WARSAW (Reuters) - His core conservative supporters see Jaroslaw Kaczynski as an honest patriot who will champion Poland’s national interests in the European Union and beyond if he wins Sunday’s presidential election run-off.
His liberal critics at home and abroad, however, flinch at the memory of the sometimes prickly nationalism that defined his spell as prime minister in 2006-07 and fear that as president he could reignite tensions with Russia, Germany and the EU.
Kaczynski has tried to mollify such concerns in the election campaign, adopting an unexpectedly conciliatory tone in his bid for centrist voters that helped him narrow the gap with rival Bronislaw Komorowski in the first round of voting on June 20.
Komorowski, candidate of the pro-EU, market-oriented ruling party Civic Platform, remains favorite to win, but Kaczynski’s blend of Catholic piety, euroskepticism, distrust of Poland’s business elite and foreign investors and his populist calls for more state spending make him a formidable opponent to beat.
Kaczynski can also tap into the empathy many Poles still feel for him after his identical twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, was killed in a plane crash in Russia on April 10.
“Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a real statesman... He will not turn Poland into a client state and let it be betrayed by its Western allies as happened in World War Two. Komorowski, on the other hand, is a traitor who would sell his own mother,” said Regina Sirko, 55, a worker in the timber industry.
“I backed (former British prime minister) Margaret Thatcher and (late U.S. president) Ronald Reagan. I think Kaczynski would be our own Thatcher and Reagan combined,” said Sirko, noting with approval that Kaczynski had met Thatcher’s heir, fellow Conservative David Cameron, in London Monday.
“We should fight for our values. It is Europe which should learn from Poland,” Sirko added.
Those “values” include opposition to in vitro fertilization and gay rights and, for some Kaczynski supporters, come seasoned with anti-Semitism — facts that have made his Law and Justice party (PiS) an uncomfortable partner at times for Cameron’s more socially liberal Conservatives within the euroskeptic faction to which they both belong in the European Parliament.
A Kaczynski win Sunday is likely to cause anxiety abroad, particularly in Berlin, Brussels and Moscow.
In Poland, the government led by the prime minister holds most power but the president can propose and veto laws, appoints many key officials and has a say in foreign and security policy.
As head of a fractious right-wing coalition three years ago, Kaczynski came close to sabotaging German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bid to seal a deal on a new EU treaty, invoking the number of Poles killed by the Nazis in World War Two to press Warsaw’s demand for greater voting rights.
“German officials are asking me questions that show there is concern about a possible Kaczynski presidency,” said Eugeniusz Smolar of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw.
“They ask if I think Kaczynski understands the friendship for Poland felt on the German side,” he said, recalling the angst caused in Berlin by the twins’ tendency to see ties with Warsaw’s biggest trade partner through the prism of the war.
After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost power in 2007 to Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, Lech continued to fly the euroskeptic flag from the presidential palace, for example by refusing for months to sign the Lisbon Treaty after parliament had ratified it.
Lech Kaczynski also irked Russia, Poland’s other big neighbor, by siding very publicly with Georgia during the two countries’ brief 2008 war and accusing Moscow of “imperialism.”
Such gestures played well with the twins’ conservative base, but Jaroslaw knows he must reach out beyond his natural supporters if he is to have any chance of succeeding Lech.
In that vein, after his brother died in the crash in a Russian forest, Jaroslaw Kaczynski made an unprecedented televised address to Poland’s “Russian friends” and thanked them for their messages of support and sympathy.
Similarly, he praised European integration and called for closer cooperation between Warsaw and Berlin in a recent article he penned for the German newspaper Die Welt.
His aides say Kaczynski was never the fiery nationalist of legend: “The view that in the past Kaczynski was unfriendly (to some countries) is not true and was fomented by his opponents,” Mariusz Blaszczak, a PiS spokesman, told Reuters this week.
Kaczynski’s critics say the change of tone is a ruse designed to persuade voters that he is reliable and reasonable.
“As president he could still do plenty of damage, especially to relations with Russia,” said Smolar.
Several Poles quizzed by Reuters in central Warsaw this week shared Smolar’s doubts about whether Kaczynski had changed.
“Komorowski’s foreign policy is much more European and open-minded. I don’t think Kaczynski understands modern Europe or even modern Poland,” said Jaroslaw Strzemien, a theater director.
“Poland’s interests now lie in a friendly, respectful relationship with other countries, with the EU and above all with neighbors Germany and Russia... Poland’s security lies in the economy.”
Additional reporting by Stanislaw Skrzydelski; Editing by Peter Graff