Polish politics play out on Jos. Campau

(Editor-at-Large Walter Wasacz writes a weekly column on life in Hamtramck.)

By Walter Wasacz

There is a major, highly contentious election coming up in Hamtramck this weekend. Rhetoric and rumors are rich with historical significance. But this one involves no local, state or federal offices. Not in the U.S., that is.

Eligible Polish voters in Michigan are helping to decide the president’s race in Poland. They will be voting Saturday at the Polish American Congress on Jos. Campau. Voters in Poland will go to the polls Sunday, July 4.

The election is necessary after interim president Bronislaw Komorowski failed to win 50 percent of the vote in elections held last month. He received about 41 percent of the popular vote, while Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in Russia in April along with over 90 other officials on their way to a commemorative event in the Katyn forest — received 36 percent.

In voting at PAC, however, Kaczynski more than doubled Komorowski’s vote total: 343 to 168. It may seem like much ado about nothing in Poland, a nation of 39 million people and millions of voters.

But symbolically it speaks volumes about how a majority of Poles here lean on political, social, cultural and economic issues. To the right — make that the far right.

They supported a candidate whose slogan roughly translates into “Poland is most important,” which on the surface sounds innocent enough. But dig deeper and you see the roots of ultra-nationalism, mistrust of full participation in the European Union, paranoid disregard for liberalization initiatives and gender equality for women and Poland’s sizable LGBT community.

Former Solidarity leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president Lech Walesa recently said that it would be a “disaster” for Poland if Kaczynski won. “Kaczynski is an irresponsible and dangerous politician,” said Mr. Walesa on Polish radio RMF-FM. “We could pay a high price if he wins.”

Walesa’s biting critique is not surprising. Both Kaczynski twins accused Walesa of working for the communist-era secret police, trying to strip him of his legacy as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated freedom fighters. Walesa co-founded the Soviet era’s first trade union at the Gdansk Shipyards and was involved in dissident and human rights activities beginning in the late 1960s until he was elected Poland’s first post-communist president in 1990.

Another former president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who succeeded Walesa, has also come out strongly against Kaczynski. That’s not at all shocking. Kwasniewski, co-founder of the Democratic Left Alliance, has often been vilified by conservative Poles. He is now a distinguished scholar at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and lectures each year at the University of Michigan. But his appearances there draw the ire of Detroit Polish radio commentators, who have urged Polish parents to not send their children to U-M because of the university’s relationship with Kwasniewski.

However ignorant and silly that may be, it looks even worse when Poles start branding global hero Walesa “a communist” collaborator, which is what you might hear if you prick up your ears at a casual meeting at the Polish American Congress. The same tag has been placed on Komorowski — who in truth is left of Kaczynski but still considered pro-business and center-right on the political spectrum.

The problem with Komorowski, according to the Polish right, is that he is too European (a similar tag was placed on the multilingual Kwasniewski), less cozy with the Catholic Church (which casts a huge shadow over Polish politics) and has stated he wants to scale back Poland’s military presence in Afghanistan.

He was Parliament Speaker before the death of Lech Kaczynski and was elevated by law to the interim presidency. He has worked effectively with likeminded Prime Minister Donald Tusk (both are members of the Civic Platform Party, essentially conservative Christian Democrats and economic liberals) and Polish government has, in a just a few months, resumed civil relations with its German neighbors and others who’d been derided by the Kaczynskis Poland-first-and-only rhetoric of their Law & Justice Party.

We’ll see how Poles in Michigan vote this Sunday. Chances are Kaczynski will score big on Jos. Campau (his campaign poster can be found at Pope Paul II Park and elsewhere on the avenue). The latest polling in Poland shows Komorowski now leading with over just over 50 percent of the vote. That’s good news for Poland and Europe, even if venomous nationalists and absurd revisionist historians here and there bitterly disagree.

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