Poles relieved at end of haunting poll campaign
The presidential election has been far from normal, says Anne Applebaum
Published 04/07/2010 | 05:00
Poles vote today to choose their new president, and I think it is safe to say that when they drop their ballots into the box, just about every one of them will breathe a sigh of relief.
This has been the strangest political campaign anyone can remember, and no one, from any political faction, will be sorry to see it end.
The campaign has been strange because of its timing: under normal circumstances, no one would hold an election on what is, in effect, the first weekend of the summer holidays.
Nor would anyone hold an election a few weeks after rains caused major flooding throughout the country.
But July 4 is polling day because the Polish constitution said it had to be.
Following the death of the former president, Lech Kaczynski, in a tragic plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, last April, the government was obliged to hold early elections, and today is the day required.
The campaign has also been strange because of its participants -- or rather, one of them.
Were it not for that plane crash, the late president would be running for re-election. Instead, his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is running in his place.
"Jarek" took the decision at an extraordinary moment: after the crash, and after several weeks of national mourning, funerals and memorial services, not only for his brother but also for some 90 other politicians and public figures on board the president's plane, many of whom he knew as well.
As a result, this election has had a peculiarly sombre air. Instead of the normal back and forth, the candidates have kept insults to a minimum.
Accusations of treason and corruption never materialised. Although it is almost de rigueur in Polish politics to claim that one knows of compromising material in one's opponents' old communist police files, that kind of campaigning has emerged only on the margins of this election.
This funereal public atmosphere has put Kaczynski's opponent, Bronislaw Komorowski, in a difficult position. Komorowski is the acting president and a member of the centre-right Civic Platform, the ruling party.
He has also been leading in most polls, was the victor during the first round of this presidential election, and defeated my husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, in party primaries. Nevertheless, the tone of his campaign has been far from assertive. His language and his campaign slogan -- "I build agreement" -- have been kept deliberately mild.
Clearly he has been trying not to sound too much like a critic of the dead president.
The bereaved twin has trodden even more softly. Though no one said so much after the plane crash, the late president was very unpopular.
His twin, prime minister for a tumultuous term in 2006 and 2007, was even more widely disliked.
Both were known for their divisive tactics, abrasive language, suspicion of foreigners and downright aggressive attacks on both Germany and Russia.
Since the Smolensk crash Jaroslaw Kaczynski has, he says, re-invented himself. His official slogan is even more deliberately dull than that of his opponent ("Poland is the Most Important") and his unofficial argument requires a leap of faith: "Vote for me, because I have changed."
He has given few interviews, though made exceptions for a German newspaper and Russian television, as if to show he has no more hard feelings. He hasn't said much on his opponent.
In fact, he hasn't said much at all, not even about the crash, although there have been symbolic allusions.
When he does talk, Kaczynski sounds less like the right-wing radical he is reputed to be, and more like the left-wing ideologues against whom, as a member of the anti-communist opposition, he theoretically fought.
Kaczynski, usually described as "far-right" and "Eurosceptic", in fact represents a peculiar form of anti-liberal, statist populism. He favours state interference in the economy and treats the word "privatisation" like a slur.
For reasons best known to himself, David Cameron received Kaczynski in London last week. For Kaczynski, this was a major coup: it allowed him to claim "support" from the Conservative party, and helped underline his "new" friendly attitude to foreigners.
Because this is not a normal election, it may well not have a normal outcome, and I am not going to predict who will win.
I will join the rest of country, however, in feeling a deep sense of relief when it is over.