Looking nice but doing nothing
From The Economist print edition
Is one of the best governments in Poland's history good enough?
A PREDECESSOR which outsiders regarded as rude, silly and incompetent is always a bonus. But the Polish government headed by Donald Tusk has two other big advantages: a booming economy and a lack of serious opposition. So despite its rather scanty record, the ruling coalition is popular at home and abroad.
Mr Tusk's Civic Platform party defeated its centre-right rival, Law and Justice, in a tight election last October. The outgoing prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, led a government bent on destroying the cosy deals between business and bureaucracy that took root in Poland after the collapse of communism in 1989. But it became preoccupied by bizarre intrigues over intelligence. It was spectacularly incompetent in foreign policy, picking pointless fights with Germany. Its efforts to fight corruption and reform the judicial system led to abuses of power, not cleaner government. It failed to reform public services or modernise creaking infrastructure.
It is not hard for Mr Tusk's government to look good in contrast. It has done best in foreign policy, thanks largely to a competent foreign minister, Radek Sikorski. Shifting from his hawkish anti-Kremlin past, he has charmed both Russia and Germany. He has forged a strong alliance with Poland's northern neighbour, Sweden, launching a joint plan for a new eastern partnership for the European Union.
Mr Sikorski has also been playing high-stakes poker with America, demanding money for military modernisation, and high-tech defences for Warsaw, in return for hosting a missile-defence base. Some in Washington think that having such a vital base on Polish soil should be honour enough. If Poland can strike a deal with Condoleezza Rice, America's secretary of state, when she visits Warsaw shortly, Mr Sikorski will be riding high. Some call him a future president. His bargaining position is strong: missile defence is unpopular with voters. Lithuania is eager to step into the breach if the Poles refuse the base, but Poland is the Americans' first choice.
The government's other success is a parliamentary commission to promote deregulation. Every Polish government has tried to scrape clean a barnacled bureaucracy, with a signal lack of success. Mr Tusk's brainwave was to hand the issue not to a special ministry (easily nobbled by Poland's change-resistant civil servants) but to lawmakers. Headed by the exuberant Janusz Palikot, the commission launched a public competition to identify the stupidest rules—eg, the requirement that most businesses handling cash must keep receipts in paper form for five years. As these are printed on thermal paper, they fade unless kept cold. That, and other sillinesses, should go next year. It is a small start, but hugely welcome.
On other fronts, the government's record is weaker. It nibbles at problems, sometimes usefully, more often ineffectually. It exudes an atmosphere of mild chaos, coupled with an unhealthy appetite for the spoils of power. Mr Tusk is charming and decent but not decisive. He has yet to be tested by a big crisis.
To be fair, the government faces one huge constraint: Law and Justice's Lech Kaczynski, twin brother of the former prime minister, who will be president until 2010. The opposition has enough votes to deprive the government of the majority it needs to override a presidential veto. One of Mr Tusk's aims seems to be to win the presidency later, rather than take any bold action in government now.
That may be politically astute, but it risks wasting valuable time. The congested and clapped-out road and rail networks cause problems not only for Poland but also for its neighbours. A combination of obsolescent power stations and tough EU rules on carbon emissions threatens huge rises in the cost of electricity. In 2012 Poland will co-host the next Euro football tournament with Ukraine, requiring huge investment in new roads and stadiums, which are badly behind schedule. Wasteful public spending subsidises an army of bogus welfare claimants. The economic outlook is less bright than it was. The sun is shining today, but such problems seem sure to cloud Mr Tusk's future.