Over a month ago, on 10 April, mourning for the victims of the Polish presidential plane crash in Smolensk extended past the borders of Poland. Even here, in Prague, flags were lowered to half-mast on the day of the funeral for the Polish president Lech Kaczynski. But this tragedy brought about more than a few days of coming together of the Polish political scene; it has radically changed the attitude of the Polish society towards the dead president. Kaczynski, viewed by many as the worst head of state since the collapse of communism, became a national hero.
According to a February poll by the Polish research agency TNS OBOP, 65% of the Polish public considered Kaczynski’s fulfillment of his duties as “not good”. After the plane crash, the support for his party Law and Justice and his brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, considered his political successor, rose rapidly. Latest poll by Gfk Polonia shows that support for the Law and Justice party jumped by 10% between 8 and 12 April.
Meanwhile, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, running for president in the election next month, became the most dangerous opponent to Bronislaw Komorowski of the Civic Platform party despite that before the crash, poll results suggested that Lech Kaczynski’s chances in this duel were meager.
“He was widely considered the worst Polish president since 1989,” Polish sociologist Wiktor Osiatynski stated in his article for The New York Times. “Yet in death, he is a national hero. The reason has nothing to do with Mr. Kaczynski himself, but where he died: Katyn forest, where Soviet troops executed nearly 22,000 Polish officers in April 1940. Indeed, Mr. Kaczynski’s death is only the latest chapter in Poland’s long-running conflict over the meaning of victimhood, martyrdom and death.”
Krystyna Krauze, deputy director of the Polish Institute in Prague, said that the public’s opinion shift owes to the unwritten rule of not speaking ill of the dead, while a Czech dissident and expert on Polish politics and culture Petruška Šustrová suggested that an attitude change in the media contributed to the stirring of public opinion in this direction.
“Poles suddenly realized that the president was a different person than how media portayed him earlier,” she said. Even the toughest critic of the president, Gazeta Wyborcza, ran headlines like Let this death unite us, Orphaned country or This catastrophe is a sign: we’re not patriotic enough.
An online search for Lech Kaczynski retrieves a generous number of articles from civic media about the “Polish martyr”. YouTube features thousands of “tribute to president” snippets—though alongside of just as many videos mocking Kaczynski. The inflated rhetoric even prompted the Catholic Church hierarchs to speak out.
“We should avoid words creating impression of exaggeration,” Archbishop of Lublin Jozef Zycinski stated in a letter to all parishes. “Some use language of pathos, calling the victims of the crash martyrs. Meanwhile this word refers strictly to a person that gave up one’s life for Christian faith.”
Osiatynski went even as far as calling the plane crash “stupid and useless”, noting that “calling it heroic dodges responsibility and prevents the development of measures for avoiding future disasters”.
With Lech Kaczynski’s daughter, Marta Kaczynska, now endorsing Law and Justice party’s campaign and the party exploiting the cult of the dead president, the chances for the party in the upcoming elections have no doubt turned around.