WARSAW — With the nation embroiled in a bitter dispute with the European Union over its drift away from Western democracy and the rule of law, and similarly concerned protesters taking to the streets weekly, Poland is at a crossroads.
But at this critical moment, the man who set Poland on its current course, and who has arguably done more to shape the country than any single politician since it broke free of Soviet domination three decades ago, has been largely absent.
Ever since he went to the hospital in May, for what was described at the time as a knee surgery to treat osteoporosis, there have been questions swirling about his health. He ended up staying in the hospital for 37 days, and since he left, he has only made a handful of public appearances.
His absence has already led to jockeying for power within his party, and exposed deep divisions that could ultimately prove its undoing.
“Until now Kaczynski has kept the power of different factions in check,” said Wojciech Przybylski, the editor in chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. “But the fight for the dominance will be bloody between leaders from the younger generation.”
Government officials have sought to tamp down concerns about the party leader’s health, as has Mr. Kaczynski himself, dismissing the idea that he will be leaving the scene anytime soon as “rubbish.”
Still, there have been hints that Mr. Kaczynski’s condition is far graver than officials have let on, including recent comments made on a private Polish radio station by the minister of health, Lukasz Szumowski.
“His state of health was such that not admitting him to a hospital might have resulted in a threat to his life and the likelihood of that was high,” he said.
Mr. Kaczynski’s health has been a topic of discussion not just in Poland but also in Brussels, where officials confirm that his condition is serious and that there is considerable interest in what it will mean for Poland and its fraught relationship with the European Union.
“We don’t know the truth about his health,” said Olgierd Annusewicz, deputy head of the Center for Political Analysis at the University of Warsaw. “It’s hidden. It’s more hidden than the health of the first secretaries from the days of the Soviet Union.”
Whatever the case, Mr. Kaczynski’s absence has been unmistakable. And it has raised questions about what happens when he leaves the scene and what will become of his grand vision for the country.
“Kaczynski is hugely important to Law and Justice,” said Mr. Annusewicz. “He is at the core of its DNA.”
Mr. Kaczynski has worked to manipulate various factions for his own interests and further secured his position by dispatching those who might pose a challenge to the sidelines, ensuring that no one else accrues too much influence.
There is no obvious heir apparent and no one, at the moment, who shares Mr. Kaczynski’s popular support or political skill.
Still, signs of an internal power struggle within Law and Justice have been growing.
Mr. Annusewicz, describing the infighting, used an analogy often attributed to Winston Churchill trying to figure out what was happening in the Kremlin.
“It’s like bulldogs fighting under a carpet,” he said. The struggle is largely hidden from public view but once the bones of the loser spill out it is clear a battle has been waged and who has won.
Mr. Kaczynski, in a July interview with the right-wing news weekly Sieci, downplayed concerns about his health, saying the reason for his lengthy hospital stay was “an acute knee infection” involving “dangerous bacteria.”
“I am getting better,” he said. “All is getting better.”
But he also said that the government needed to act with a renewed sense of urgency.
“Let me say this very clearly: We need to move forward, we need to go faster, we need to launch new projects, we need to push ever harder,” he said.
And he acknowledged the growing divisions within his own ranks.
“Those intergovernmental disputes that, if I’m being honest, are going on, need to be crushed,” he said.
Among those competing for power are the nation’s president, prime minister, justice minister, and interior minister.
According to recent polling, none of them has broad public support. In fact, half of all respondents have no idea who could replace Mr. Kaczynski.
Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski, 50, is the closest to Mr. Kaczynski, a friend for more than 25 years, and is on the top of many political analysts’ lists of possible successors. He is one of Mr. Kaczynski’s most trusted advisers and is part of an exclusive club that is known inside the party as the “convent.”
The group consists of a handful of senior Law and Justice politicians who have stood by Mr. Kaczynski since the 1990s, even before the party itself was founded.
Over the years, as other politicians in Law and Justice came and went — either after they challenged Mr. Kaczynski and failed or aggravated him in some other way — the convent stood strong, following his orders and forgoing any personal ambitions.
Since Law and Justice came into power in 2015, they have all been rewarded with prestigious posts, including Parliament speaker and heads of various ministries.
Mr. Brudzinski is known as a fighter, outspoken and frequently crass.
He has equated the threat of political correctness with terrorism. He joked that European feminists would want to buy roses for “young, horny bulls called ‘refugees’ who once again might feel ‘provoked’ to rape on New Year’s Eve.”
For years, Mr. Brudzinski served as the president of the Law and Justice executive committee and has been responsible for managing the party’s local structures, which has made him the second most powerful politician in Law and Justice.
He is considered intelligent, though he is perceived to be more of a skillful manager and executor of Mr. Kaczynski’s will than a charismatic leader.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has the highest profile and has become the nation’s public face in its disputes with the European Union, but he is still perceived as an outsider within Law and Justice and does not have wide support within the party.
The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, who was plucked from obscurity by Mr. Kaczynski to run for president, lost the confidence of the party leader after he unexpectedly vetoed an earlier attempt to reform the judiciary. Mr. Kaczynski refuses to confirm that Mr. Duda will run for president in 2020 as the Law and Justice candidate.
“The differences between possible successors in terms of ideology are almost nonexistent,” Mr. Annusewicz said. “They aren’t fighting for their vision for Poland to win, they are only after the power and lucrative posts at state companies.”
In his brief public appearances, Mr. Kaczynski has appeared frail, relying more heavily on a cane for support.
He undergoes two hours of physiotherapy five times a week and is still taking antibiotics to shake off the dangerous infection, according to party officials. He needs to have a surgery to replace his knee joint with an artificial one, but it will happen only after the local elections this fall, according to associates.
In the past, a date for those October elections would have been set by now. But there is speculation that Mr. Kaczynski’s health problems have kept him from drawing up lists of candidates.
Mr. Brudzinski recently cautioned that Mr. Kaczynski’s reign would not be coming to an end any time soon, saying that “all those dauphins” who fantasize about replacing the party boss “must be prepared to be very patient.”
“The chairman is in full control of what is going on in the party,” he insisted. “And is not planning a political retirement.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the title held by Lukasz Szumowski in Poland’s government. He is the minister of health, not the deputy minister.
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.