Polish Jews ready to cooperate with new right-wing president

Polish Jews ready to cooperate with new right-wing president

In contrast to his predecessor in largely ceremonial post, Andrzej Duda has rejected apologizing for Poles’ role in Holocaust as ‘attempt to destroy’ country’s good name

Opposition candidate Andrzej Duda celebrates his victory (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Opposition candidate Andrzej Duda celebrates his victory (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Leaders of Poland’s Jewish community said Polish Jews are ready to cooperate with the country’s new right-wing president, who has criticized his predecessor’s apologies to Jews over the Holocaust.

Andrzej Duda won Sunday’s presidential elections in Poland. Duda, whose father-in-law Julian Kornhauser is a well-known Polish-Jewish poet, garnered 52 percent of the vote, according to official results certified on Sunday night. His opponent, former president Bronislaw Komorowski, received 48 percent of the vote.

Duda, a conservative politician, criticized the president’s apologies in recent years for the massacre that Polish farmers perpetrated against their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne. The 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in which dozens of Jews were burned alive by villagers who trapped them inside a barn, was exposed in the early 2000s by the historian Jan Gross. The discovery triggered furious reactions by Polish nationalists who claimed there was too little evidence to support the allegations, which they said falsely depicted Poland as a perpetrator nation instead of a victim of Nazi occupation.

Komorwski said of Jedwabne during campaign debate that “the nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators.”

Duda called Komorowski’s apologies an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name.” According to Duda, the whole Polish nation cannot be blamed for war crimes, as Komorowski’s apologies seem to indicate.

Duda is a member of the conservative right-wing Law and Justice Party. On Monday he announced that he would resign from membership in the party in order to serve as an independent president.

“I hope that the new president will go the way of one of his predecessors, Lech Kaczynski, with whom I had a chance to cooperate on many occasions and whom I considered a friend of Polish Jews,” Piotr Kadlcik, Jewish activist and board member of the Warsaw Jewish Community, told JTA.

Leslaw Piszewski, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, called for dialogue.

“I hope that after taking the presidential office, there will be time for reflection and thoughtful dialogue with the Jewish community, which is an integral part of the Polish state,” Piszewski said. “The issues important to us, such as a common historical memory, restitution, and the protection of monuments of Jewish culture, will be perceived, discussed and supported by the president, as should be done in any democratic state.”

Duda, a 43-year-old lawyer, will be taking office in August for a five-year term.

Duda, a Roman Catholic, traveled on Monday to the Jasna Gora shrine in Czestochowa, and prayed there.

“Regardless of whether they voted for me or not, I would like Poles to say after those five years that I really tried to be the president of all Poles, that I tried to answer their needs, that I was such a person,” he said.

Duda’s win is a serious warning for the ruling pro-EU government, in power since 2007, before fall parliamentary elections. It could herald a major political shift in the European Union’s sixth-largest economy, a country that has been able to punch above its weight in Europe without belonging to the 19-nation eurozone. Poland’s influence is underlined by the fact that one of its own, Donald Tusk, now heads the European Council in Brussels.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski attends a state ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, March 12, 2015 (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski attends a state ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, March 12, 2015 (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poland’s president has limited powers, but is the head of the armed forces, and can propose and veto legislation. On foreign policy issues, the president’s role is chiefly ceremonial.

Law and Justice presents itself as a protector of those who haven’t benefited from the capitalist transformation and as a defender of national interests abroad. It is staunchly pro-US, but has a sometimes defiant stance toward other European partners, which has created tensions in the past with the EU and neighboring Germany.

Duda says he wants new taxes on the foreign-owned banks and supermarkets to protect Polish interests, suggesting an approach similar to that of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. He also said he wants banks returned to Polish control.

Analyst Jacek Kucharczyk said Poland’s relations with other European powers will now depend on whether Duda sticks to the relatively moderate agenda he campaigned on or whether he embraces his party leader’s more combative foreign policy stance.

“That would be a nightmare scenario for Polish foreign policy, because it would mean getting into conflicts with Germany and anti-EU stunts and aggressive rhetoric toward Russia,” said Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, an independent think tank in Warsaw. “We are in for a bumpy ride. The only question is how bumpy it will be.”

Party supporters, however, have been rejoicing since late Sunday when exit polls indicated a victory for Duda. They say the party will do much more to help the many Poles who have not benefited from the country’s economic growth, those who face low wages and job insecurity despite a quarter-century of growth. In his campaign speeches, Duda often spoke of the more than 2 million Poles who left in the past decade to seek better economic opportunities abroad.

Supporters also say Duda will do more to fight for the country’s economic interests.

“Andrzej Duda is a responsible person and will be a responsible president,” said Zbigniew Ziobro, a former justice minister when the Law and Justice party led the government. “He will fulfill Poland’s obligations toward NATO and the European Union, but he will definitely put more stress on Poland’s interests.”

In Moscow, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin congratulated Duda and “expressed confidence that building constructive relations between Russia and Poland, based on the principles of good neighborly relations and the mutual respect of interests, would strengthen security and stability in Europe.”

The rise of Duda also marks a generational shift in Polish politics. He will be the sixth president since the fall of communism in 1989, but at 43, the first who is too young to have been a major participant in the 1980s struggle between communist authorities and the Solidarity opposition movement. He apparently won a significant share of young voters on Sunday.

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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