WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Jaroslaw Kaczynski has guided Poland's conservative ruling party to capture the biggest electoral share for any party in 30 years of democracy in Poland — yet the man who has dreamed of power since childhood is still a bit disappointed.
Kaczynski's focus on social benefits and promotion of patriotic values won the Law and Justice party a historic 44% of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary election, giving it 235 of 460 seats in the lower house of parliament. The seats did not increase from the 2015 election despite an improvement over the party's 38% outcome then.
The party will keep its working majority to pass laws, but falls far short of the large majority that Kaczynski had wanted to enable him to change the constitution and reshape Poland to fit his vision of a strong modern state rooted in conservative Catholic traditions.
On election night he could barely hide his disappointment, saying the party "deserved more."
Furthermore, his ruling party lost its majority in the Senate, giving the opposition the power to slow down Law and Justice's passage of laws and to influence appointments to important state bodies.
It is a bittersweet victory for a man who is widely considered the most powerful politician in the country — "almost absolute monarch" as one commentator called him Monday on news portal Onet.
That is also because it was probably his last.
The 70-year-old has recently said he plans to retire from politics before the next parliamentary election in 2023. While he campaigned tirelessly, traveling the country and meeting with voters, his age and bad knees mean he doesn't have forever to put his mark on Poland. He faces surgery on both his knees soon.
Yet for now, there is no question that he remains the most influential powerbroker in the nation, even though he has no formal position in government and is just a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament, a seat he was reelected to Sunday.
During the campaign, he was the party's driving force, far overshadowing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at rallies.
Over the past four years, he hand-picked the Cabinet and is the architect of government policies, though he clearly has to negotiate with different factions in his conservative group behind closed doors.
To his supporters, the lifelong bachelor looms as a benevolent father figure who has helped them in their daily struggles with generous social benefits.
Critics, however, blame Kaczynski for eroding democratic norms, an ironic twist for a man who was active in Poland's pro-democracy Solidarity movement in the 1980s.
Since taking power in 2015, Law and Justice has overhauled Poland's justice system in a way that has eroded judicial independence. It has seized control of state media and turned it into a party propaganda tool with little regard for the standards of objective journalism.
The party ran this time on promises to complete its judicial reforms and to establish a body to regulate journalists, policies that could prolong the country's standoff with the European Union.
Kaczynski served as aide to then-President Lech Walesa in the early 1990s but soon fell out with him. His critics accuse him of trying to rewrite history to play down Walesa's role in creating Poland's democracy — for which Walesa won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 — and put his late brother, a deputy to Walesa, in the spotlight.
Walesa, in turn, is one of Kaczynski's most outspoken critics today, frequently accusing him of destroying Poland's democracy and standing in Europe.
Kaczynski served briefly as prime minister from 2006-2007 in a chaotic, short-lived government while his identical twin brother Lech Kaczynski was president. He says he does not want to repeat the experience.
"The job of the party leader is totally sufficient. I have dreamed of it since I was young," he told the Super Express tabloid.
In 2010, his life was forever changed by tragedy. His brother, the president, was killed in a plane crash in Russia along with 95 other Poles, many of them top state and military officials, as they traveled to commemorate a massacre of Poles by the Soviet Union during World War II.
At the time, the twin's mother was hospitalized and Jaroslaw stayed behind to tend to her. After Lech's death, he kept the news from her for months. To this day, he only appears in public in black and attends monthly memorial services for his brother and the other victims.
His clear attachment to his family and Catholic traditions are part of his appeal to many Poles. So is his love of all things Polish — including traditional foods like dumplings and stewed sauerkraut. He also seeks out Polish destinations for his holidays.
Long before their political careers, the Kaczynski twins had captured the eye of the public as film stars who played urchins in a children's movie "The Two who Stole the Moon."
Even at that time, Kaczynski dreamed of power.
"When I played in the movie I was 12," Kaczynski told Super Express newspaper, "and I already wanted to rule, for a very long time."