Death of a President: Poland’s tragic legacy

Polish mourners remember President Kaczynski, killed in a plane crash, with candle-lit tributes

The funeral of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria took place in Krakow at the weekend (Sunday 18 April 2010), following the plane crash in west Russia (10 April 2010) that claimed the lives of 96 people, including leading political, military and cultural figures.

The couple were buried in a crypt near to the tomb of Polish hero and leader Jozef Pilsudski, a decision that sparked controversy.

As Poland comes to terms with its loss, what are the wider and longer-term political and social consequences of this human tragedy? How will the inevitable political shifts and changes impact on Poland and its relationships with the EU and near-neighbour, Russia?

University of Sussex Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies Aleks Szczerbiak is an expert in Polish politics and affairs, with strong family ties to the country as both his parents are Polish, and is active in the Polish community in Brighton.

Here, Professor Szczerbiak, who is currently writing a book on Poland in the EU, answers general questions on what might be in store for the country ahead of its presidency of the EU in the latter part of 2011.



Q How significant is the death of President Kaczynski to Polish and European politics?


A It’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen as we are operating in a unique situation – there is no precedent for such a tragedy.  In the short term, Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the Sejm – the more powerful lower house of parliament, who assumes the functions of the head of state – will have to call a presidential election within 14 days and it will have to be held within 60 days. The likely date for the Polish presidential election, which would have taken place in the autumn anyway, is 20 June.

Once the election is announced, the campaign will be very different. The incumbent won’t be a candidate and neither will Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance party – the ex-Communist party which governed Poland in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, who also died in the crash.

It will also be a difficult campaign for the electorate and the politicians. No one wants to talk about politics right now. On the one hand the constitutional clock is ticking away remorselessly and there is a need to gear up for the election, but on the other people do not want to engage in that process.

The key fact is that the Polish government, which holds executive power, remains relatively unscathed, having lost none of its senior ministers. Among the dead there were 15 members of the Sejm killed in the crash, along with three members of the Senate (the upper house), two deputy speakers of the Sejm and two of the Senate, the head of the national bank, and all the heads of the armed forces. There will be a lot of changes.

In terms of responsibility for foreign affairs, the main direction of foreign policy is set by the government so there won’t be any major changes here. If anything, Poland may now be able to speak with one voice and with more clarity, as one of the characteristics of Mr Kaczynski’s presidency was that his politics put him at odds over foreign affairs and European policy with his rivals in the Government and with Prime Minister Donald Tusk, leader of the centre right Civic Platform party.


Q Why did Mr Kaczynski’s tenure as President cause controversy and why were his policy views seen as divisive?


Mr Kaczynski was elected as the candidate of the rightwing Law and Justice Party – a party that polarised Polish society. He was elected in 2005 at the same time as the party – led by twin brother Jaroslaw – came to power on a programme of far-reaching reform to break the power of the corrupt network of businessmen, politicians, former Communist security service functionaries and criminals that they claimed had too much influence in post-communist Poland. However, the reforms were controversial and brought the government into conflict with much of the political and cultural establishment, leading to a period of instability in Polish politics that many people disliked.

Mr Kaczynski was also capable of starting a lot of battles. Although Law and Justice lost the 2007 election, Mr Kaczynski used his office to push the Party’s agenda. Lacking in political subtlety and at times even clumsy, Mr Kaczynski was perceived, fairly or unfairly, as very partisan in his politics, something that Poles do not like in their President, whom they prefer to at least give the impression of being above the day-to-day political fray.

On an international level, the policies Mr Kaczynski often advocated brought Poland into conflict with its EU partners. The Law and Justice Party is often viewed as anti-federalist, quite Eurosceptic (for over a year he refused to sign the Lisbon Treaty even though it had been approved by the Polish parliament) and very socially conservative in comparison with the Western European liberal mainstream, campaigning against gay marriage and abortion. As Mayor of Warsaw, Mr Kaczynski twice blocked moves to instigate gay rights marches in the city.

The office of President itself also offered the potential for divisive tactics. The main power in Polish politics rests with the Prime Minister, but the President is directly elected to office and holds some substantial powers, mainly the right to veto legislation (the government needing a 60 per cent majority to overturn this power, something the current administration lacks). In the past, Mr Kaczynski had been able to block key health and media reforms. The President also has the power to refer legislation to a constitutional tribunal (thereby delaying the executive process) and some important appointment powers. Mr Kaczynski was responsible for appointing the head of the Polish national bank, who was not sympathetic to the present centre-right government.

The Polish constitution is unclear as to what precisely is the role of the President in foreign affairs. In a bitter ironic twist, the President and Prime Minister Tusk were once embroiled in a row over whether Mr Kaczynski could use a Government aircraft to attend an EU summit in Brussels, which saw Kaczynski chartering his own plane for the trip.

On socio-economic issues, however, Mr Kaczynski leant more to the left – he wanted interventionist policies and vetoed government health reforms which would have brought in a more commercialised system. He was also quite leftist economically and was critical of economic liberalism, arguing for government intervention to tackle the recession.


Q How will the circumstances that led to new elections affect the outcome?


A It will be a very different election campaign to the one we are experiencing in the UK. There is an outside chance we’ll see a consensus candidate win, as the country looks for unity, but it’s an unlikely outcome. There are currently two people in Poland who are key to any outcome. As interim president, Mr Komorowski will be responsible for calling the election and ensuring continuity of office.

But Mr Komorowski was also selected as the ruling party’s candidate for the autumn presidential elections and was to have been Mr Kaczynski’s main opponent. Before this tragedy he looked like the clear favourite to win it, but now he is in a different situation. It is imperative for him to rise above politics, but he is also fighting an election campaign. It’s not going to be easy for him. He could come out strongly if he portrays himself as a unifying figure.

The other key person is Jaroslaw Kaczynski – the president’s twin brother and former Prime Minister (he and his brother ruled jointly from 2006 to 2007). The Law and Justice Party, which he continues to lead, is in emotional and political turmoil, having lost a lot of senior members in the crash. Jaroslaw could even decide to stand down as a result of losing his twin, although this seems unlikely. However, he could also stand as a candidate, ensuring the legacy of his twin brother, and potentially reviving the fortunes of the Law and Justice Party in the process on the back of public sympathy.

It’s unlikely that the loss of senior figures will destabilise Poland. Poland’s State institutions are sufficiently strong to cope with this disaster.  The problems emerge because when we have people taking over as interim figures who have to take difficult decisions, but they do so knowing that they are there only temporarily. It puts the country in a kind of Limbo. But the Government continues to function and there is basic continuity.


Q How will the crash impact on Polish economy and society?


A In terms of Polish society, it’s too early to tell. In the short term, one of the striking things is how Poland has come together. Somebody who was an unpopular President to many in life has united the country through the human tragedy of his death. Quite a lot of people who were opposed to him came out to show their respects. It’s about the respect for and resilience of the Polish state institutions combined with a normal human reaction to tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be seen on the television news last week, out on the streets, paying their respects. It was a hugely emotional and symbolic event.

In terms of the economy, the President does not have any economic competencies – the key thing about his role was that he could block economic reforms that required legislation. If the new President is sympathetic to what the Government is trying to do – for example, in trying to reform Poland’s generous public pension system, to which Mr Kaczynski was opposed – that’s where the impact will be.


Q Russia and Poland’s shared history has been far from happy. How has the crash, which happened on Russian soil, affected relations with Russia?


A You’d have to be a cynic to say that the Russian leadership has no alternative but to show respect and compassion for what has happened to its neighbour. In fact, on the face of it both the Russian political elite and the Russian people have been genuinely moved by the tragedy – it would be very difficult at a very basic human level not to have been moved by the events of the past week. There have been spontaneous outpourings of condolence and this has been reflected in the Russian elite, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin taking personal charge of the inquiry into the cause of the crash, and President Dmitry Medvedev attending the state funeral, one of the few world leaders to do so (due to the grounding of planes across Europe due to the volcanic eruptions in Iceland).

Poland and Russia in recent years have had difficult relations, particularly since Mr Putin’s presidency. Part of the problem is that Russia sees Poland as a competitor for influence over other former Soviet satellite states. It also resents the development of Polish foreign policy, which Russia sees as influencing former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine to look to Western-style democracy. Poland played a part in the democratising Orange Revolution in the Ukraine elections of 2005. Mr Kaczynski also made a high-profile visit to show solidarity with Georgia when it was invaded by Russia in 2008.

Relations were particularly bad during 2005-07, when the Law and Justice Party was in office, but the present Polish government has tried to improve relations with Russia. These more cordial relations included Mr Putin attending a commemoration service for the Polish troops who died in the Katyn massacre during WWII, alongside Mr Tusk, held only three days before the crash. Mr Kaczynski and his entourage were actually travelling to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of this event.


Q There is a general outpouring of grief right now, but will the President’s memory, and the legacy of his party, be subject to a public or media-led backlash in the future?


A No one is going to say anything bad, but as time goes on there will be a battle over the president’s memory and what he represented. Some of his critics have been humbled by the public reaction to his death, particularly as some of the things written and said about Mr Kaczynski when he was alive were personal and spiteful. Ultimately, Mr Kaczynski was a controversial figure and for most of the time he was an unpopular President, although his wife was a very popular First Lady.  If the presidential election becomes a battle to preserve Mr Kaczynski’s legacy, then the process of backlash could be accelerated.

There is already a hint of what is to come in the funeral arrangements. The President and his wife are to be buried in the ancient city of Krakow, next to some of the country’s most revered leaders, kings and heroes. Already in sections of the media that were unsympathetic to Mr Kaczynski they are saying that it is not appropriate for him to be ranked alongside such illustrious names. His supporters meanwhile argue that it is a fitting final resting place for a man who died in the service of his country. Others say that – whatever one’s views – it is inappropriate to have a row over this during the period of national mourning.

Notes for Editors



Professor Szczerbiak is currently writing a book, to be published by Routledge at the end of the year, assessing the impact of the EU on Polish politics and society and Poland's impact on the EU during its first five years of membership.


He has published extensively on Polish and EU politics and is author of 'Poles Together? The Emergence and Development of Political Parties in Postcommunist Poland' (Central European University Press).


Professor Szczerbiak is co-director of the Sussex European Institute (SEI) in the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex, and co-convenor with colleague Professor Paul Taggart of the 'European Parties Elections and Referendums Network'


University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email


Last updated: Tuesday, 20 April 2010