'It Is My Duty to Carry on for Those Who Died': The Astounding Transformation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski

By Jan Puhl in Warsaw

Poland heads to the ballot box this weekend to elect the next president following the tragic death of Lech Kaczynski. One of the leading candidates is his twin brother Jaroslaw, a man who has undergone a major transformation since his terrible loss.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is almost there -- he's almost arrived at the address where he would like to work. The Hotel Europejski is located on Warsaw's most magnificent street, the Krakowskie Przedmiescie, just a few steps away from the presidential palace.

The former Polish prime minister has just taken a seat in the conference room on a cream-colored armchair to take part in a podium discussion. The female moderator's white hair and glaring red lipstick contrast perfectly with the large Polish flag in the background. The presidential candidate for the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party stares pensively at the crowd as she speaks. He looks pale, and he has lost weight.

Known earlier for being as much a right-wing, nationalist war horse as for being a gifted populist and political firebrand, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has become a different man since the death of his twin brother Lech on April 10.

He has set up his election headquarters at the Hotel Europejski, and he wants Polish voters to elect him to take up office in the palace on the other side of the street on June 20. That's where Lech resided -- at least until his plane crashed in the fog near the Russian city of Smolensk. In addition to the head of state and his wife, 94 other people died on that Saturday: the crew, politicians, high-ranking military officials, clergy and veterans.

'It Is My Duty to Continue What They Died for'

On that day, a chapter in Jaroslaw's life also came to an end: His brother is now dead and his mother Jadwiga, 83, has long been hospitalized with a serious illness. The only thing remaining for Jaroslaw, a bachelor, are his cats at home and the Law and Justice Party, which he and his brother Lech once founded together.

Speaking at the Europejski, he says that he had no other choice: "It is my duty to carry on for those who died -- especially for my brother."

In some polls, Kaczynski is currently only trailing by 6 points behind the candidate of the ruling liberal-conservative Civic Platform. Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the parliament and interim Polish president until the vote, is seeing his lead erode, week by week. Historically, though, the Kaczynski brothers have always fared better at the polls than in public opinion surveys.

Komorowski is having a tough time gaining traction with voters. It's not so simple attacking a man who has just lost his twin brother. Kaczynski, who is described by the Warsaw newspapers as a solemn martyr, is getting a boost from public sympathy over his plight.

A Political Mastermind, Blusterer and Polarizer

"Every day begins with a call to my brother and ends with a call to my brother," Lech Kaczynski once said. For several years, the pair constituted one of Europe's most bizarre political teams. Lech, the more sociable of the two, was the one who tended to hold office, but for a short time the twins were simultaneously president and prime minister of Poland. But it was Jaroslaw who was the political mastermind, blusterer and polarizer.

He took on everyone from former communists and their cronies to former dissidents, corrupt doctors and civil servants. He accused the Germans of distorting history and the Russians of imperialistic tendencies. Politics for Kaczynski was a permanent state of emergency -- the relentless battle against the country's enemies, at home and abroad.

Now, suddenly, he is saying: "The Polish-Polish war must end," and that a "good relationship" with its neighbors is paramount. It's nothing less than a catharsis.

The Europejski is a rundown building, and the musty odor of the 1980s fills the hallways. Kaczynski could have set up camp in the more luxurious Bristol Hotel, but he instead chose the Europejski. By doing so, he eschewed worldly pomp and sent out a message that his campaign is focusing on what matters. "Poland is most important," is the official slogan of Kaczynski's campaign.

In the hotel's foyer, the candidate has had a play area set up for children, with colorful benches and stuffed animals. Law and Justice wants to attract more young voters and urbanites; and it wants to shed its image as a party of backward nationalists.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, the candidate answers questions. His election is a "discussion about Poland," not a battle, he says. He proposes "improvements" for the government. He argues that it must learn lessons from the deadly flooding in recent weeks. He is calling for health care reform that will serve all Polish people, regardless of how much they have in their pocketbooks. And he wants to push for Poland to become a member of the G-20. Earlier, Kaczynski had disparaged the government as a troop of unpatriotic free-market liberals.

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