The Polish electorate turned out in their greatest numbers since 1989 to throw out the extremist government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. As a headline, the results of the Polish elections will warm the hearts of progressives. But while the EU, Poles abroad and centrists breathe a sigh of relief, the underlying divides in Polish politics are little changed by the election of 2007.
The Law and Justice (PiS) party burst onto the scene in 2001, cashing in on the sacking of twin brother and now President Lech Kaczynski as Justice Minister. They cast themselves as outsiders, good Catholics and “politicians with clean hands” who would champion the poor and weak against the rich and strong, fight corruption, purge ex-communists and bring order to the streets. A disturbing 28% voted for either them or the more extreme League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence (Samoobrona).
In 2005 this figure rose to 46% and since then PiS has done what it said on the tin. The western media, who had insisted on calling the PiS a centre-right party, were shocked to see them enter a coalition with their more extreme partners. Belligerence abroad was matched with McCarthyism at home, social conservatism and redistribution. Depoliticisation of the media and civil service meant bringing in placemen. Political opponents were spied on and whispering campaigns conducted in the name of cleaning up politics, prompting the brilliant newspaper headline ‘little brother is watching you’.
In the 2007 campaign, PiS took the credit for economic growth and falling unemployment, placing the blame for any failures on a continuing establishment conspiracy of corrupt businessmen, politicians, ex-communists and anyone else the listener might choose to add to the list. Civic Platform (PO), who won the election and LiD, the centre-left party that came third, ran a classic get-the-bastards-out campaign, with old opponents and ex-presidents Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasmiewski both calling for change.
The big untold story of the 2007 election is that LPR and Samoobrona are out of parliament. These overtly nationalist, ultra-Catholic and occasionally antisemitic parties, once offered a little power, lost their credibility as outsiders. But PiS has actually consolidated its position, winning 32% and 164 seats versus 27% and 155 seats two years ago. The party has established itself as the recipient of votes from the disaffected, socially conservative and those fearful of change. With the President around for three more years and a strong opposition force, PiS remains a formidable party capable of exerting great influence on Polish politics.
It was the leap forward by PO – to 42% and 208 seats from 24% and 133 seats – which decided the election as millions of centrists voted for the party most likely to end Kaczynski’s rule. Since the break-up of Solidarity as a political force, no party has achieved over 40% support in a Polish election. A new opportunity has emerged to create a mature party that – at last – will not resort to infighting, play musical chairs, disappear and reform under a new name with power lost.
The new Polish government will take a more positive approach to dealings with the European Union at the inter-governmental level. With a minority of MPs committed to promoting ‘Catholic values’, there will also be a cultural turn towards Europe with more openness and tolerance. The disastrous witch-hunt of alleged “collaborators” will come to an end. PO will change the focus of welfare from redistribution to job creation, cutting taxes on enterprise. It is – take note – a centre-right party, whose leader, Donald Tusk, sees himself following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher. But for Poland, he represents a welcome chance at normality after two years of chaotic rule.
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