Lech Kaczynski's death boosts his brother's fortunes

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.

In his statement last week declaring his candidacy, Kaczynski said: “The tragically ended life of the President of the Republic, the deaths of the elite of patriotic Poland, means one thing for us: We have to continue their mission.”

What was striking was that Kaczynski did not make a public appearance on the day he declared his candidacy, leaving the task of giving interviews to his campaign manager, the affable Joanna Kluzik-Rostowska. Kaczynski has been obviously deeply shaken by the loss of his brother and many of his closest political allies, but a better reason to keep him in the background is his ability to rapidly inflame public opinion.

He already did that in his statement where he called on support from “true Poles and true Poland,” which analysts worried was a return to his divisive language of the past, where he has tended to segregate his supporters as true Poles, and lump his political opponents with enemies of the state.

Kaczynski might get some help from Polish public television, which is under the control of an exotic coalition of two opposition parties, Law and Justice and the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance. The station broadcast a program from the week of public mourning outside the presidential palace in central Warsaw during which almost everyone interviewed angrily denounced the media and the government for not showing enough respect toward the late president.

For now the shift in public opinion toward Jaroslaw Kaczynski has not made him a favorite in the election campaign. Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and acting president, as well as presidential candidate for the ruling Civic Platform party, is in the lead in all opinion polls.

But the very rapid improvement in Kaczynski’s political fortunes may not be over yet.