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Pragmatists, not Russophiles, triumph in Polish elections

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The results of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland were peculiar. For the first time in the last 22 years voters returned the ruling party to power. For Poland and its largest neighbor, Russia, the ballot was of great importance, for it is the Sejm (Parliament) that forms the government and sets out what policies the country is to follow.

The results of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland were peculiar. For the first time in the last 22 years voters returned the ruling party to power. For Poland and its largest neighbor, Russia, the ballot was of great importance, for it is the Sejm (Parliament) that forms the government and sets out what policies the country is to follow. This decides what kind of a partner Russia will have in Warsaw for at least the next four years.

Liberals vs. nationalists

The majority of votes, 38.9%, went to the current ruling party, Civic Platform, and its leaders President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Second place (with slightly over 30%) went to the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, founded by late President Lech Kaczynski and his surviving twin Jaroslaw Kaczynski. More likely than not, the new Sejm will be dominated by a coalition including Civic Platform (212 deputies out of 460) and Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak’s Polish People’s Party (PSL) (27 deputies).

The coalition’s opposition will come in the form of 158 PiS deputies that are certain to demand a tougher line on Russia: the tug-of-war with this country is, as before, a crucial political issue.

It is somewhat more difficult to predict how the 62 deputies will act who represent the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) (Poland’s Social Democrats) and the Palikot Movement, whose electoral success came as a major surprise this fall.

The standoff between the liberals and the conservatives that overshadowed the election period is also characteristic of the Russian political landscape, but the Polish situation has peculiarities of its own. The main distinction being the absence, in Poland, of a “party of power.” From 1989 to 2007, the Poles regularly voted each successive ruling party out of power and into the opposition at each election. Sunday’s elections are a rare exception: the first in 22 years.

It is even more surprising because Civic Platform is a classical party advocating liberal capitalism, promising among other things to eliminate the remnants of the “nanny state,” by which they mean the Soviet-style distribution system for goods and services inherited from the socialist Polish People’s Republic (PPR). The Poles may have given the liberals yet another chance because Poland is in relatively good shape compared to other EU economies and was even nicknamed “an oasis” during the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis.

Kaczynski the scarecrow

But there are more than just economic reasons for Polish liberals’ ability to maintain their positions. It will be recalled that the 2007 elections saw Civic Platform gain 41.5% of the vote, approximately two percentage points more than this time. What helped Donald Tusk ease PiS out of power in 2007 and stay for another term in 2011 was the nationalism and intolerance of his main opponents, the Kaczynskis and their party.

Thanks to some overzealous Kaczynski supporters the message the electorate took away was: “It’s us or the barbarians!” and duly cast their vote against the “barbarians” – for the liberals.

After the Polish Presidential plane crashed in Smolensk in April 2010, the late president’s supporters vied with each other in inventing the most unbelievable conspiracy theories involving the Russians, the Warsaw liberals, and other “anti-Polish evildoers,” who allegedly inveigled the presidential plane into a deadly trap. The effect was the reverse of what was expected: ordinary Poles set little store by these absurd tales about artificial fog or gel clouds over Smolensk.

Civic Platform enjoyed electoral support even from those who did not share its liberal agenda, but who were reluctant to let individuals who were clearly incapable of functioning appropriately make it to the top. The main thing for this category of voters was to prevent Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his followers from gaining control of the Sejm. “We must not let those anticommunists who take such a Bolshevik approach back into power, they were in power 2005 through 2007,” said Gazeta Wyborcza editor-in-chief Adam Michnik at his recent book launch in Moscow, succinctly summing up the mood of most Civic Platform voters.

The Kaczynski party has earned the image of an aggressive, non-European political force both in the Polish and European liberal press – a factor that was largely instrumental in its defeat. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski and other PiS leaders made powerful enemies all by themselves. Shortly before the elections, Mr. Kaczynski came up with the totally unfounded allegation that Chancellor Angela Merkel owed her “big break” (i.e. getting into serious politics) to the Stasi, the former East German security service. Back in 2006-2007, the Kaczynski twins sought to change Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial policy by forcing its owner to step down. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is currently holding up Hungary as an example for Poland, since it was Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban who attempted, not so long ago, to impose legislation curtailing press freedom.

Most Polish journalists therefore put everything they had into working against Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The negative media attitude that resulted was one factor that helped ensure PiS performed even worse than Jaroslaw Kaczynski had in the previous year’s presidential elections – 30% against 36%.

Pragmatism triumphant

But does the defeat of Law and Justice mean that Russophiles have come to power in Poland? Advocates of improved relations with the Russian Federation? Of course not. To put it in those terms would have been a gross over-simplification. There are plenty of Russia-haters both within Civic Platform itself and in broader liberal circles. Nevertheless, Civic Platform politicians have demonstrated pragmatism and predictability in relation to Russia, both qualities their PiS predecessors clearly lacked.

“We are learning to take Russia as it is, rather than as we would like it to be,” former Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld told a round table on Polish-Russian bilateral relations, thus summarizing the changing mood of the Polish elite.

The current foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, is disinclined to create any unnecessary problems in Polish-Russian relations, even though his wife is Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post’s professional Russia critic. Mr. Sikorski is most likely to keep his post in the new government.

“Anti-clerical” – how proud it sounds

Aside from the main battle between the liberals and the nationalists, there were also some minor skirmishes, such as a veritable hunt for anti-clerical votes.

Following the demise of communism in 1989, the Polish Catholic Church came to play a major role almost in every sphere of life, a fact that causes even greater irritation in Poland than the displeasure felt by some Russians at the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in their country.

Before this year’s elections, the fight for this segment of the electorate was dominated by the Polish Social Democrats (Democratic Left Alliance).

Last Sunday, however, they suffered a defeat at the hands of Janusz Palikot, whose movement won 10.1% of the vote. Mr. Palikot, who had attended news conferences wearing a T-shirt that read, “I am gay” and teased priests with a quote from Maxim Gorky, “‘Man’ – how proud it sounds!” left the electorate in no doubt about his negative view of clericalism.

The Social Democrats were left with a mere 7.7% of the vote, which sums up the lackluster post-communist history of the once omnipotent Polish United Workers’ Party (PZRP), the Polish counterpart of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is worth recalling at this point, that not so long ago, in the late 1990s, the Social Democrats were cast in the role of a perpetual “party of power” – something akin to how United Russia is seen in this country.

Thus, the elections have left in their wake a highly complicated political lineup. On the one hand, there was the usual liberal-nationalist infighting on the main stage, accompanied by some eccentric performances on the sidelines. On the other, the Poles, unlike the Russians, are highly allergic to any hint of a “party of power.” Nevertheless, it is the liberals – the real liberals that bask in EU recognition – that will rule Poland for the next four years.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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