Common sense victorious
From The Economist print edition
The election returns more predictable politicians—and brings relief in Europe
THE era of the terrible twins is over. That is the upshot of the election on October 21st in which the ruling Law and Justice party, a populist and nationalist outfit, was swept aside by a more moderate and pro-European party, Civic Platform. On the highest turnout since the collapse of communism in 1989, almost 54% of Poles voted, including for the first time large numbers from the diaspora in western Europe. Civic Platform, under its leader, Donald Tusk (above), polled just over 41%, winning 209 seats in the 460-member lower house of parliament, an increase of 76 seats on the 2005 elections (see chart).
Law and Justice, led by the outgoing prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, polled more votes than last time and even increased its seats by 11, thanks to the demise of two small populist parties that had been its on-off allies in the unstable governing coalition of the past two years. Mr Kaczynski's brother, Lech, remains president until 2010, and may try to use various delaying powers to hamper the new government. But his veto can be overruled by a three-fifths vote in a quorate session of the lower house. With only 166 seats, Law and Justice cannot block that.
The result was a surprise. For most of the campaign, Civic Platform had been lagging badly. The government seemed to have made the election a referendum about corruption, one of Poland's biggest problems in the post-communist era. That seemed to polarise opinion successfully: only the austere Mr Kaczynski and his zealous corruption-busters stood for change. Opposing them meant defending the sleazy practices of the past. A strong dose of social conservatism on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, though it appalled liberal-minded, middle-class opinion in the cities, went down well with the many traditionalist rural voters.
The alarm and contempt with which the Kaczynskis were viewed abroad seemed to make little impact. Prickly, monoglot, untravelled and old-fashioned (neither uses a computer and Jaroslaw does not even have his own bank account), they embodied and exploited the inferiority complex felt by many Poles.
But Law and Justice overdid it. The high-handed approach of the publicity-loving justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, and the appointment of a close Kaczynski political ally, Antoni Macierewicz, as the head of a new military counter-intelligence service caused widespread queasiness in the country. Coupled with a highly partisan approach to top appointments in supposedly neutral institutions such as public broadcasting, the Kaczynski way of doing things risked comparison with Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime in Russia.
Such fears were overdone. Polish democracy may have been bruised by the Kaczynski era, but it was not in danger. Voters were unconvinced by the Kaczynskis' sometimes hysterical claims of the dangers posed by the corrupt overlap of ex-spooks and ex-communists. The use of sometimes primitive and xenophobic language prompted younger, better-educated Poles, previously apathetic about domestic politics, to vote in large numbers.
The turning-point of the campaign was the prime minister's humiliation by Mr Tusk in a televised debate. Mr Tusk used humour, calmness and command of the facts to flatten Mr Kaczynski, allegedly flu-ridden, who came across as bombastic and waffly. Mr Tusk highlighted Law and Justice's weakness on economics, such as an unfulfilled pledge to build 3m new homes. He also pointed out that 2m Poles had gone to seek work abroad.
Law and Justice then made matters worse by overplaying their strongest card: anti-corruption. Earlier in the campaign, police had arrested a Civic Platform parliamentary deputy, Beata Sawicka, in a sting operation (she admits doing wrong, but accuses the government of acting unfairly). Her party immediately sacked her. But two weeks later the powerful anti-corruption agency set up by Law and Justice held a sensational press conference to show a film, shot secretly, of Ms Sawicka apparently taking a bribe. That seemed to have nothing to do with the rule of law and everything to do with the election campaign. When Ms Sawicka held a press conference the next day, during which she broke down in tears, Mr Kaczynski commented that the opposition was trying to use a weeping woman to win the election. The episode symbolised Law and Justice's worst side: petty, vindictive and crass.
On many issues, Civic Platform and Law and Justice overlap. Both have their roots in the anti-communist dissident movement; both emphasise the importance of the Catholic church. The fundamental difference is in their attitude to the painful economic changes of the 1990s. Law and Justice represents the losers from that era; Civic Platform stands for those who did well out of it. The biggest difference now will be in the style of government. Civic Platform prides itself on its international credentials and competence. How much of that translates into real reform at home remains to be seen.
But foreign policy will certainly be different. Mr Tusk wants Polish troops pulled out of Iraq, sooner rather than later. Under the likely foreign minister, Oxford-educated Radek Sikorski, Poland may drive a slightly tougher bargain with America over missile defence. It will try to be a more co-operative member of the EU, avoiding the unnecessary fights, especially with Germany, that typified the Kaczynski era. “We've always held a hand out towards the Poles; now maybe it will be shaken,” says a German official. Law and Justice will see such rapprochements as treachery. But the voters thought otherwise.