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Plane crash upends Polish election

The death of President Lech Kaczynski could make all the difference on Sunday.

Poland election poster
Supporters of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, presidential candidate of Poland's Law and Justice Party and twin brother of the late president Lech Kaczynski, gather in front of an election billboard in Siedlce on June 10, 2010. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — The smoking wreck of the Polish government Tu-154 airliner, which crashed on April 10 near the Russian city of Smolensk, is casting a pall over the country's presidential election this Sunday. 

Until the crash, the contest was going to be between Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament and member of the ruling centrist Civic Platform party, and Lech Kaczynski, the incumbent, who was striving for another five-year term. 

The result of the autumn vote wasn't really in doubt. Komorowski, a gaffe-prone aristocrat with a long and distinguished past in the anti-communist underground, was expecting to romp home to an easy victory against Kaczynski, a man who had sunk low in the opinion polls because of his divisive presidency and who was seen as almost unelectable. 

But Kaczynski's death in the crash has upended the election. 

The election was pushed forward to this Sunday, and Komorowski now faces off against Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw, the edgier and more ideological of the twins who have dominated Polish right-wing politics for the last two decades. 

Jaroslaw, prime minister in 2006 and 2007, had even worse poll numbers than his brother and was seen as one of the least trusted politicians in the country. But the shock of having his brother killed seems to have changed Jaroslaw — at least that is what his Law and Justice party is saying. 

The party has seized on Lech's death as the latest in a long line of patriotic sacrifices made for the nation — although in this case the death was likely the result of pilot error and not enemy action. In part because he died on the way to pay homage to the more than 20,000 Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in 1940, Lech Kaczynski has entered the pantheon of national heroes — at least for Law and Justice supporters. That has solidified the party's right-wing base.

But Jaroslaw's transformation is aimed at getting a share of the political center, crucial if he is to have a chance of winning. The new Kaczynski has made overtures toward both Germany and Russia — historical Polish enemies he disparaged while in office.