Air tragedy impacts Polish politics

FOR POLAND and its citizens, 2010 will be yet another dark spot in the collective memory of a nation that regards suffering as one of its main characteristics. It was the year when dozens of Poland’s major public figures, including the presidential couple, tragically died in a plane crash near Katyń – a place with strong symbolic meaning for the Polish people. Just weeks after the tragedy, the shaken nation needed to elect a new president – and chose the speaker of parliament, Bronisław Komorowski. Poland’s President Lech Kaczyński, along with his wife and 94 VIPs of Polish society were killed while travelling to a ceremony to commemorate the 1940 massacre of Polish army officers and others in the forests of Katyń near the city of Smolensk, Russia.

FOR POLAND and its citizens, 2010 will be yet another dark spot in the collective memory of a nation that regards suffering as one of its main characteristics. It was the year when dozens of Poland’s major public figures, including the presidential couple, tragically died in a plane crash near Katyń – a place with strong symbolic meaning for the Polish people. Just weeks after the tragedy, the shaken nation needed to elect a new president – and chose the speaker of parliament, Bronisław Komorowski.

Poland’s President Lech Kaczyński, along with his wife and 94 VIPs of Polish society were killed while travelling to a ceremony to commemorate the 1940 massacre of Polish army officers and others in the forests of Katyń near the city of Smolensk, Russia.

Poland experienced a presidential campaign that could not have been considered ordinary because of the shock that the plane crash had on the nation. The race featured two strong candidates: Komorowski, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and an ally of Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the ruling centrist and pro-business Civic Platform (PO) party; and former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński who was fielded as the candidate of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party to replace his late twin brother Lech.

Komorowski had been a favourite for the election that had been originally scheduled for October 2010. In the aftermath of the tragedy in which Komorowski’s two potential competitors were killed, the chances of Jarosław Kaczyński seemed to rise but Komorowski won the election on July 4 with 53 percent of the vote.

Poland is expected to hold a general election in 2011 with Komorowski’s PO party seemingly on a firm footing to become the first party in Poland since 1989 to win a second consecutive election.

Tomáš Strážay, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, stated that PO is currently strong and is expected to remain so in the run-up to next year’s election, noting that political competition in Poland is practically only between rightist parties – one strictly conservative and the other rather liberal.

“There is no leftist grouping with sufficient power or perspective to be able to replace the rightist ruling government in Poland,” Strážay told The Slovak Spectator.

“The question rather is whether the current, liberal government headed by PO, will be replaced by the very strong and increasingly conservative PiS which has already ruled the country once.”
Strážay also remarked that PiS might be inclined to use the still-quite-recent Katyń air crash in the upcoming parliamentary elections campaign.

“But a longer time will have passed since the tragedy and therefore I don’t believe that they will manage to mobilise the voters in such numbers that would bring about a principal change in the political spectrum of Poland,” Strážay said.

“It is not a strong enough element as such to mobilise a sufficient part of the electorate in favour of the brother of the late president and his party,” he added.

Katyń, however, keeps making news, most recently during the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Warsaw, which was preceded by Russia handing over more documents related to the massacre in 1940, when Stalin’s NKVD secret police murdered 22,000 Polish officers and then for several decades blamed Nazi Germany for the killings.

After the fall of communism, Russia indirectly admitted its guilt but did not disclose all historical documents until recently.

On November 26 the Russian Duma directly blamed Stalin for the massacre in a rare condemnation of the dictator, in a move widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to improve ties with Poland, the Reuters newswire reported.

The piece is part of the Visegrad Countries - Facing New Challenges, prepared by The Slovak Spectator with the support of the International Visegrad Fund. For more information on cooperation between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia please see the following document.

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