It was 9:30pm, under a chilly, steady rain. the Polish Presidential Palace glowed brightly in the background as a cluster of men and women huddled under umbrellas, saying prayers, holding small wooden crosses against their bodies, facing a large picture of Jesus Christ on the cross and a lighted statue of the Virgin Mary.
They had come to protest against Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in a vigil that began in the early days after a plane crash in April that killed then-Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife and dozens of the nation’s top political and military leaders.
As the days have turned into weeks and now months, as their demands have shifted from keeping a cross outside the Presidential Palace to building a permanent monument to replacing the president, their nightly vigil has come to represent the deep social and political cleavages threatening to derail one of the great success stories of the former Soviet bloc, a number of people here said in a series of recent interviews.
Perhaps surprisingly, Poles actually have sound reasons to celebrate: They have navigated the treacherous transition from communism better than most of the post-Soviet satellite nations and theirs is the only country in Europe to have avoided a recession during the financial crisis.
Instead, they are feeling insecure, pessimistic and uncertain about the future, and they have turned on one another.
“We have a beautiful face in tough times and during difficult moments, but in normal times, we are lost,” said Jan Oldakowski, an opposition member of the Polish parliament, who was one of several members of the opposition Law and Justice Party to recently quit the party to form a more centrist coalition.
“With freedom, Poles do not know how to cooperate with each other,” Oldakowski said.
The political leadership is at war with itself. Personal attacks and insults are flying. Politicians have traded accusations of drug abuse, mental illness, collaborating with the Nazis and being agents of Moscow. They have said of one another that they would be better off dead.
Former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who lost a bid to become president after his twin brother died in the crash, has refused to shake hands with Tusk, refused to attend the main memorial service for the crash this year and has turned against some of his closest allies, prompting them to quit the Law and Justice Party, which the Kaczynski brothers founded in 2001.
“Poles always feel they need to have an enemy,” Urszula Slawinska, 38, said one day as she walked along a sidewalk in Warsaw, an average citizen, headed home, uninvolved in politics, yet keenly aware of what was happening around her.
“Because of our history we define ourselves, to be Polish meant to protect our country. So now that we don’t have to protect ourselves, we still need to find an enemy,” she said.
Inevitably, in this conservative, majority Catholic country, the Church also finds itself caught up in the internecine fighting. Its leadership is split, with some outspoken clerics backing the political opposition, while others are trying to move the institution away from partisan politics. There is a strong anti-clerical movement and there is growing concern within the religious community that Poland will itself become a more secular society like much of Europe.