Friday, October 26, 2007

Economist "leader" article on Polish elections


Sighs and relief

Oct 25th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Poland's new government has plenty to do. Not repeating the mistakes of the past would be a start

Get article background

FOR the past two years, outsiders have watched with a mixture of unease and derision as the most important country in eastern Europe has seemed to drift off into a world of its own. Poland's voters have now mercifully dragged it back. With the thumping defeat of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party, and the victory of Donald Tusk's Civic Platform, Poles can put behind them a period of mistakes and missed opportunities. And not only Poles are celebrating.

Under the eccentric rule of Mr Kaczynski as prime minister and his twin brother, Lech, as president, Poland seemed to confirm the fears of those who said that enlarging the European Union to the east was a mistake. In the name of fighting corruption at home, the Polish authorities corroded independent institutions, undermined the rule of law and misused the intelligence services. Abroad, the Kaczynskis repeatedly misplayed their hand, making their country, once a respected ally, a laughing stock and a nuisance. They picked unnecessary fights with Germany, sourly cited past historical wrongs (Poland has, sadly, suffered many) in their bid for bigger voting weights within the EU, and put backs up all round.

It was principally younger Poles, turning out in unprecedented numbers, who handed Law and Justice its election drubbing (see article). That is a welcome counter to fears that apathy, cynicism and emigration make it too easy for heavy-handed governments in ex-communist countries to hang on to power. Voters' patience is exhaustible.

Civic Platform inherits a booming economy, with GDP growth forecast at 6.5% by year's end. That provides a good basis for reforming the public finances and simplifying the tax system, which Law and Justice largely failed to do. The country's lamentable transport system and antique public administration offer plenty of scope for modernising zeal. A good measure of success will be if some of the hundreds of thousands of Poles now working in western Europe start to trickle home. Abroad, simple adherence to the elements of diplomacy—turning up for meetings, answering letters, negotiating calmly—will gladden Poland's friends and neighbours.

Civic Platform will find it easy to be more competent than its predecessor, but it should not be less principled. The Kaczynskis were clumsy in their corruption-hunting, but their quarry was real. It would be a pity if Poland now returned to the sleaze that marred public life before 2005. The criminal-justice system needs to be depoliticised, not castrated. Meanwhile, the new government should avoid seeming vengeful. Law and Justice packed the senior reaches of officialdom with party placemen; Civic Platform should not. Nor should Poland's new leaders purge competent people in top jobs solely because they were appointed by the old government.

As for foreign policy, Civic Platform could start by mending ties with Germany. Poles may reasonably feel twitchy about close German-Russian co-operation, especially in energy. But regarding Berlin and Moscow with equal suspicion is no help. Germans are themselves worrying about Russia's direction under Vladimir Putin, and about its influence on their country. The Kaczynskis' venomous anti-German stance damaged Poland and weakened the EU. The more constructive Poland is in the EU, the easier it will be for Germany's Russia-sceptic chancellor, Angela Merkel, to take risks on Poland's behalf.

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