„Tusk’s tussle: Poland’s new leader has a hard task to find unity”, Global Post

22 październik 2007 r.


The first public signs of the defeat to face Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Polish prime minister, in Sunday’s parliamentary election were the queues of young people standing outside the polling stations. 

So many Poles turned out to vote that several polling stations ran out of ballot papers. The election’s official end was delayed by nearly three hours to give the latecomers the chance to cast their ballots. 

A while before the votes were counted, the pollsters realised what was happening: millions of younger people, who previously had seldom shown much interest in politics, had headed for the polling stations with one idea in mind – to rid their country of Mr Kaczynski and his Law and Justice (PiS) party. 

The turnout was the highest for a parliamentary election since the end of communism and a stunning defeat for Mr Kaczynski and his twin brother, president Lech Kaczynski, who have ruled Poland together for two divisive and turbulent years. 

The main opposition party, the liberal Civic Platform, and Donald Tusk, its mild-mannered leader, won the biggest victory of any party in post-communist Poland. With 41 per cent of the vote, it will have a projected 209 seats in the 460-member parliament. PiS was way behind on 32 per cent. Its two former coalition partners, the rightwing League of Polish Families (LPR) and the populist Self-Defence grouping, were wiped out. The Left and Democrats, including remnants of the ex-Communist party, won a modest 13 per cent; the Peasants’ party, Civic Platform’s likely coalition partner, scored nearly 9 per cent, which gives it 31 seats. 

Claiming victory, Mr Tusk said Poles had voted decisively in favour of a bright future. But just how decisive the vote turns out to be remains to be seen. While most Poles clearly voted against the Kaczynskis, they have not given given Civic Platform carte blanche. For his part, having concentrated on overthrowing the Kaczynskis, Mr Tusk avoided articulating a detailed programme. While he is an economic liberal and supports close co-operation with Poland’s European Union partners, he will face some formidable challenges as he tries to put these ideas into practice. 

On key EU questions even his own party is not united, with a strong eurosceptic streak, which could yet complicate relations with Brussels. In addition, looming over him will be the angry presence of president Lech Kaczynski, who has pledged to make life difficult for any non-PiS party and will remain in office until 2010. So the style of Polish politics may change much more than the substance. 

For the Kaczynskis’ many enemies, even that is worth celebrating. Conceding defeat, Jaroslaw Kaczynski blamed „a huge front” of hostile media forces. But in truth he lost mainly because voters tired of his brutally divisive politics. A party that came to power promising to give Poland a new future by rooting out corruption and alleged Communist influence plunged the country into a long series of investigations of the past. Also, for many young Poles, the twins with their clumsy manners and aggressive outbursts embarrassed their country on the European stage. 

Jaroslaw Kaczynski suffered for his choice of coalition partners. Having failed to secure an alliance with Civic Platform, he was forced to deal with the undisciplined radicals of the LPR and Self-Defence. As well as alienating the Warsaw establishment, these alliances annoyed many middle-of-the-road PiS voters. 

Jaroslaw Kaczynski called an early election believing the support he was losing in the centre ground would be offset by capturing the votes of his unruly partners. To an extent, his gamble paid off. PiS on Sunday increased its vote by half – almost 1.9m ballots – largely at the expense of the LPR and Self-Defence. Two weeks ago, the strategy seemed to be working. But everything changed when Mr Tusk beat the prime minister with an uncharacteristically dynamic performance in a television debate (see below). 

Suddenly, he became a lightning rod for anti-Kaczynski sentiment. Better educated urban conservatives switched from PiS in droves, to be joined in even larger numbers by young people, including the first generation of voters born after the fall of communism. Civic Platform’s vote soared from 2.8m to 7.4m. 

PiS retained the loyalty of voters aged 60 and over. But Civic Platform came first in all other age groups. PiS did well among in small-town and rural Poland, especially in the depressed east. Civic Platform did best in the cities, which have benefited the most from Poland’s post-communist transformation. 

The results are evidence of a consolidation in Polish politics, with just four parties in parliament out of the 200-plus that have have contested elections since 1989. But it is uncertain whether this will bring greater political stability. In particular, it is difficult to see how Civic Platform can maintain the dominance it has won this week. It has occupied the political centre thanks to PiS’s lurch to the right and the ex-Communist left’s continuing weakness after its crushing defeat in the 2005 elections. 

However, in the longer run, centrist parties have found it hard in European politics to sustain their position under inevitable attacks from left and right. In eastern Europe, since 1989, they have struggled to hold their own even while providing a lot of the liberal ideas that have underlain post-Communist reform. 

Mr Tusk, a veteran liberal, will be aware of his long-term dilemmas. But for now he must concentrate on the immediate tasks. He will almost certainly form a coalition with the Peasants’ party in return for the usual promises to leave untouched the farmers’ fiscal privileges. He may also seek informal support from the Left and Democrats. This could be crucial, since the three parties together would have enough votes to override the president’s legislative veto. 

Domestically the political agenda will be dominated by the fallout from the Kaczynskis’ campaigns against communism and corruption and from their efforts to stuff public posts with PiS loyalists. 

Mr Tusk has promised to proceed „without conflicts and without aggression” to build a country where all Poles, including those living abroad, could feel at home. However, his position is complicated by the fact that Civic Platform supported the principles of Kaczynski policies, including the so-called lustration law, aimed at forcing people in public life or public service to disclose whether they collaborated with the Communist-era secret police. 

Fortunately for Civic Platform, the constitutional tribunal, Poland’s supreme court, has ruled that the current draft law is too broad, in including categories such as schoolteachers, and has indicated that the regulation should be limited to those in high public office. This may be an acceptable compromise for Civic Platform supporters. 

Civic Platform will not go soft on corruption but will address what it sees as the excesses of the anti-corruption bureau created by the Kaczynskis, which has been accused of targeting political opponents. Mr Tusk has also promised to tackle what he calls the root cause of corruption, the bureaucrats’ economic power, by deregulation. 

Almost certainly, the new government will replace Mariusz Kaminski, the anti-corruption bureau’s Kaczynski-loyal chief, along with a more general sweeping out of the twins’ allies in public institutions. In this, Civic Platform would be acting no differently from previous incoming Polish governments, which all removed hundreds of political appointees after taking power. 

However, president Lech Kaczynski will fight tooth and nail to keep his people, particularly in sensitive positions such as the commission that supervises public television and radio. Mr Tusk’s promises to rule „without conflicts” could be sorely tested. 

As far as the economy is concerned, Civic Platform inherits a strong position, as did the Kaczynskis in 2005. The economy is still drawing the benefits of a painful restructuring, which early this decade laid the ground for rapid growth: real gross domestic product is projected to rise 6.5 per cent this year. 

With the help of emigration, unemployment has plunged from 20 per cent in 2002 to 11.7 per cent. The budget is in good order: the 2007 deficit is forecast at 3 per cent, hitting the level required for euro entry two years earlier than planned and preparing the country for a possible adoption of the currency in 2012. 

The party has announced broad plans for tax reforms and deregulation but these are short on details. Bankers do not expect any fundamental overhaul of Poland’s bloated welfare system or other radical reforms. Civic Platform has talked little lately about its controversial plans for a flat rate of tax. But business people say privatisation, which ground to a halt under the twins, could soon be revived. The party’s policy is to sell off all the 1,200 companies still in state hands except for a few strategic holdings in the energy and defence industries. 

As elsewhere, Civic Platform will want to replace Kaczynski-appointed state company managers. One place where this could generate friction is at the central bank, where Slawomir Skrzypek, the twins’ nominee who has just begun a seven-year term as governor, has particularly strong legal protection from political interference. 

That protection is non-existent elsewhere. „I know that as soon as PiS loses, I’m out of a job,” says the head of a large state-owned company. 

In foreign policy, Mr Tusk’s command of English will allow him to communicate with other EU leaders far better than the untravelled Kaczynskis, who speak no west European language. However, Civic Platform developed a eurosceptic attitude before PiS and coined the slogan „Nice or death” to oppose changes in the Nice Treaty that would have cost Poland votes in the European Council. 

With the constitutional treaty now agreed, this battle has ended in a compromise. But Civic Platform is likely to stick to the Kaczynskis’ general view of the EU as a union of states and not a proto-federation. 

That said, a more conciliatory tone combined with a better sense of the subtleties of EU politics could make Poland an easier partner, notably for Germany. The Kaczynskis’ anti-German rhetoric was beginning to damage relations across a broader front. As for Russia, Poland’s other big neighbour, Civic Platform is as concerned as PiS about Poland’s dependency on the energy it supplies. Nor is Moscow likely to inject much warmth into the relationship. 

Relations with the US – good under the twins, who prefer Washington to Brussels – are likely to come under pressure. Civic Platform has pledged to withdraw Polish troops from Iraq and drive a harder bargain over America’s plans to install part of its missile shield in Poland. 

Under Civic Platform, Poland will probably be a more predictable and less abrasive participant in the diplomatic game. But it will probably be no less assertive than PiS in standing up for Poland’s interests. 

Pawel Swieboda, a former foreign ministry official and head of Demos Europe, an EU think-tank, says: „The Kaczynski brothers created a new foreign policy framework where assertiveness was very important. Civic Platform is going to have to stay within that framework, but it will be more successful and easier to deal with.” 

‚He needs a big game and then he will play’ 

Donald Tusk is an avid and skilful soccer player and he plays the position of striker, a job that requires short but intense bursts of effort that can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the game, writes Jan Cienski. 

This is the same skill he has displayed in politics, which led him and his Civic Platform party to victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election, at the head of the largest majority since the end of communism in 1989. 

„He’s a striker in life as well,” says Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a former prime minister, the head of Bank Pekao SA and a friend of Mr Tusk’s dating back to their times in the anti-communist underground in the 1980s. „He needs a big game and the appropriate stake and then he’ll play. He’s not always involved but when he is he can win the game.”

Just as strikers, or forwards, have the flashy job of winning games but do not excel at the drudgery of defensive play, Mr Tusk has been reluctant to become involved in the mundane work of government despite being at the highest levels of Polish politics for 18 years. He becomes prime minister without having held a previous cabinet post. 

„He’s a person who concentrated on internal party affairs, as opposed to governing,” says Aleksander Smolar, a political scientist. „He had many propositions of taking government posts but he always avoided them.” 

Mr Tusk, 50, grew up in the city of Gdansk and helped lead an anti-communist student movement during the rise of the Solidarity trade union in 1980. Following the declaration of martial law in 1981, he lost his job as a journalist and spent seven years as a manual labourer, painting factory chimneys. 

He was elected to parliament in 1991 as a candidate for the Liberal Democratic Congress, a party he helped found with Mr Bielecki. The parties that Mr Tusk led since then have participated in most of the governing coalitions that did not include communists. He created Civic Platform in 2001. 

However, the consummate backroom politician lacked the internal fire to win two years ago. He led his party to defeat in parliamentary elections, losing to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS) and then weeks later lost the presidential elections to Lech Kaczynski. 

In that campaign, Mr Tusk appeared to drift along, convinced of victory by his high opinion poll ratings. He was slow to react to attacks and appeared to lack a killer instinct.

He was particularly damaged by the revelation that his grandfather had served in the German army during the second world war. Although it eventually turned out that the grandfather, who was made a German citizen when the Nazis conquered Gdansk, had been forcibly drafted and had quickly fled, Mr Tusk’s clumsy response hurt him. 

The shock of those double losses changed both Mr Tusk and his party. He has since made Civic Platform more electable by moving it away from an open espousal of economic liberalism, something political scientists say only appeals to about 15 per cent of the electorate. 

The will to win flared into public sight just over a week ago, during a televised debate with Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Mr Tusk was sharp and aggressive, in contrast with a flustered Mr Kaczynski who appeared to expect the marshmallow rival of years past. 

Even his accusations that Mr Tusk was unsure whether Gdansk was a Polish or a German city were easily swatted away. „Donald Tusk returned to the political scene during that debate,” says Eryk Mistewicz, a political consultant. „The whole of PiS’s campaign was destroyed that evening.” 

In the past Mr Tusk had been coy about whether he would head the government, preferring to hold himself in reserve until the next presidential election. But over the past couple of weeks he has been clear that he will be prime minister. 

His love of short, sharp bursts of action means that his style will be quite different from that of Mr Kaczynski, who was a controlling micro-manager. 

„It means his ministers will have a lot of freedom but also a lot of responsibility,” says Mr Bielecki.

Stefan Wagstyl and Jan Cienski