Kalisz (central Poland), 1997. The presidential helicopter gently touches down on a grassy airfield, a hundred meters from a crowd waiting for the President. Close-up: Marek Siwiec, Chief of National Security Bureau, appears in the helicopter's door. Slow motion: as he is descending three foldable steps, he nonchalantly makes a cross sign, as if blessing the people and place. Next scene: President Aleksander Kwaśniewski appears and, laughing, asks: "Has Minister Siwiec kissed the Kalisz ground already?"
Siwiec answers by kneeling down and kissing the ground, in a manner that most Poles associate with Pope John Paul II. Kwaśniewski's encouragement is heard: "That's it! Yes!" A voice says: "Does a person that ridicules the Pope in public deserve to be the head of the Polish state?" The screen gets divided into two; on the left there is a picture of Kwaśniewski with a caption: "ridiculing the Holy Father"; on the right we see a picture of the President's arch rival, Marian Krzaklewski. The caption reads: "faithful to the tradition."
Yes, this is Marian Krzaklewski's most recent attempt to gain extra votes in the presidential race. Apart from showing the "ridiculing the Holy Father," the spot also tries to build this appalling portrayal of Kwaśniewski by bringing back controversial scenes from Russia where, according to his opponents, he got drunk. Certainly, the President's movements seemed a little uncertain there, but, according to his lawyer, Ryszard Kalisz, it was only due to a weakness caused by poor health on that day.
With such picturesque TV electoral spots, the Polish presidential campaign entered its decisive phase. Since 23 September, all 13 candidates have been able to present their programs—and themselves—on public TV, free of charge. Apart from a massive attack of presidential commercials on defenseless would-be voters, the candidates are moving fast across Poland, facing enthusiasm, anger, or indifference. On Sunday 24 September, they met in the Silesian town of Nysa to take part in pre-elections. Informal as they were, nearly all of the candidates (except for Lech Wałęsa, Piotr Ikonowicz, and General Tadeusz Wilecki as well as the President, who had already visited Nysa three days before) came to Nysa to lure those who have not yet decided how to cast their votes.
A done deal?
However, the atmosphere surrounding the campaign was rather that of a folk festival, except for verbal battles fought between the young followers of Marian Krzaklewski, known under the name of Liga Republikanska, and their leftist opponents who would chant "seven per cent! seven per cent!" as if prophesying Krzaklewski's result. However, their prophesies never came true. This is not to say that Krzaklewski achieved an astonishing result—but he got over 17 per cent of the Nysa dwellers' votes. Kwaśniewski easily came in first with 53 per cent. With similar results on 8 October (and the polls do indicate this may be the case), the second round will not happen.
In his blind drive for the President, Marian Krzaklewski seems to have forgotten about Andrzej Olechowski, whose 15 per cent (putting him in third place) should not be underestimated by the Electoral Action Solidarity's leader. With the polls as they have been for the last weeks, Krzaklewski must not only concentrate on fighting the President in any way possible (like the infamous video footage from Kalisz), but should also watch out for Olechowski. Olechowski could cause a major setback for the Krzaklewski, if he manages to achieve come in second place—no matter if it allows him to continue in the second round or not.
Krzaklewski's slim chances
Krzaklewski runs his campaign in the manner of a winner. But he must know that his only chance for the presidency lies in getting to the second round, where he can count on the combined vote of other right-wing candidates. Moreover, if he does not make it to the second round, or—a true disaster!—lands third after Olechowski, his political career may be over.
Speculation as to who will take over the party after Krzaklewski's defeat, and in what way, is already being heard in government corridors and publicly scrutinized in the press. Names of the potential successors are already mentioned: Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, the Sejm Speaker Maciej Płażyński... Who knows, perhaps Krzaklewski's main ambition now is just a decent result in order to shut the mouths of the opposition within his own party.
Your platform is my platform...
Andrzej Olechowski is, in a sense, in the best position. He runs as an independent candidate without the pressure that is exerted on either Kwaśniewski or Krzaklewski. In the event of a defeat, his position will not be much affected, for he does not run on behalf of a political body. Of course, there is a group of AWS politicians who, in breaking away from Krzaklewski, gave Olechowski their support.
However, this support was never definite. Initially, there were doubts about the axiological aspect of Olechowski's candidacy—after he declared himself to be "a politician for hire." This provoked the opinion that there is no driving force behind his running for the highest office, a concern that seems very important for both of his main rivals.
As his support grew, however, such reservations were silenced, and he has been listed as one who could blight Krzaklewski's electoral result, as well as, perhaps, Kwaśniewski's easy lead in the race. Olechowski runs his campaign in a rather composed manner. Only last week he unnecessarily contributed to the criticism received by Kwaśniewski after the publication of the Kalisz video footage saying that "such pictures discredit the President in the eyes of world public opinion."
Destroying the President?
The incumbent President is not letting the negative campaign put him off the winning track, though. He patiently develops his positive image by not referring to any of his opponents' darker sides, constantly assuring that once he is re-elected "there will be room in Poland for his adversaries."
The main actor of the "Kalisz incident," Marek Siwiec, resigned from his post with a pace that is rather uncommon among Polish politicians, who prefer to cling to their seats for as long as possible. "I won't let this destroy
Rules of the presidential elections
The elections take place every five years (except if the President is forced to resign) and are summoned by the Sejm Speaker.
As from 1990, the President is elected directly by the people and can serve a maximum two terms (the first President of the post-Communist era, Wojciech Jarużelski was elected by parliament, but since then, the electoral law has changed).
If a candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, the elections are over after the first round. However, if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round is needed, two weeks after the first one. In the second round, the two candidates with highest results compete against each other.
To become an official presidential candidate requires the gathering of 100,000 signatures of support: first, the would-be candidates must gather 1,500 signatures in order to register their electoral committees. After the registration, the rest of the signatures are gathered. A presidential candidate must be a Polish citizen, at least 35 years old on election day and be fully eligible to be elected to the Sejm.
Kwaśniewski did receive criticism from the media, but it was rather mild, except the one angry voice of Bishop Życiński who said that Kwaśniewski should have followed Siwiec and resigned from his office—a clearly absurd postulate if aimed at a politician with a 60 per cent approval rating.
Marian Krzaklewski, the man behind all this controversy, was chastised more harshly. The media recalled his own assurances that he would not run a negative campaign, but rather a campaign based on discussion of the issues. Clutching at images that are three years old as a means of gaining votes is a sign of desperation, not a clear and concrete strategy.
Nonsense and propaganda
One aspect of the race for the presidency that is common for all 13 candidates is the pitiful way they run their TV campaigns. Freed from nosy journalists, they do their utmost to get votes from people who are still uncertain for whom they should vote or whether to vote at all. The results are embarrassing for those who have at least a little knowledge of politics and the economy. Of course, those TV ads are aimed at people who make a decision at the last moment and thus are based on emotional factors. Still, the amount of nonsense that flows from the screen is astounding. The lower a candidate's rank is, the worse the nonsense.
Just a couple of examples of this include establishing one income tax at three per cent for everyone, a minimum wage of USD 600 a month and
The keen followers of the three main candidates are all ready to head to the ballot rooms and cast their votes on their favorites. The battle is now on who is going to gain most from those who are still hesitating, hence the ludicrous presidential commercials on TV. For many voters, however, these elections are a foregone conclusion already. Quite possibly, they are a foregone conclusion for the candidates trailing to Kwaśniewski by at least 40 percentage points.
However, there is still a week to go before Poles go to the ballot boxes. One cannot exclude a sudden mobilization of the right-wing electorate, which would not perhaps bring a straight win to Krzaklewski or Olechowski but could cause the final result to be postponed for two weeks until the second round. If such a dramatic scenario does happen, all predictions will have to be made anew.
Wojtek Kość, 2 October 2000
- Archive of CER articles on Poland
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Poland through CER
- Return to CER front page