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Twins who rule Poland face crucial test
Election set after their government coalition caved in

By Craig Whitlock, Washington Post | October 21, 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.

Today, 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 indicate that their Law and Justice party is in trouble.

"They're dangerous for democracy," said Senator Stefan Niesiolowski, a longtime rival. "They are always bent on revenge."

The Civic Platform, a center-right opposition party, was leading by four to 17 percentage points in the latest polls. It has campaigned for economic changes and a faster withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq. But Polish electoral polls are often unreliable, and even the twins' fiercest critics aren't counting out Law and Justice, the conservative ruling party.

Regardless of what happens today, 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 people and entities, the populist message of the Kaczynskis 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 anticommunist 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 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 railway platform for Wloszczowa and forced the Polish national railway to stop there four times a day despite limited ridership.

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.

But residents say the train stop has been a godsend.

"The train platform has opened us up to the rest of Poland," said the Rev. Edward Terlecki, a priest. "In my opinion, whoever does a good job like that should be rewarded for it."

Wloszczowa's mayor, Bartlomiej Dorywalski, who is 28, is running for Parliament as a Law and Justice candidate and is considered a rising star.

No incumbent political party in Poland has won reelection since the country abandoned communism in 1989. A big turnout is expected today. Competition for votes is so intense that Donald Tusk, chairman of the Civic Platform party, traveled overseas to campaign in Britain, courting some of the estimated 2 million Poles who have emigrated since Poland joined the EU, with its open internal borders, in 2004.

About 170,000 expatriate Poles in Britain have registered to vote. The Kaczynskis won power two years ago with a simple message. He said a handful of well-connected elites had pillaged the country after the fall of communism. The Law and Justice party launched an anticorruption 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. Opponents said the twins have relied on the organs of state power - including the police, spy agencies, and a nascent anticorruption bureau - to punish political enemies and fend off challenges to their authority.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
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