Prime Minister Donald Tusk offered the first surprise of the year when he chose not to run for the presidency. Perhaps “surprise” is the wrong word – polls favored Mr Tusk against other potential candidates, including incumbent President Lech Kaczyński, yes. But those more familiar with the PM knew he would be loath to relinquish a position of real power in exchange for a position which is, as he phrased it upon announcing his non-candidacy, all about “prestige and chandeliers.”
Donald Tusk's decision energized the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, which believed its own candidate, the embattled Lech Kaczyński, stood a good chance against a PO politician of lesser stature.
The odd presidential primary which followed – a first for Poland as well as Civic Platform – might have proven them right, had the year progressed differently. Neither the wooden political veteran (Bronisław Komorowski) nor the Oxford-educated PiS turncoat (Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski) did much to excite neutral observers. And when the long-serving Mr Komorowski handily won the contest, an outcome which surprised few, the stage was set for a Komorowski-Kaczyński showdown.
The April 10 plane crash changed the course of Polish history. The deaths of the president and first lady, key politicians and military leaders as well as scores of others – the impact of this event will be felt for years to come.
In the outpouring of national grief that followed, Lech Kaczyński went from being an incumbent whose approval ratings languished at around 25 percent to a national hero of nearly mythical proportions. Controversially, he was buried in the crypt of Kraków's Wawel Castle, a resting place reserved for Poland's greatest leaders.
After the funeral, a period of uncertainty. Would the late president's twin brother and leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, run? Would he be able to keep his party together?
Yes. And not entirely.
Poland's 2010 presidential election indeed turned out to be a Komorowski-Kaczyński showdown. A visibly bereaved Jarosław – he would later claim much of his campaign was run under the influence of sedatives – made it to a second-round run off against Bronisław Komorowski, but lost by a margin of about six percentage points.
That he did even that well, a fact which took some politics watchers by surprise, was largely attributed to his disarmingly calm, non-confrontational posture during the campaign. At least one pre-Smolensk survey found that he had the highest percentage of “would never vote for” responses out of major politicians. But after the tragedy, sympathy and non-aggression lent credence to his new image.
On the campaign trail he said negative emotions should be put aside and politicians should come together and cooperate for the good of the country. “Polska Jest Najważniejsza” (Poland is Most Important) was his campaign slogan. Those in charge of his campaign, MPs Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and Paweł Poncyljusz, claimed that the April 10 tragedy had changed Mr Kaczyński. And he started gaining rapidly in the polls.
A return to form
July witnessed one of the most spectacular about-faces in modern Polish history. Having lost the election, Mr Kaczyński amped up his rhetoric to previously unheard levels. He refused to attend Mr Komorowski's inauguration, vowed never to shake his hand and stated that the new president had been voted in “by mistake.”
He categorically ruled out any possibility of cooperation with Mr Komorowski and famously described Poland as a “Russian-German condominium.” During the row over the Smolensk cross standing outside the Presidential Palace, Mr Kaczyński rallied support against the plan to relocated the icon and called for a suitable permanent memorial for the crash victims.
At the same time, news emerged of friction within PiS. According to these rumors, Mr Kaczyński held the moderates in his party responsible for his election defeat as well as for trying to take over PiS. Rumor became reality late in the year, when Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, who had run Mr Kaczyński's widely praised presidential campaign, was ousted from the party along with a colleague, Elżbieta Jakubowska. Other politicians chose defection before defenestration, joining Ms Kluzik-Rostkowska under the banner of Poland is Most Important, a new political association with a familiar name.
The one-party system
So where does that leave Poland as 2011 begins? With PO far more dominant than when the year began and PiS seemingly at pains to marginalize itself.
The local government elections held in November gave PO about 31 percent of the votes and PiS at 23 percent, an increase for the former and a drop for the latter compared to the 2006 elections. The Polish People's Party, which is traditionally stronger in local elections than on the national stage, took 16 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Left Alliance was at 15 percent.
PO has now won four consecutive elections, an unprecedented achievement in post-communist Poland. Moreover, it seems a foregone conclusion these days that the party will win next year's parliamentary elections. The only real speculation is by how great a margin.
Donald Tusk ends 2010 a kingmaker, Jarosław Kaczyński a wild card.
That's all well and good for Mr Tusk and his party – they have good reason to break out the champagne for New Year's Eve – but the lack of a credible opposition is dangerous for Poland. Democracy does not flourish in a single-party system.
Perhaps Mr Tusk himself phrased it best in a recent interview with Wprost: “There's nobody to lose [an election] to.”
Sadly for Poland, he is right.