The perils of power in Poland

By bne IntelliNews July 13, 2010

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

Poland's ruling Civic Platform party has become the country's most dominant political force since the days of the communist party, but now that it has taken control of the country's presidency, its real challenge begins: leading Poland through increasingly perilous economic times, while not losing control to a rejuvenated opposition party.

The centrist party's latest success comes from Bronislaw Komorowski, the party's candidate for president, who eked out a narrow 53%-47% victory over his challenger, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in July's presidential elections.

In addition to controlling the presidency, the party has been leading a governing coalition headed by Donald Tusk, the popular prime minister, since 2007. The party's candidate, Marek Belka, became the governor of the central bank in June, and the party is set to oust the opposition from their control of public television and radio.

Until now, Tusk has been cautious about pushing controversial reform ideas too strongly, blaming his inaction on the veto that Lech Kaczynski, the former president killed in an April 10 plane crash, had been unafraid to wield against legislation proposed by the government. But now that Komorowski is president, the threat of obstruction vanishes. "Komorowski's victory will make it easier for us to conduct reforms," said Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister.

Immediately after Komorowski's election, Tusk stressed that his government was planning to bring in a rule limiting increases in discretionary spending, which make up about a quarter of overall spending, as a way of reducing the budget deficit estimated to come to about 7% of GDP this year. "The most important thing now is to bring in a careful and responsible budget for 2011," Tusk said.

The key question is whether the statements made immediately after Komorowski's election will translate into real action.

Weaker not stronger

Some analysts like Stanislaw Gomulka, a former deputy finance minister and the chief economist for the Business Centre Club, a business lobby group, are sceptical. "I don't think we will see a lot of dramatic reforms," he says, pointing out that despite its control of parliament, the government has not tried to push through relatively uncontroversial legislation like measures to reduce the level of red tape strangling Polish business. "I don't think Lech Kaczynski would have vetoed legislation like that."

Gomulka thinks that despite its dominant position, the government will still do very little. That is because it will be afraid of risking public wrath in the run-up to next year's parliamentary elections. The reason is that the presidential election has paradoxically left Civic Platform weaker, while strengthening the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party. "If there had been a large margin of victory, then Tusk might have seen is as a mandate to undertake large reforms," says Gomulka.

Going in to the snap election called after the death of Lech Kaczynski and many other senior politicians in the air crash, Jaroslaw Kaczynski had been one of Poland's least trusted and most unpopular politicians, a legacy of his two years in power from 2005-2007 when he worsened relations with Russia, Germany and the EU, as well as treading on civil liberties in his attempt to stamp out corruption. But the death of his twin brother Lech unleashed an enormous wave of sympathy for him. Kaczynski, a right-wing nationalist, also changed his public persona, toning down his formerly aggressive language, making overtures to Germany and Russia, and making a strong play for the support of socialist voters by playing up his populist economic policies. "He changed because after such a blow anyone would change internally, but his views were the same he and his brother always had," says Janina Zdunska, a Warsaw vegetable seller.

Civic Platform was also hindered by Komorowski's lacklustre campaign. Tusk, an enormously popular politician, had been expected to run for the presidency, an office he lost to Lech Kaczynski in 2005, but he decided to stay on in the more powerful post of prime minister, leaving Komorowski as his party's candidate. But Komorowski, an old-fashioned man and heir to an aristocratic family, conducted a gaffe-strewn campaign proved to be unable to construct an inspiring vision of a modern and open Poland that would have appealed to his party's largely urban electorate.

The campaign ended up revitalizing Law and Justice, which earlier had been stuck with the support of about a quarter of the electorate. Now that Kaczynski has managed to appeal to almost half of the voters who took part in the election, the party is counting on doing well in this year's local elections, and is even daring to dream of retaking power in next year's parliamentary vote. "There are more elections before us. We have to be mobilized, we have to win," Kaczynski told cheering supporters after the July 4 vote.

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