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Poland's chief bruiser turns to hugs

Opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski fashions message of reassurance for financial crisis.

A banner of Poland's prime minister and leader of PiS (Law and Justice) Jaroslaw Kaczynski is taken down from a building in Warsaw Oct. 30, 2007. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

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.