Poland's chief bruiser turns to hugs

WARSAW — During an economic downturn, Poles are looking for reassurance, not toughness.  So the combative opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has started broadcasting a message of love and equanimity.

The most obvious changes can be seen in the billboards now blanketing Poland’s cities. On them, the diminutive leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party is standing in front of a gauzy background, while one of the party’s female lawmakers dominates the picture, with the motto: “Deeds, not miracles.”

The new and cuddlier image marks quite a contrast from his traditional belligerence, a trait that made him a key political player for the last two decades, culminating in a yearlong stint as prime minister.

The earlier Kaczynski was the country’s political bruiser. He accused his opponents of being in cahoots with the communist-era police, and denounced the talks that led to a negotiated handover of power by the communists in 1989 as a sell-out because former party apparatchiks were not excluded from political and business life. He provoked Russia, offended Germany and insulted Brussels. Finally, he formulated the theory that Poland was dominated by a shadowy conspiracy he dubbed the “network,” a web of businessmen, criminals and former secret police officers who called the shots in politics and business.

He was surrounded by a cadre of tough lieutenants, many of whom, such as Kaczynski's self-dubbed "pit bull" Jacek Kurski and former justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, have lost legal cases provoked by their verbal attacks on political foes.

That bare-knuckles approach helped turn his aptly named Law and Justice party (PiS) into Poland’s leading political force in 2005, a time when the country was disgusted by the never-ending scandals of the outgoing government of the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance.

But after two years of fractious rule, Law and Justice lost parliamentary elections in 2007, and Kaczynski has been trying to find his footing ever since. Initially, he fiercely attacked the new government of Donald Tusk, the prime minster, while his twin brother Lech, the country’s president, wielded his veto pen with a fist, striking down more than a dozen government bills.

But being in total opposition to Tusk’s Civic Platform party didn’t work; PiS remained stuck at about a quarter of the electorate while Tusk, who had proclaimed a new politics of love and amity, had the support of about half of all voters.

The economic crisis that struck Poland late last year, and which is continuing to gather force, has changed the tone of Polish politics. Now no one wants to hear about spies and ex-communists — millions of Poles are worrying about losing their jobs, paying off mortgages denominated in fast-rising Swiss francs and nervously watching the zloty plumb new depths against the euro and the dollar.

A few weeks ago, Kaczynski retreated to a government villa and retooled, coming out with a softer image he hopes will garner him support beyond his hard core of older, rural and religious voters.

“A modern state, a modern economy, a modern nation,” Kaczynski proclaimed during a recent party gathering in a speech in which said he wanted to “calmly” reform the country. He talked of spending on research and development, computerization and competition, but steered clear of the conspiracy theories that had been a hallmark of past speeches.

The new Kaczynski is also making an obvious effort to restrain his temper. Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister, needled Kaczynski, who was absent during a speech to parliament about the state of the economy, saying: “If PiS wants to be a serious partner in battling the crisis, it can’t be that the theoretical future prime minister is not taking part in the debate.”

A enraged Kaczynski was prepared to storm back onto the floor of parliament, but calmed himself and did not respond to Rostowski’s jabs.

The smiling Kaczynski, surrounded by his three leading female lawmakers, has so far failed to make much of a breakthrough in public opinion. New polls show support for PiS and Civic Platform essentially unchanged.

“They are looking for a magic wand to immediately change Jaroslaw Kaczynski and make him acceptable to a wider public,” said Eryk Mistewicz, one of Poland’s leading political consultants. “But a credible and effective change is one that is subtle and not too obvious. They have to remember that they rose to power by offering a tough and radical program.”

While PiS isn’t making much progress in luring centrist voters, it may offend those who were first attracted by its radical and populist program. A new opinion poll showed that for the first time in two years the moribund nationalist League of Polish Families had registered above 5 percent in terms of support.

 

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