By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 20, 2007
WLOSZCZOWA, Poland -- For two years, Poland has been ruled by the Kaczynski brothers, identical twins with a talent for making enemies. With one perched in the presidential palace and the other in the prime minister's office, they have unapologetically picked fights with the European Union, Germany, Russia, gays, the media and big business.
On Sunday, their foes hope, the brothers will receive their comeuppance in parliamentary elections they were forced to call two years early after their coalition government collapsed. Polls show their Law and Justice party in trouble. "They're dangerous for democracy," said Sen. Stefan Niesiolowski, a longtime acquaintance from a rival party. "They are always bent on revenge."
But even the twins' fiercest critics aren't counting them out. Regardless of what happens Sunday, Lech Kaczynski still has three years to serve as president. In the meantime, the opposition is so fractured that Jaroslaw Kaczynski could remain prime minister if his party can muster as little as one-third of the vote.
Despite alienating a long list of targets, the Kaczynskis' populist message still plays well among many Poles, who see the brothers as straight-talking defenders of the little guy, particularly people who have struggled to keep up with Poland's chaotic transition from decades of communism and centuries of domination by outside powers.
"If we talk about the average Pole, the support for the Kaczynskis seems to be tremendous," said Zbigniew Romaszewski, a Law and Justice senator who met the twins in the mid-1970s in the anti-communist underground. "In Poland, it's only the elites who are unhappy with them."
In Wloszczowa, a town of 10,000 people 120 miles south of Warsaw, support for Law and Justice remains strong, as it does in rural areas across the country. Enthusiasm for the twins' party soared here last year after it delivered a simple prize: a train stop.
For decades, residents had watched as trains between Warsaw and Krakow whizzed by because little Wloszczowa was considered unworthy of service. That changed after Law and Justice came to power in 2005. The party agreed to spend $350,000 to build a modest railway platform for Wloszczowa and forced the Polish national railway to stop there four times a day.
The project was derided in the national news media as a classic example of pork-barrel politics; Wloszczowa, not coincidentally, is in the district of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's deputy prime minister. Indeed, the stop was hard to justify based on demand: On a recent morning, the only two people who disembarked from the train were a Washington Post correspondent and an interpreter.
Residents of the town say the train stop has been a godsend.
"People from big cities don't understand such problems. They say, 'Wloszczowa, where the hell is that?' " said Ryszard Iwanczyk, a board member for Zpue, an electronics manufacturer that is the biggest employer in town. "We're totally apolitical, but this platform was built because of the representative from Law and Justice. People will always remember that."
Other influential powers have taken notice. The local Catholic priest, Edward Terlecki, said that in general he's careful not to get involved in politics but that it's hard to ignore which party finally brought the train to town.
"The train platform has opened us up to the rest of Poland," he said. "In my opinion, whoever does a good job like that should be rewarded for it."
The new service has also given a political boost to Wloszczowa's mayor, Bartlomiej Dorywalski. Only 28, he's running for Parliament as a Law and Justice candidate and is considered a rising star.
"Law and Justice is perceived here as a party that can accomplish impossible things," he said. "People are definitely proud that we're now on the map."
No incumbent political party in Poland has won reelection since the country abandoned communism in 1989. Analysts said Jaroslaw Kaczynski didn't help his chances when he performed badly last week in a nationally televised debate with his main rival, Donald Tusk, chairman of the Civic Platform party.
A big turnout is expected Sunday. Competition for votes is so intense that Tusk traveled overseas to campaign in Britain, courting some of the estimated 2 million Poles who have emigrated since Poland joined the European Union, with its open internal borders, in 2004. About 170,000 expatriate Poles in Britain have registered to vote, and about 30,000 have done so in the United States, a sixfold increase since the last election.
The Kaczynskis won power two years ago with a simple message. Arguing that a handful of well-connected elites had pillaged the country after the fall of communism, their party launched an anti-corruption drive involving fresh scrutiny of many major privatization deals from the 1990s.
It also forced the Polish security services to open their archives and expose hundreds of thousands of people who had served as informers and spies behind the Iron Curtain. Efforts to fire civil servants, teachers and journalists with a history of informing were rebuffed last spring by Poland's constitutional court.
Opponents charge that the twins have relied on the organs of state power -- including the police, spy agencies and a nascent anti-corruption bureau -- to punish political enemies and fend off challenges to their authority.
Last month, Henryka Bochniarz, chief of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers, made critical remarks about Law and Justice in a newspaper interview. The next day, without prior notice, the Treasury Ministry announced that it would investigate her private consulting firm to determine whether it had improperly advised the government on a privatization program a decade ago.
Bochniarz, who ran unsuccessfully against Lech Kaczynski for president in 2005, said that neither she nor her firm had done anything improper. "It's just part of this political game," she said, noting that several wealthy Polish businessmen had left the country.
"They don't feel safe here," she said. "This is not the best way of saying that Poland creates a friendly environment for the business community."
Others who prospered during Poland's transition to a market economy are cautious in their assessments of the Kaczynskis, hoping to avoid their wrath.
Among the twins' targets has been Aleksander Gudzowaty, a billionaire industrialist who made his fortune in the energy markets. The Kaczynskis and their allies have denounced him as an oligarch; he once sued for slander after Lech Kaczynski implied publicly that he "had something in common with dirty business in Russia."
Gudzowaty, who says he earned his money honestly, won an out-of-court settlement. But he said he doesn't harbor any hard feelings and chalks up the attacks to politics.
"For myself, I think Kaczynski does not always believe what he is saying," Gudzowaty said, referring to the prime minister. "This is like a keyword he's using to reach all those humiliated people who lost their jobs or who don't have any money. This is just for election purposes."