The tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and many politicians and generals had a very deep impact on Polish society. The president was obviously a great patriot and leader, but he was not very popular and his chances of winning reelection in the forthcoming elections in the fall were minimal. Therefore it is astonishing that great masses of the Polish people feel so deeply about the crash of the plane near Katyn and about the death of the president.
It is astonishing that great masses of the Polish people feel so deeply about the crash of the plane near Katyn.
Of course emotions play a role and are a very important factor. But that alone is not enough to explain why millions of Poles feel that they have to pay tribute to the late president. The only other explanation: Politicians and journalists do not fully appreciate how important the state and its symbols are to the Polish people. The president symbolically represented the state and Poles feel that it was not only a personal tragedy but a tragedy for the country. That is worth remembering, as the nation lays its fallen leader to rest Sunday and looks to its political future.
There are already some signs emerging of what that future will look like. Amid the tragedy, there has been a surprisingly swift warming of the Polish-Russian relationship. During his visit to the United States, President Medvedev for the first time in history unequivocally condemned Joseph Stalin as responsible for many awful crimes—among them the mass killing of Polish army officers in Katyn in 1940. That marked a fundamental change in the attitude within Russia’s leadership ranks toward the sins of the Soviet Union. True, it’s only a beginning. But Poland has been waiting for such a beginning since 1990.
The internal politics in Poland are also interesting. Accompanying the president on his fatal flight were many politicians from the two biggest opposition parties. The Polish constitution states that we have to elect a new president in 60 days. After President Kaczynski’s funeral, the campaign begins—and will be over very quickly. Each candidate has to collect 100,000 signatures, which practically limits the field to those with the support of a big party apparatus, and leaves little room for upstarts. In all likelihood, the choice will be between a representative of the opposition party of the right (which supported President Kaczynski), a representative of the weak social-democratic opposition and a representative of the ruling and very strong liberal (in the European sense) or centrist party.
Personally I support the liberals. But the outcome of the elections may be slightly dangerous, as the influence of the opposition will likely be radically reduced—never a good thing in a democracy.
Many influential journalists and politicians are calling for the campaign to be conducted in a less aggressive fashion. It’s hard to imagine the candidates muzzling themselves, though—and presenting the voters with anything less than a clear choice would do them a disservice.
One hopeful sign: Throughout this tragedy, the Polish economy, which was in relatively good shape, has not reacted negatively to these events. There is no doubt that the plane crash that claimed the lives of the president and so many other leading politicians was traumatic. But I doubt it will have a lasting influence on Polish politics. Perhaps there will even be some catharsis in the possibilities of change.
Marcin Król is a professor of political philosophy at Warsaw University.