WARSAW Bronislaw Komorowski, propelled into Poland's top job by President Lech Kaczynski's death, faces the delicate task of consoling a traumatized nation while steering it toward an election he wants to win.
As speaker of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, Komorowski automatically became acting president when Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia last Saturday along with several senior politicians and military officers.
Yet the gently-spoken, mustachioed Komorowski, 57, is also the official candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's ruling center-right Civic Platform (PO) for a presidential election that had been set for the autumn. It is now expected to take place in May or June.
A veteran of the 1980s anti-communist Solidarity movement, Komorowski is seen to be more comfortable in the shadows than in the limelight. Tusk backed his presidential bid precisely because he knew Komorowski, would comply with the party's plans to reduce the president's powers.
Since the crash he has demonstrated a "father-of-the-nation" gravitas with his calls for national unity and pledges of impartiality during Poland's biggest crisis in two decades of democracy.
"The state must go on, Poland just has to go on, despite all the pain, despite the mourning, despite the unimaginable tragedy," he told Polsat News TV channel on Monday.
To those who fear he might exploit his powerful new position for his own political ends, Komorowski added: "I only want to take those decisions that are absolutely necessary and urgent. All the rest should wait until after the election."
His predicament is all the more finely balanced because Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw, heads the right-wing main opposition party Law and Justice (PiS) and can be expected to cry foul at the slightest sign of Komorowski acting in a partisan way.
Opinion polls before the crash showed Komorowski trouncing the increasingly unpopular Lech Kaczynski in the presidential election. But with an upsurge of sympathy for the Kaczynski family now, it is much harder to predict how people will vote.
"This is a very difficult period for Komorowski. He has to be extremely supple and non-partisan, but he is also a core member of PO. Much will depend on how he behaves," said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, a PO member of the European Parliament.
"As acting president, he has to make a whole series of public appointments to replace people killed in the crash. And even at the best of times there are always fierce battles between the political parties in Poland over such positions.
"Will he extend a hand to the opposition? Such gestures will be crucial and also symbolic in this period when as president he needs to unite the country and bring reconciliation."
Komorowski has won plaudits for choosing specialists, not political allies, in his first public appointments.
Iwona Jakubowska-Branicka of Warsaw University said he was doing a good job of ensuring the state continued to function without more jolts.
"He is a man of breeding and dignity. I think he has not upset any delicate barriers in this difficult situation," she said.
Komorowski, a historian by training, was born in 1952 in communist Poland into a family with aristocratic roots. Like many of his generation and political views, he suffered internment during martial law in the 1980s.
After the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, the father of five became active in center-right politics, serving as defense minister in 2000-01 and becoming speaker of the Sejm after Tusk replaced Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister in 2007.
"Komorowski is a quiet man, not egocentric or particularly ambitious. Tusk had to work hard to persuade him to become the PO presidential candidate," said Kolarska-Bobinska.
"Ironically, he is in a sense similar to Lech Kaczynski, who also had to be pushed into running for the presidency by his more ambitious brother Jaroslaw back in 2005," she added.
Under Poland's constitution, the government wields most of the political power but the president can veto laws and has a say in foreign policy.
Kaczynski irked Tusk's pro-market, pro-euro government by blocking health sector and pension reforms, prompting PO to propose a switch to a purely ceremonial German-style presidency -- one that may suit Komorowski's approach and personality well.
"Komorowski has one big advantage now -- people are already getting use to thinking of him as the president," said Kolarska-Bobinska.