Plane crash upends Polish election

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.

“There are moments in history which can change everything, which can change the course of history,” he said in a televised address to Russia. “A great tragedy happened on the 10th of April. The outpouring of commiseration and sympathy from millions of Russians was noted by Poles. Noted and appreciated.”

In a leading German paper, Kaczynski called for greater Polish-German cooperation.

In his public appearances he has cut himself off from the radical anti-communist past; where he once compared his political opponents to communist era police thugs, he now calls for an end to conflict between Poles.

The new Kaczynski has proved to be much more popular with voters than the old model. He has steadily ascended in opinion polls, with most now showing him with the support of more than a third of the electorate, and his support continues to edge up.

Komorowski is still far ahead, although he has fallen below the 50 percent needed to win the first round of the election. In the event that no candidate gets a majority, a second round will be held on July 4 between the top two vote getters. It appears certain that the eight minor candidates will be knocked out and Kaczynski will face off against Komorowski for the country's top job.

Komorowski's main campaign pledge is that he will work closely with the government, which comes from the same party he does, and will end the obstructionism that had been a characteristic of Lech Kaczynski's presidency. Kaczynski argues for the need to defend against a monopoly of power by Civic Platform.

The outcome of the election could also affect Poland-United States relations. Kaczynski is instinctively very pro-American, seeking to balance the weight of Brussels and the European Union with a close security relationship with the U.S.

Civic Platform, like almost all Polish political parties, is also pro-American, but its view of the U.S. is more nuanced. The long-standing irritant of the U.S. refusal to eliminate visas for Polish travelers rankles the government, and Donald Tusk, the prime minister, was very annoyed when the U.S. administration dropped its plans to build a missile defense shield in central Europe.

Komorowski has said that if elected he will begin procedures for setting the conditions for Poland's eventual exit from Afghanistan, where the 2,000-strong Polish contingent has suffered 18 deaths.