Two years of what many in Poland have seen as a destructive obsession with the past ended late Sunday night as polling stations finally closed and it emerged that the center-right ‘pro-business, pro-EU’ Civic Platform party had won a decisive victory in the country’s parliamentary election.
Voters turned against the ruling Law and Justice party headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which, say its critics, has been a monothematic government, focusing on dismantling what they see as a post-communist, corrupt, liberal oligarchy at the expense of managing the economy and making much needed reforms.
The turnout, at around 53 percent, was high for a Polish election – just 40 percent voted in the 2005 ballot. The extra votes appear to have come from the young, those in big cities and the growing middle class.
In general, the right wing has consolidated its grip on Polish politics. Forty one percent voted for the economically liberal, almost Thatcherite Civic Platform, 32 percent for the outgoing conservative, nationalist Law and Justice – and just 13 percent for the Left and Democrats.
Though a convincing win for Civic Platform under the leadership of 50 year old Donald Tusk, the party still lacks a parliamentary majority and will have to form a coalition with another group. Favorites are the Polish Peasants Party, which received 8 percent of the popular vote.
That will be an awkward marriage, as Polish coalitions always are. The Polish Peasants Party are interventionist and advocate for maintaining state spending at current levels, while Civic Platform believe in cutting taxes, increasing the speed of privatization and reducing the government’s role in the economy.
But it is generally thought that the next four years will be a little more stable than the past two years. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice were forced to form a coalition with two minority parties – the ultra conservative, Catholic – nationalist League of Polish Families and the agrarian populist Self Defense. This led to constant squabbling among the parties and damaged Law and Justice’s reputation with their own voters.
The League of Polish Families, whose leader Roman Giertych was vice premier in the old coalition, were regularly accused of anti-Semitism and homophobia. And the sordid accusations of corruption and sex scandals made against Self Defense’s leader, and another vice PM, Andrzej Lepper, eventually forced Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski to disband the coalition and go to the ballot box.
Both parties only got just over one percent of the vote this time around and so will not feature at all in the new parliament.
“For many weeks we tried to convince Poles that it’s possible to live better lives. We are touched that so many took part in the election,” Platform’s Donald Tusk told supporters after the results were announced last nigh.
He said that he hopes that his government will rebuild pride in the country, dismantle much of the wasteful state run public services and create an ‘economic miracle’ similar to the one experienced by the Irish, which might tempt back the hundreds of thousands who have left Poland since it joined the European Union in 2004.
Poles are a little too cynical about politics to believe such cheery rhetoric, however. What they really want is a little peace and dignity from their politicians, something they have been starved of over the last two years under the rule of Law and Justice.
A sigh of relief can also be heard from politicians in capitals around Europe. Law and Justice have had a prickly relationship with the European Union, particularly Germany. Jaroslaw Kaczynski was particularly upset by press coverage he has received in Berlin, reacting angrily to jibes that he and his brother, the country’s president Lech Kaczynski, were as dynamic as ‘potatoes’. Many in the Polish Foreign Office have been dismayed by their performance on the international stage.
The new government will try to rebuild some diplomatically shaky bridges. One of the priorities will be getting state finances in order to speed up entry to the Euro Zone and the adoption of the single currency.
Donald Tusk has also indicated that his government will want to pull out of the county’s involvement in Iraq, where Poland has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the US-led occupation – something that has always been unpopular with voters.
The more liberally-minded awoke this morning feeling more optimistic. Jarolsaw Kaczynski, on the other hand, will have to take comfort that his brother is still in the presidential palace. Maybe in three years time when Lech has to run again for president, Civic Platform will have made the inevitable mistakes and their popularity diminished with the ever-fickle Polish voter.
Peter Gentle is a Warsaw-based journalist. He blogs at The Beatroot.