest in a long line of Polish martyrs to be put to death for the Polish cause.
Commenting on the fuss over an unapproved memorial plaque at the crash site, which was removed by Russian authorities, a priest in Czestochowa, the site of Poland's holiest shrine, called the move, “a knife stabbed in the heart of the nation,” while other priests have used their sermons to denounce Tusk and Komorowski for lack of patriotism.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski's slashing attacks are already provoking some push-back.
Lech Walesa, the legendary Solidarity labor union leader who helped bring down communism in Poland, called Kaczynski's speech, “the babbling of a crazy man.”
“It is sick,” said Walesa, a longtime foe of the Kaczynskis. “Kaczynski is an anarchist who does not respect elections. He's making fun of people and the electorate.”
That sentiment was echoed by Aleksander Smolar, a respected political scientist, who called Kaczynski's language the equivalent of a “verbal civil war” that is meant to incite hatred for political rivals by treating them as traitors.
So far Tusk has been relatively circumspect in the face of Kaczynski's attacks. His government had been sagging in opinion polls a couple of months ago thanks to a controversial plan to reform the pension system in order to shore up public finances. Many middle-class supporters were also feeling a sense of letdown over the government's caution in undertaking needed but politically difficult reforms.
However, those same supporters are terrified of Jaroslaw Kaczynski regaining power, remembering his divisive spell as prime minister, which ended in 2007. A new opinion poll shows Tusk's Civic Platform party with 44 percent support, while Law and Justice is second at 24 percent.
Kaczynski has to play a careful game of mobilizing his own electorate while not driving even more people in Tusk's direction — and so far the excitement seems to be on his side.
“This isn't the Poland I fought for 30 years ago during Solidarity. I want a patriotic government that reflects my values,” said Aleksandra Walczak, a middle-aged woman waving a Polish flag outside the presidential palace.