By Brian J. Forest, Contributing Editor
Even for a country used to tragedy, Saturday’s plane crash in Katyn came as a sudden and devastating blow to Poland. In a flash, an entire generation of Polish political leaders has disappeared; besides President Lech and First Lady Maria Kaczynski, Saturday’s crash claimed the lives of the country’s central bank governor, national security chief, top military brass and scores of top Polish political officials, members of parliament and policy advisors.
In an especially cruel turn of fate, Kaczynski had been leading a delegation to commemorate a 1940 Soviet massacre of thousands of Poles in Katyn. Speaking on Polish television after the crash, former President Aleksander Kwasniewski called Katyn a “tragic” and “cursed” place, and his predecessor Lech Walesa said of the tragedy, “[In Katyn], they tried to cut off our head. The elite of our country has been killed again. It will take a while to fill this gap.”
Tributes have begun to roll in for the late president, who will be remembered as a founding member of the Solidarity movement that helped tip Poland from communism to democracy, as well as a unique and uncompromising political figure. Perhaps most memorably, his identical twin Jaroslaw briefly served alongside Kaczynski as prime minister, in a first of its kind political double act. U.S. President Barack Obama called him a, “distinguished statesman,” and Britain’s Gordon Brown lauded Kaczynski as a, “passionate patriot and democrat.” Even Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who Kaczynski narrowly defeated in 2005, called his death, “the most tragic event in Poland’s post-war history.”
The hole rendered in Poland’s political fabric is especially bracing for Kaczynski’s populist Law and Justice Party, the country’s main parliamentary opposition. His death comes just months before Poland’s presidential election, in which he was expected to seek re-election. His departure now leaves Law and Justice without an obvious candidate. The race’s major left-wing candidate was also killed in Saturday’s crash.
In line with the Polish constitution, parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski will assume the role of acting president until expedited snap elections can be held in June. Komorowski, a member of Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform party, had already emerged as a top challenger to Kaczynski before his death. Unless the late president’s twin Jaroslaw joins the race, analysts expect Komorowski to easily win the June vote and help Poland chart a new post-Katyn path.