The victory of former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski over incumbent President Lech Walesa in Poland’s presidential elections Sunday dealt a sharp blow to the Roman Catholic Church, once the most respected moral force in Poland.
The vote may, however, end up having positive results for Poland’s Jews – although one of the first casualties of the election was Poland’s pro-Jewish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski.
Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and Righteous Gentile, resigned along with two other Cabinet ministers who were also Walesa supporters.
Kwasniewski’s victory – with 51.72 percent of the vote to Walesa’s 48.28 percent in the election’s second round – may signal a weakening of the church’s influence over political matters.
“Kwasniewski is not beholden to the Catholic Church,” Konstanty Gebert, a Polish journalist and political commentator who is Jewish, said in a telephone interview.
“Also, he desperately wants to strike the image of a modern, Western, dynamic politician,” he said.
With this in mind, he said, “I rather expect him to move ahead on issued such as the restitution of property, as well as perhaps a judicial crackdown on hate speech.”
Kwasniewski, a smooth-talking 41-year-old who aspires to be a Western-style Social Democrat, narrowly defeated Walesa, the hero of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement and a devout Roman Catholic.
Walesa was strongly supported by the church in Sunday’s second round of the voting.
“This is a choice between two people and two value systems,” said Poland’s primate, Cardinal Josef Glemp, who added that the choice was between “a set of Christian values and a system that I would call neo-pagan.”
More than 90 percent of Poles are Roman Catholic.
During the years Poland was under Communist rule, the church was the bulwark of the opposition. Going to church was almost a political act representing anti- communism.
Pope John Paul II’s visit to his native Poland in 1979 six months after his election to the papacy is often cited as one of the triggers that sparked the protests by Solidarity, the trade union movement that ultimately swept the Communists from power in 1989.
The pope was one of the strongest backers of Poland’s reforms in the wake of Communist rule, and Vatican sources said he was very disappointed at Walesa’s defeat.
Public opinion surveys over the past few years, however, have indicated that Poles think that the church has too much influence in day-to-day life in the newly democratic Poland.
The victory of Kwasniewski – who promised, for example, that he would work toward a liberalization of the country’s strict, church-backed anti-abortion law and said he wanted to keep church and state separate – clearly demonstrated the church’s eroding position.
“This election was the litmus test,” said Gebert. “It means that half of the good Catholic people of Poland voted for an ex-Communist.”
Stanislaw Krajweski, consultant for the American Jewish Committee in Poland, agreed.
“The Church was quite strongly involved before the second round of the elections,” Krajewski, who is active in Christian-Jewish dialogue, said in a telephone interview.
The church “said that the candidate who supported Christian values should be elected,” Krajewski said, adding, “But this didn’t help.
Poland, which before the Holocaust was home to 3.5 million Jews, today has at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 30,000.
Jews were sharply oppressed under the Communist regime. An anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, for example, forced thousands of Holocaust survivors and their children to emigrate.
And, despite recent efforts at change and interfaith dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland has a much longer and still-lingering legacy of anti- Semitism.
During Walesa’s presidency after the fall of the Communists, many important initiatives aimed at overcoming anti-Semitism were put in place.
These included educational programs, the institution of a Polish Council of Christians and Jews, and the naming of a special ambassador dealing with Jewish issues.
But Walesa’s presidency was also marred by anti-Semitic or apparently anti- Semitic blunders.
Many Jews were angered when, during ceremonies in January marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Walesa failed to mention Jews during his speech there.
And just this summer, Walesa’s close friend and longtime political ally, Gdansk priest Henryk Jankowski, caused a furor by making anti-Semitic remarks during a sermon attended by Walesa.
Walesa caused even more furor by not immediately condemning Jankowski’s statements.
At that time, Jewish leaders in Poland expressed concern that the affair might set a precedent for the acceptance of open anti-Semitism in mainstream political discourse prior to the presidential elections.
Krajewski noted that there were attempts by the right wing to use anti-Semitism during the campaign, but they were marginal and had little apparent effect.
Kwasniewski and other candidates who ran in the first round of the voting were the targets of rumors and graffiti branding them as Jews. Rumors were also spread that one of Kwasniewski’s parents was Jewish.
“Anti-Semitism was a visible but marginal occurrence in the campaign,” Krajewski said.
“There were leaflets, and posters were defaced, but Lesek Bubal, the only candidate who ran [in the voting's first round] explicitly as an anti-Semite, only received 0.04 percent of the vote.”
“Anti-Semitism didn’t help,” he added. “After all, those who were using anti- Semitism lost.”