Poland's acting president reassures nation in mourning

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and a group of the country's leading lawmakers were killed in a plane crash in western Russia earlier in April. Kaczynski's funeral was held Sunday in Krakow, but ash from the Icelandic volcano prevented President Obama and some other world leaders from attending.
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; 2:37 PM

WARSAW -- Poland's interim president, Bronislaw Komorowski, reassured his countrymen Monday that the government continues to function despite the airplane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and a number of senior officials, stunning Warsaw's political elite and plunging the nation into a remarkable display of national mourning.

Komorowski, the speaker of parliament who assumed presidential powers according to the constitution, vowed in a short televised address to work closely with parliamentary political factions in naming replacements for posts left vacant by the tragedy Saturday that took the lives of all 97 passengers aboard a Tupolev TU-154 presidential aircraft as it approached an airport in Smolensk, Russia, in heavy fog.

"The parliament should demonstrate unity in view of the national tragedy," Komorowski said in somber tones.

As Komorowski spoke from inside the presidential palace, thousands of Poles lined up in silence on the esplanade outside for a chance to enter and sign their names on a condolence book. It was the third day running that grief and patriotism led large crowds to assemble spontaneously in front of the palace, where they placed flowers, lighted votive lamps or just stared at the building where Kaczinski had lived and worked.

The government announced that Kaczynski's casket and that of his wife, Maria, would be placed in the palace for public viewing beginning Tuesday. Planning for a state funeral was underway, with Saturday as a target date, and a number of political leaders announced their intention to attend, including President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia.

Komorowski said many empty government and military posts had already been filled provisionally by assistants, permitting government to continue functioning. He said he would consult with parliament members of all parties beginning Tuesday on naming a swift replacement for Slawomir Skrzypek, head of the National Bank of Poland.

The Warsaw stock market, which reopened for trading, seemed unaffected by the tragedy and closed with little change. This was taken as a sign that Poland's key economic actors have confidence in the political system's ability to absorb the shock.

But because of the urgency of the job, Komorowski added, he already has chosen a replacement for Aleksander Szczyglo, head of the National Security Office. The choice was Gen. Stanislaw Marian Koziej, a career officer and former deputy defense minister identified with Kaczynski's views on foreign policy.

Under Poland's political system, the bulk of political power is exercised by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, based on his coalition's majority in parliament. No cabinet ministers were killed in the crash, and as a result, it was not seen as a threat to government stability or the ordinary march of affairs in the bureaucracy.

But the president, who is elected by universal suffrage, is the military commander-in-chief and wields veto power over legislation. In addition, Kaczynski had strong influence over foreign policy, pushing for strong alliances with the United States and NATO and skepticism toward Russia.

Poland has dispatched 2,200 soldiers to Afghanistan, for instance, and has announced plans to send several hundred more. Moreover, it had agreed to host anti-missile installations and U.S. forces under the Bush administration's missile defense plan, since modified by President Obama.

Komorowski's emphasis on consulting all political factions reflected a delicacy in his position as interim president. In addition to being the speaker of parliament, since last month he has also been the presidential candidate of Tusk's pro-Europe Civic Platform party, for an election that had been scheduled for this fall. Under the constitutional timetable set in motion by Kaczynski's death, Komorowski now has two weeks to set an earlier date for the voting, which must be held within 60 days after that.

With Kaczynski's conservative Law and Justice Party sinking in opinion polls, Komorowski had been given a good chance of winning, even if Kaczynski had decided to run for reelection. Now, the political landscape is wide open, with no one able to predict how the national mood will turn, said former deputy foreign minister Pavel Kowal, a Kaczynski supporter.

"We can't know today what the consequences of this tragedy will be," he said in an interview at Law and Justice Party headquarters. "What do all these crowds mean? Will they be translated into ballots? What is happening now is beyond our control."

Some Law and Justice activists have suggested Kaczynski's twin brother, party leader and former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, could win the presidency by taking advantage of the outpouring of patriotism generated by the crash. But Kowal said the wounds of Kaczynski's death are still too recent for such calculations.

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