The President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, was among 96 people killed in a plane crash while trying to land at the military airport in Smolensk in Russia this morning. Among the victims of the accident were also his wife Maria, the chief of the defence staff, the deputy foreign minister, the president of the country’s national bank and 17 MPs.
Kaczyński, who belonged to the populist right-wing party Law and Justice, had served as president since 2005, when he defeated Donald Tusk from the Civic Platform party.
Born in 1949, the late President was a professor of law and had been part of the Solidarity movement which played a leading part in bringing down the Communist regime in Poland. He supported Lech Walesa as president in 1990, but later fell out with the leader of Solidarity and formed Law and Justice with his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczyński.
The younger of the twins by 45 seconds, Lech Kaczyński became mayor of Warsaw, minister of justice and head of Poland’s audit office before being elected president five years ago. His twin brother subsequently become prime minister, but was defeated by Donald Tusk in 2007.
The death of the President makes the Speaker of Parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, acting president. According to the Constitution a new presidential election must be held within two months. A presidential election was scheduled to be held in October and the latest opinion polls left him little chance of a second term; only 16 % favoured his re-election.
The President, known for his antipathy towards Russia, was on his way to Russia to take part in commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where 15,000 Polish officers were executed by Soviet Russia.
The late President was at the beginning of his term described by Timothy Garton Ash as “much given to conspiracy theories about both domestic and international politics, seeing the hidden hand of security services where others cannot detect it”. It remains to be seen how soon the conspiracy theories concerning the circumstances of his death will appear.
Among the victims of the crash was also Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last Polish President-in-exile. Following the end of World War II Poland maintained a government-in-exile in London until the fall of communism. It was, significantly, from Kaczorowski rather than from the de facto president, General Wojciech Jaruzeski, that Lech Walesa chose to receive the presidential insignia when inaugurated as president in 1990.