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Lech Kaczynski's death boosts his brother's fortunes

Jaroslaw Kaczynski's approval ratings soar as Poland's snap presidential election approaches.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, former Polish prime minister and brother of late President Lech Kaczynski, stands next to pictures of lawmakers killed in a plane crash during a memorial service at the parliament building in Warsaw, April 13, 2010. (Michal Zagumny/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Until recently Jaroslaw Kaczynski was one of the least liked and least trusted political figures in Poland. But following the tragic death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, and 95 others in a plane crash he has soared in the polls.

That could be of enormous help as the former prime minister, 60, has become a candidate to replace his dead brother in snap presidential elections scheduled for June 20.

Kaczynski was always the most obvious candidate to become the standard-bearer for the right-wing Law and Justice party he co-founded with his brother in 2001. He has ruled the party with an iron fist, pushing out any potential challengers to his leadership, with the result that the party has no other prominent figures who could make a credible run for the presidency.

Until the April 10 accident, Kaczynski was seen as a divisive figure who had been a controversial prime minister in 2006-2007. He had managed to insult most of his political opponents, and had damaged Poland’s relations with Russia, Germany and the European Union with his old-fashioned nationalism.

His brother Lech had a softer public image, but he was not seen as a particularly good president. Although Poland’s president is not nearly as powerful as his French and American counterparts, Kaczynski managed to weaken his office even more, first by deferring to his brother when he was prime minister, and later by engaging in frequent conflicts with Donald Tusk, the current prime minister, many of which he lost.

But his death in the April 10 air crash has changed that assessment. By dying on the way to the Katyn forest, where the Soviets executed thousands of Polish officers in 1940, Kaczynski has entered the pantheon of Polish national heroes, despite his accidental death. In a poll by the TNS OBOP organization taken a month before the crash, only 27 percent of Poles thought Kaczynski was doing a good job as president. A poll taken after the accident finds 52 percent now feel positively about the former president.

The same has happened to Jaroslaw Kaczynski. A new poll by the CBOS organization finds that he is one of Poland’s five most trusted politicians with 42 percent of those polled trusting him, a 13-point increase. The number of people distrusting him has also fallen dramatically, with only 28 percent having reservations about him — a 23-percentage-point improvement.

That wave of sympathy will be the foundation of Kaczynski’s run for the presidency; he has made it clear the main thrust of his campaign will be focused on the airplane crash and the death of his brother.