Poland ponders how to fill leaders’ empty seats

The surviving members of the Polish political elite turned their attention Monday to the delicate task of reconstituting the country’s leadership after a plane crash killed President Lech Kaczynski, heads of key institutions, lawmakers and military chiefs.

It was a delicate, often distasteful, task. The Polish people are still mourning in streets littered with dying flowers and slick with hardened puddles of candle wax. Kaczynski’s body was brought back to Poland, but the remains of the other 95 dead were taken to Moscow for identification.

The chamber of the Sejm, or lower house of parliament, sat empty Monday. Bunches of red and white flowers marked the vacant seats of the 14 dead lawmakers, and the golden nameplates on their office doors were crossed out with black ribbons.

Legislators bustled through the halls and ducked into closed-door meetings with their party members.

“The situation is extraordinary. I don’t think anybody in Poland knows how to act,” said Grzegorz Napieralski, chairman of the Democratic Left Alliance. “People say these halls are the halls of death.”

Political observers have turned their attention to Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the Sejm. In Poland’s ravaged leadership structure, Komorowski has been shoved into multiple, overlapping roles: He is acting president, as stipulated by the constitution; speaker of the parliament; and the only survivor of the three main candidates in the presidential election that had been set for October.

Komorowski is to start consultations with the parties Tuesday, and is then expected to reset the date of the election for June.

Polish officials said Monday that they would investigate whether someone on the plane had directed the pilots to try to land at Smolensk, in western Russia, on Saturday despite warnings by flight controllers of bad weather. Russian officials said there were no problems with the plane, an aging Soviet-made Tupolev-154. The Polish delegation was on its way to a memorial service for Polish prisoners killed by Soviet secret police in 1940.

Despite the sense that it is unseemly to talk politics at a moment of national grief, there was an undertone of worry among the other parties. Komorowski is a political ally of the prime minister, Donald Tusk, and is considered the likely winner in forthcoming elections.

His party, Civic Platform, has clashed bitterly with the late president’s Law and Justice Party in recent years. Kaczynski had taken a harder line with Europe, and pushed a social agenda that included intolerance of gay rights and the persecution of onetime communists.

Komorowski and Tusk’s party, by contrast, has been eager to bring Poland closer to Europe and switch to the euro currency, and it takes a slightly more liberal stance on social issues.

Distrust runs deep and, on Monday, slivers of acrimony were creeping in.

“I’m concerned about the situation in Poland,” said Jolanta Szczypinska, a leading lawmaker from Law and Justice. “I’m worried about the actions of Komorowski, that he’ll step outside of his obligations and do certain things that are above him.”

Szczypinska’s eyes repeatedly clouded with tears as she spoke.

“The loss of the president is unimaginable to us,” she said. “But now elections are coming up, and we have to make good decisions. We have to find our candidate for the presidency.”

Tusk’s Civic Platform party shouldn’t cement its power, she said.

“Our president had a totally different vision than Tusk,” she said. “He wanted a strong Poland, honored by the other European countries. He wanted national interests above all. Tusk lacks this vision.”

Poland’s leading leftist party was also gutted. The presidential candidate, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, was killed, along with its most prominent lawmakers.

“I have no imagination of how it will be, because everything has changed now,” said former Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy. “I don’t know, honestly, if we will find a new candidate from the left.”

Meanwhile, decisions were pressing.

Komorowski will have to set elections for the three regions that lost lawmakers in the upper house. Important institutions are also in need of leadership.

The crash killed the heads of the central bank and the Institute of National Remembrance, sensitive archives from communist times. New directors have to be chosen by parliament and approved by the president, but the parties were reluctant to make any decisions before filling all the seats.

“It’s a very delicate problem,” said Napieralski. “Because we did not yet bury the victims, and we have to discuss who’s going to replace them.”