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Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski

They’re anti-gay and pro-Iraq War, fervent Catholics and free-market sceptics, they want to bring back the death penalty and ban abortion even for rape victims. They’re the President and Prime Minister of Poland. And they’re identical twins. Really.

Poland has always been different, and in the early years its luck was good. In the 14th century, the Black Death plague that devastated its neighbours never made it to Poland. In the 17th and 18th centuries, while Western Europe sank under the weight of absolutism, Polish lands enjoyed the Golden Freedom: an aristocratic democracy where nobles elected their king and sat in a robust parliament.

After that, it’s true, Poland had its share of suffering – it became the revolving door of Europe, with the Germans moving east and the Russians moving west. But through it all, the nation retained its identity – or eccentricity, at least. Now, facing corrosive corruption, high unemployment, a lingering post-communist hangover and fears of foreign domination, Poles at the polls have prescribed themselves a cure that’s worse than the disease.

In the summer of 2005, the Law and Justice Party headed by Jaroslaw Kaczy´nski won the greatest number of seats in parliamentary elections, promising to curb free-market policies, redistribute wealth and launch a moral revolution. Though he was the party’s leader, Jaroslaw promised not to be Prime Minister in case his identical twin brother, Lech, should win the presidential election held that same autumn.

Lech did win, and chose someone else to be Prime Minister. For the moment. Then, in the summer of 2006, Lech finally installed Jaroslaw as PM. To avoid confusing the cameras, Lech skipped his twin’s inauguration. This may have been unnecessary because they can be distinguished: Lech, 45 minutes younger, by his two extra facial moles; Jaroslaw, who still lives with his feline-loving mother, by the cat hairs on his pants.

They’re used to sharing the spotlight. They made their first public appearance in Polish society 45 years ago as the too-cute child co-stars of the popular movie _Those Two Who Would Steal the Moon_. Their polling breakthrough came shortly after liberation from Soviet rule. In 1993, a Polish publication ranked them first and second in an opinion survey – as the craziest politicians in the country.

Coming from a family that suffered gravely from both the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Lech and Jaroslaw made their names as fervent nationalists, active in the Solidarity movement during the 1980s. Lech Kaczy´nski was once an advisor to Lech Walesa and even served briefly in his post-communist Government. Walesa ended up firing him, saying: ‘His approach is to destroy first and then think about what to build.’ The reviews from abroad were no more flattering. According to the BBC, Western European leaders see the Polish pair as ‘prickly, unsophisticated, provincial nationalists’.

In the summer of 2006 Lech cancelled a summit with the French President and German Chancellor at short notice, claiming stomach illness. Most believed it was because a satirical German newspaper article called him ‘Poland’s new potato’. Lech called the article ‘disgusting and mean’ – and said it upset his mother. Meanwhile, they’ve courted the US, extending their military presence in Iraq until at the least the end of 2007.

The ultra-Catholic twins see enemies everywhere. Still embittered by Soviet rule, they’ve stalled European Union negotiations with Russia. At home, they’re trying to purge former communist collaborators from every branch of the public service – with a special emphasis on settling old scores. This proved awkward when a popular archbishop was forced to resign for having helped the security service in the 1980s.

Human Rights Watch has accused the twins of stoking the fires of homophobic hatred to advance their political careers. As the Mayor of Warsaw, Lech tried to ban all gay pride parades, calling their organizers ‘perverts’. Drawing a nice distinction, he told them: ‘I respect your right to demonstrate as citizens. But not as homosexuals.’ His justification? ‘If gay culture were to be an accepted alternative, it could mean, especially here in Europe, that our heterosexual culture could disappear.’

Though it is unlikely to be approved, a partner in their parliamentary coalition proposed an amendment to the constitution removing a woman’s right to an abortion within the first 12 weeks, even in cases of incest or rape. But the twins are not dogmatically pro-life: they have called for a return of the death penalty. Recent attempts to soften their conservative image for outsiders haven’t convinced.

It’s hard to know how long these polarizing Poles can hold on to power – their candidate lost the crucial Warsaw mayoral election in November. Either way, they are proof of a growing trend. Even the country whose economy grew fastest under ‘shock therapy’, and which has gained considerable influence by joining the EU, isn’t reaping the benefits promised by its élites. Like the French, who stunned Europe by rejecting its top-down constitution, Poland’s people want an alternative to the twin cancers of neoliberalism and élite rule. Dissatisfaction can have some strange bedfellows.