News / Europe

As Poland Mourns, Politics Looms in Background

Poland is deep in mourning for President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 other prominent military officials and civilians, killed in a plane crash Saturday in western Russia.  But amid preparations for a state funeral, questions about elections and succession loom in the background.

No one in Warsaw wants to talk politics when Poles by the thousands - from government ministers to average citizens - have been lining up to pay their last respects to President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria.  

Words like tragedy and catastrophe are most often uttered when people talk about last Saturday's plane crash that killed the couple along with so many other senior military officials, lawmakers and prominent civilians.

So it was no surprise that Speaker of Parliament and interim President Bronislav Komorowski did not rush to announce a date for new elections.

Mr. Komorowski said all political party representatives agreed the date for new elections would not be announced until April 21 - after the period of mourning.

Poland's Constitution mandates Mr. Komorowski take over as interim president, but he had already been designated by the ruling Civic Platform party as a presidential candidate in elections scheduled for later this year.  He was to run against President Kaczynski, who was expected to seek another term from the opposition Law and Justice Party.

Now elections will be held before the end of June, and political analyst Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski of Civitas College in Warsaw says this puts Mr. Komorowski in a difficult position.

"Whatever he does will certainly be evaluated in political terms and in terms of his candidacy to the highest office.  That is why he has to be very cautious," said Wnuk-Lipinski.

There is much talk that former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the late president, may run for office in his brother's place.  They were voted into office when Lech won the presidency in 2005 and Jaroslaw became prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

The brothers were widely viewed as divisive, seen by supporters as upholding conservative, nationalist and traditional values, while critics accused them of pandering to xenophobia.  

A Jaroslaw Kaczynski candidacy is not out of the question says Poland Institute for Public Affairs Director Jacek Kucharczyk.

"What we do know is that before this air crash, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was never mentioned as a plausible candidate," said Kucharczyk.  "People speculated whether Lech Kaczynski is the best candidate to represent the Law and Justice Party.  As we know his ratings were relatively poor, but Jaroslaw Kaczynski's ratings as a politician were even poorer.  We do not know how this will change with the sympathy vote," he added.

Analysts point out that Poland's democratic institutions have functioned well during this crisis.  There has been no power vacuum and Poles have shown a great deal of unity in mourning.

But political analyst Wnuk-Lipinski says those emotions should not be taken for granted.

"Public life in Poland is very tense with emotions.  So far the emotions are good.  But if politicians spoil this situation, then we may observe a very rapid turn of emotions, equally strong, but bad emotions, conflict and this kind of stuff," said Lipinski.

A warning to politicians to tread with caution.  What seems certain is that politics will take center stage in the coming weeks as Poland gears up for new elections and succession.

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