Sighs of relief
Oct 22nd 2007
Poland's likely new, less exciting, rulers
WHATEVER the details of Poland's next government, the perplexing and sometime troubling era of the "terrible twins" is over. That, in short, is the message of the election on Sunday October 21st, in which the centre-right opposition Civic Platform party, led by Donald Tusk, trounced the ruling Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who will now step down as prime minister. His twin brother, Lech, will stay on as president, although with sharply diminished political clout. With 90% of the vote counted Civic Platform had received 41.6% of the vote; Law and Justice got 32%.
Law and Justice had called an early election hoping to consolidate the gains made during the past two years, when the party—at times governing alone, otherwise with small coalition allies—has been on a rumbustious crusade to rid Poland of the uklad, a sinister conspiracy of ex-spooks, former communists, corrupt officials and well-connected businessmen. Both the timing of the election, and the tactics adopted in the weeks leading up to it, have proved misjudged.
Many Poles agreed with Law and Justice’s diagnosis of the danger of pervasive corruption, but found the medicine worse than the disease. The government’s favourite means were the use of highly politicised prosecutors against political opponents, and the vindictive and partial leaking of secret-police files and material obtained by the intelligence agencies. Rather than building up the independent institutions that Poland undoubtedly needs, the government tended to pack public bodies with its own people. Its harping on the need for a strong state, coupled with depicting its opponents as crooks and traitors, led some to compare the Kaczynskis' approach to that of Vladimir Putin in neighbouring Russia.
Foreigners found little to admire either. Law and Justice seemed obsessed with the wrongs of the past, but blind to the needs of the present. The Kaczynskis liked to demand “solidarity” from their European allies, but demonstrated little themselves. Their foreign-policy stance was ignorant, clumsy and suspicious.
Amid the sighs of relief, Civic Platform's new government, probably in coalition with the moderate agrarian Polish Peasants' Party, can expect a honeymoon at home and abroad. The Polish economy is doing well, stoked by booming foreign investment, emigres’ remittances, soaring exports and EU funds. That provides plenty of room to deal with Poland's wasteful public finances, unreformed bureaucracy and grievously inadequate transport network.
Abroad, the new government will find a warm welcome, particularly in Germany, where the chancellor, Angela Merkel, has found her repeated attempts to be friendly rebuffed with bewildering chilliness by the Kaczynskis, who seemed to see little difference between Germany and Russia. The Civic Platform leader and putative prime minister, Mr Tusk, speaks German. Law and Justice tried hard, but failed, to exploit that during the campaign.
And it is this which is probably the biggest lesson. The Kaczynski era looked ominous and all but impregnable while it lasted. Eastern Europe's largest democracy seemed to have been captured by a vengeful populist clique, with ideas about the outside world that ranged from the idiosyncratic to the unpleasant. Polish voters, many feared, were too apathetic and disillusioned to care; the institutions of state too weak to resist. The price was paid not only by Poland, which was being pulled away from the European mainstream, but by the whole of the EU, whose most important new member was turning into a highly questionable advertisement for enlargement.
Now those fears have been put to rest. Turnout was so high that some polling stations had to stay open late to cope. Primitive politics, xenophobia, and high-handed attitudes to the niceties of democracy and the rule of law have been shown to be electoral liabilities, not a surefire route to success. For that many will be thankful, not only in Poland.
Monday, October 22, 2007