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Poland's vote: More nationalism or closer ties to Europe?

In Sunday's election, polls show voters may oust pro-Catholic, anticorruption Kaczynski twins.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2007


For the leading opposition party, Sunday's election here is the most important event since 1989, when Poland extracted itself from the Soviet Union while 250,000 troops were still in the country. They term it a historic battle between light and dark.

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For center-right Civic Platform candidate Donald Tusk, Sunday's vote decides whether Poland turns inward, chauvinist, and authoritarian under Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski – or flowers into a more open economy and civil society, as well as a closer partner to Europe. The party also favors pulling Polish troops out of Iraq.

For Poland's ruling conservative Kaczynski brothers, who are president and prime minister, Sunday is a battle between light and dark, but for other reasons. For them, it is about establishing for the first time since the 18th century a genuine, "pure" Poland – a lighthouse of Catholic moral and Polish national virtues, a place where the forgotten poor have hope, and where the security services, rightly directed, will finally purge white collar crooks, communist collaborators, and ex-dissidents. Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twins, as they are known here, want a Poland that stands for Poland in Europe, a friend of Washington, and isn't rolled over by Germany or Russia.

Until a week ago, most polls showed the Kaczynskis would take Sunday's election. But an Oct. 12 televised debate has put Mr. Tusk in a neck and neck race. European leaders, wondering about the direction of a new EU state often described as prickly or unpredictable, are very interested in the outcome.

The snap elections were called in August amid a terrific fracturing of political coalitions here. The atmosphere in Warsaw has been charged by a full-bore campaign by the Kaczynskis to dismiss high-ranking officials and even to imply that former dissidents like Solidarity leaders Lech Walesa, Bronislaw Geremek, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and even Polish war hero Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former foreign minister, are insufficiently patriotic.

Since taking office in 2005, the Kaczynski twins have fired or dismissed no fewer than 14 cabinet-level officials, including the ministers of finance, interior, defense, and foreign affairs. Defense minister Radek Sikorski, a prominent political figure here, resigned in February.

To be sure, experts admit that from the late 1990s to 2005, corruption in Poland was a serious problem. Yet the twins attempt to clean up Poland has been at least equally divisive. The combination of broad "lustration" laws this spring – that used old secret service files to ferret out collaborators (the effort was struck down by a constitutional court) – as well as the formation of an active secret bureau of investigation into corruption (beholden to the prime minister, according to Western diplomats) has created fear of retribution along political lines.

"The brothers use the anticorruption and the decommunization campaigns as two mutually reinforcing ways to vet anyone who wants to participate in public," says Jacques Rupnik of Sciences Po in Paris. "It has created a lot of hatred in Poland."