Tuesday, September 26, 2006

an intemperate piece on Poland

Poland's crumbling government

Sep 25th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda

The ruling coalition is falling apart. Elections will follow by the end of November unless the country's prime minister can rapidly build a new majority


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A CONSPIRACY theorist might wonder if this autumn had brought something odd to the Central European water. The Czech Republic has been without a proper government for more than three months, Hungary’s is on the ropes and Lithuania’s is wobbling. Now Poland’s is falling apart too. If it fails to cobble together a new majority by October 10th, there will be early elections on November 26th. As things stand, these look more likely than not.

To be fair, the government was never well glued together in the first place. An unlikely coalition of the centre-right Law and Justice party with two small populist parties—the nationalist and Catholic League of Polish Families and the leftist and agrarian Self-Defence—it included europhobes and -philes, freemarketeers and economic nationalists, zealous corruption-busters and some of the sleaziest figures in Poland.

The prime minister and Law and Justice leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is the identical twin brother of Poland’s president, Lech. The two of them are prickly to a fault, with values and worldviews rooted in the conspiratorial and provincial world of communist-era dissident politics. The result has been ineffective administration at home and a series of gaffes and rows abroad, especially with Germany.

The resulting political drama was sometimes thrilling, sometimes farcical, but ultimately tragic given Poland’s desperate need for good government and strong allies. The economy is buoyant, with annual growth of 5.5% and booming foreign investment. But there are big long-term problems in the education system, the country’s roads and other infrastructure are clapped-out, and the government has been notably unsuccessful in drafting the necessary plans to take advantage of the money offered by the European Union. Poland’s zloty has been sagging amid the uncertainty. Some hope that a new government might finally stem the country’s chronic fiscal incontinence.

Mr Kaczynski has now reappointed Zyta Gilowska as finance minister, a post which she left in June amid a row about collaboration with the communist-era secret police. That decision will do little to reassure investors. Mrs Gilowska’s fervent beliefs are not matched by administrative competence or knowledge of the external financial world.

Mrs Gilowska is detested by Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Self-Defence, who has now been sacked from the government after protesting at the newly drafted budget for 2007, which promises too little, he says, for health, welfare and farmers. Mr Kaczynski is scrambling to get votes from the Peasant’s Party, another small and self-interested outfit, and also to split Self-Defence. Eight deputies have already left, joining with seven others, mostly independents, to set up a new parliamentary faction. But that leaves Mr Kaczynski roughly six seats short of a majority in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

Arm twisting will continue. Self-Defence has maintained party discipline by the unorthodox means of making its parliamentary deputies sign IOUs for 550,000 zloty ($177,000), cashable if they leave. But it may be possible to sort that out through legal or financial means. The murky hunt for votes means that many Poles are thoroughly fed up with the circus antics of their leaders and would welcome a chance to vote in a new government. Polls suggest that the League of Polish Families would fail to get into parliament and that Law and Justice would lose ground to its centre-right rival, Civic Platform.

The paradox is that Poland’s voters do seem to want a strong right-of-centre government. Civic Platform’s differences with Law and Justice are slender. The Kaczynskis are a bit more Catholic and more socially orientated. Civic Platform is more free-market in its thinking—for example on the flat tax. But the real divide is personality. Civic Platform’s leader, Donald Tusk, repeated his call for an early election. "Poland cannot afford another 12 months of rows, conflicts, aggression and disgracing the country at home and abroad," he said. Poland’s bruised and baffled European allies might well echo that.

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