Poland’s voters delivered a decisive result in Sunday’s Polish Election. Like voters in neighboring Germany, Poland’s electorate has handed victory to the center-right. But, unlike Germany — currently embroiled in political uncertainty after Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder both failed to gain overall majorities in their election on September 18 — a clean break appears to have been made. With the defeat of the incumbent ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Poland is now free to forge powerful new free market economic policies under political leaders with no connection to the country’s communist past.
Sunday’s result showed that the two center-right parties — the national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, and liberal conservative Civic Platform (PO) — together had attracted over 50% of the popular vote. Law and Justice garnered 26.4% (155 seats), up from 9.5% in the last election in 2001, Civic Platform 24.23% (133 seats), the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) 11%, the left-wing Self-Defense Party 11.7%, League of Polish Families 7.9%, and the Peasant’s Party (rural interests) 5.7%. Following this clear margin, it is expected that the PiS (led by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski during the campaign) and the PO (led by Jan Rokita) will form a governing coalition, but with 45-year old PiS economic minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz to be elected to the Sejm (Parliament) as Prime Minister. On October 9th, a further election will take place for the post of Poland’s presidency between Donald Tusk (PO) and Lech Kaczynski (PiS), Mayor of Warsaw and Jaroslaw’s Kaczynski’s identical twin brother.
Victory for the center-right can be laid squarely at the door of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a party steeped in corruption and mismanagement of the Polish economy and led by outgoing President Alexander Kwasniewski. On Sunday the SLD suffered its worst defeat since 1989.
Since election in 2001, Kwasniewski, a former communist whose positive achievements in foreign affairs include managing Poland’s entry into NATO and the EU, forging closer links with the United States, and strengthening Poland’s position as a regional actor, has been stalked by his failure on the Polish economy.
He presided over steadily rising unemployment and proved unable to restructure Poland’s agrarian-based economy ravaged by the strictures imposed by Poland’s period of Soviet-imposed communist rule from 1945 to 1989. Today, unemployment in Poland stands at 18 percent, the highest within the European Union. For those aged under 25 it is even worse — a shocking 40%. Young taxi drivers in Poland ask foreign passengers wistfully about employment opportunities abroad, and the reputation of the “Polish plumber” (mobile, willing, and able to work harder and better for lower wages in the rest of the EU) has become apocryphal.
In the past four years Kwasniewski’s reputation faltered. He was associated in Polish popular opinion with running a government oiled by a cozy network of former communist insiders who, since 1993, had successfully re-invented themselves as market capitalists — and who largely escaped censure for their actions under communism. His government became notorious for sleaze and financial corruption — only this month the SLD presidential candidate, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, withdrew from the running after accusations of insider trading.
In contrast, the center-right parties, in particular presidential candidate Donald Tusk and the conservative-sounding Kaczynski twins, acquired during the campaign reputations as straight-talking men of action. Campaigning on traditional values combining the free market approach of other conservative and Christian Democrat parties in the EU and Poland’s strong Catholic ethic has paid off comprehensively. The PiS/PO campaign convinced Polish voters that the SLD’s socialist-led economic model was broken, corrupt, and associated with the iniquities of the past. It sought to link the SLD with the old command-control mindsets imposed under communism which have so haunted Poland over the past fifty years. An old workers’ saying under Polish communism and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain went as follows: “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” Economic stagnation and dis-incentivization were the result and cast a long shadow.
Sunday’s PiS/PO victory thus reflects a deeply-felt and widespread popular feeling in Poland of the need to dispel the past, create jobs, and move to a rosier future as respected EU member (Poland joined the EU in May 2004) with all the material benefits that membership is expected to deliver. As PO leader Jan Rokita remarked at the polls on Sunday: “These elections mark the end of the post-communist era.”
The PiS/PO government will now seek to introduce a raft of new economic policies after the presidential result is confirmed in two weeks time and final haggling takes place on the administration’s exact composition and political complexion.
CENTRAL TO THIS AGENDA will be policies designed to lower taxes possibly to include a new 15% flat tax system — a single tax paid by all except the lowest wage earners. Additionally there will be measures to further reduce Poland’s budget deficit from 3.9% (2004) to an expected 3.6% by end 2005. Like its British counterpart, the new government will be skeptical of joining the Euro having witnessed the economic woes of Germany, Italy, and France. (Regardless, achieving a budget deficit of under 3% by 2008-2010 would be necessary.)
The government has also promised to cut the burden of corporate regulation, and, like Angela Merkel’s proposed reforms for Germany, implement measures to kick start employment. Anti-corruption measures will further feature in the new program plus proposals to introduce a U.K.-style “first-past-the-post” electoral system. Measures to reform and fund the Polish welfare system will be included but will be a key challenge whilst Poland’s wealth ranks 50% below the EU average and Poland’s growth is expected to slow from 5.4% in 2004 to 3.3% by the end of 2005.
And the new Polish government will have to skillfully manage voter expectations toward the European Union. Poland continues to anticipate an EU “membership dividend” whereby new members — Ireland in the 1990s is the classic example — have traditionally been the beneficiaries of large capital flows fed by Brussels from the other, wealthier EU states. Allied to this, the government can be expected to lobby strongly for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in favor of Polish farmers. Poland’s new leaders will take a firm position against the proposed EU constitution, halted in its tracks by France and the Netherlands this year, and instead will be looking for the EU to provide a flexible and profitable association as set out under the Nice Treaty of 2001.
In foreign affairs, the PiS/PO government will seek to convince other EU states to take a firm stance toward her eastern neighbors: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. In Belarus the issue, highlighted during the election campaign, is of ethnic Poles suffering alleged mistreatment under the government/dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. In Ukraine, Poland has taken a prominent role in championing the (faltering) moves toward greater democracy following the “Orange Revolution,” and the new government will take an equally supportive role as its SLD predecessor.
And managing the traditionally cool relations with Russia — many Poles suspect growing authoritarianism on the part of Vladimir Putin and antipathy toward Poland — and the vexatious issue of Russian “domination” of energy supplies in Eastern Europe will require the new center-right government to show imagination and strength of character. Finally, 1,400 Polish troops remain committed in support of the Coalition in Iraq and the government will have to decide shortly as to whether they will withdraw by the end of 2005 or if they will remain.
As they shrug off the past, Poles will now demand their new government rise to the challenges of unemployment and economic prosperity. Last month Poles celebrated 25 years since the formation of the Solidarity Trade Union, whose example and actions led directly to the end of communist tyranny in their country and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Center-Right, unlike in Germany, now has the chance over the next four years to deliver on the Polish economy.
Thirty-nine million Poles will be watching.