international analysis and commentary

A new Poland?

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In the office of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the runoff for the presidential elections prompted a huge sigh of relief. After a difficult campaign, following the tragic death of President Lech Kaczynki in a plane crash near Katyn last April, the current President of the Lower House and acting head of State, Bronislaw Komorowski, won the lead over Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical-twin brother of the previous President.

The outcome was extremely tight until the last minute, with Kaczynski constantly catching up with front-runner Komorowski, the candidate of the governing party Civic Platform, who had come up on top after the first ballot two weeks ago. Kaczynski’s surge – though ultimately short of an upset – has been the real surprise of the entire campaign, marking an unexpected revival of fortunes for the Law and Justice party created years ago by the twin brothers.

This was probably due to a combination of factors: a wave of human sympathy for the late President, explicit support from the Polish Catholic Church and a clever political repositioning by Kaczynski himself, who ran a moderate campaign and tried to minimize differences with his opponent. As a result, he managed to collect votes from a larger basin than his party’s, although his strongholds remain the east and southeast of the country, as opposed to the north and the west (including Warsaw) which supported the newly elected President. According to the exit polls, a key role may have been played by left-wing voters, a large majority of which decided to support Komorowski despite the refusal by their candidate – Grzegorz Napieralski, who surprisingly received almost 14% of votes in the first round – to back him in the run-off.

Tusk’s sigh of relief is due to his own strong personal commitment to Komorowski both inside Civic Platform (Komorowski prevailed neatly over Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in the party primaries held in March) and across the country. The game plan had been prepared last year already, but President Kaczynski’s sudden death almost derailed it. In the end, however, Prime Minister Tusk got what he wanted: an end to the difficult ‘cohabitation’ of the past few years, and a new head of state who owes him and is fully supportive of his policy priorities.

This is likely to facilitate the government’s task in the months to come, especially its plan to cut public spending to shrink Poland’s budget deficit to 3% of GDP by 2012 (from 7% last year) and to get ever closer to the eurozone – although an earlier pledge by Tusk to join the euro by 2012 has been set aside. It is worth noting, however, that Warsaw has contributed to the special funds recently set up first for Greece and then for other potential eurozone members in trouble and that, more generally, Poland has markedly evolved from an awkward and reluctant partner (under the Kaczynki twins) to a constructive and proactive player on virtually all EU policy files.

The crowning of such strategy should materialize in one year’s time, when Warsaw takes over the six month rotating presidency of the European Union. The government is preparing itself very thoroughly to that end, mobilizing extra resources and preparing detailed policy papers. Its very first term at the EU helm should in fact come to seal the country’s rise to the European core as both a ‘big’ country in its own right – complete with special relations with France and Germany (through the so-called “Weimar Triangle”) – and the leader of the new Member States.

This said, the roadmap to the EU presidency also includes local elections later this year and, more importantly, parliamentary elections that are likely to be held in October 2011, i.e. right in the middle of the semester – unless some constitutional solution is found to bring them forward to the late spring of next year. The relative success scored by Jaroslaw Kaczynski could make the next months more complicated than expected for the Prime Minister and the government, although the broad support that the EU now enjoys among Polish citizens (farmers included) is unlikely to falter in the foreseeable future.