April 14, 2010 / 12:34 PM / 10 years ago

Poland eyes June 20 vote, outcry over funeral plan

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s ruling centrists said on Wednesday a presidential election was likely to be held on June 20 as protests erupted over the choice of a burial site for President Lech Kaczynski.

A woman holds a picture of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski during a march to commemorate the victims of Saturday's Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft crash near Smolensk, in Szczecin April 13, 2010. REUTERS/Cezary Aszkielewicz/Agencja Gazeta

Some Poles reacted angrily to plans unveiled on Tuesday to bury Kaczynski and his wife Maria, who were killed in a weekend plane crash, at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, a place normally reserved for national heroes, poets and kings.

The uproar exposed the first cracks in a display of national unity that followed the crash and occurred only days before world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, were expected in Poland for the funeral on Sunday.

A total of 96 people were killed in the crash near Smolensk in western Russia on Saturday, including Polish military commanders, opposition figures and the governor of the central bank.

Kaczynski and his entourage had been traveling to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest.

Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets of Warsaw to welcome his body home at the weekend and people have queued in the rain for hours to get a glimpse of the couple’s coffins, on display at the presidential palace.

The funeral plans have provoked a sharp reaction. Public support for Kaczynski, a polarizing nationalist and eurosceptic, had dwindled to 20 percent before his death and the idea of burying him at a site reserved for royalty and legendary historical figures was anathema to many.

“HASTY AND EMOTIONAL”

The newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza called the decision “hasty and emotional” in a front-page editorial. Andrzej Wajda, the influential, Oscar-winning Polish director of a film on the Katyn tragedy, wrote to the paper urging the plan be scrapped.

Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski, speaker of the lower house and the presidential candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform (PO), had talks on Wednesday with political parties to set a date for the presidential vote.

They agreed to delay a final decision until next week. A leading PO official said the poll would most likely take place on June 20.

Under the Polish constitution, the election must be held within 60 days of the date announcement and the delay gives right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), led by Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw, and the main left-wing SLD party extra time to choose candidates.

SLD’s presidential candidate Jerzy Szmajdzinski was also killed in the plane crash.

A spokesman for Russia’s Health Ministry said 64 victims of the crash had been formally identified.

The coffins of 30 arrived in Poland on Wednesday, including those of Szmajdzinski, central bank chief Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Defense Minister Stanislaw Komorowski, who had been involved in missile shield negotiations with the United States.

Russian investigators are reviewing the doomed plane’s cockpit voice recorders and preliminary results are expected by the end of the week.

Besides Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are due to attend the funeral of Kaczynski and his wife in Krakow, the seat of Polish monarchs up until the end of the 16th century.

The U.S. Senate observed a moment of silence on Wednesday and unanimously passed a resolution expressing sympathy to the people of Poland for the deaths.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED

About 500 people held a noisy protest in Krakow late on Tuesday against the decision to bury the couple at Wawel Cathedral and more protests were scheduled for Wednesday evening in Krakow, Warsaw and three other cities.

Poles organized protest campaigns on the social media site Facebook, with the group “No to the Kaczynskis burial in Wawel” attracting more than 33,000 fans.

“If President Kaczynski had died of natural causes he would never have been buried in Wawel,” Jerzy Meysztowicz, an entrepreneur and PO politician in Krakow, told Reuters. “All the president’s faults will soon be in the spotlight and in many cases sorrow will turn to hate.”

Slideshow (13 Images)

Allies of the president defended the decision, taken after consultations on Tuesday between the church and family members, including Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Wawel is a large complex of buildings on the Vistula River comprising a castle, cathedral and fortifications. It traces its roots as a center of political power to the end of the first millennium.

Besides Polish kings, the crypt contains the bodies of legendary military commander Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought in the U.S. War of Independence, Poland’s wartime leader Wladyslaw Sikorski and national poet Adam Mickiewicz.

Additional reporting by Wojciech Zurawski in Krakow, Dagmara Leszkowicz in Warsaw; Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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