Poland used to be known for its dramatic events, and fury of news. This is no longer the case. While most of Europe is boiling, Poland is now an oasis of stability, almost boredom. Its economy keeps growing, but not spectacularly. Its handling of the EU presidency is smooth, but deals with marginal matters. And in this week’s parliamentary elections, after a very dull electoral campaign, Poles again voted in the same two-party coalition.
This is surreal by Polish standards. For in the first 18 years since the end of communism, Poland had 13 different governments, a new one every 17 months on average. But now it looks as though Donald Tusk, the leader of the center-right Civic Platform party, is going to run the country for eight consecutive years. And stability isn’t a natural state of affairs in this part of Europe, especially in recent years. Latvian GDP fell by around 25% following the 2008 crisis. There have been ethnic clashes with the Roma population recently in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In Hungary the last elections turned the political scene on its head. Yet Poland’s usually restless citizenry is by and large happy, peaceful and uncritical.
There are no easy explanations for this strange state of affairs. Certainly, Tusk’s consensual, cautious style of politics has given voters a sense of security that seems needed in these turbulent times. His government has tried to manage the country rather than change it. Reforms were scarce, and often aborted if people opposed them. This has helped Poland to steer clear of troubles experienced by other countries.
But Tusk’s success is also due to help. First from the German Chancellor. Angela Merkel helped reach a deal on the EU’s budget that envisaged important financial injections to Poland and other new EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Ms Merkel kept her country in good economic condition, benefiting Germany’s close economic partners such as Poland. And she resisted pressure from her own political circles to revisit complex Polish-German history that would have benefitted Tusk’s major political competitors, such as former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Kaczynski is another who contributed to Tusk’s electoral victory. His prime ministerial tenure in 2005-7 generated so many political and personal conflicts that even some of his staunchest supporters abandoned him. His anti-German and anti-Russian stance has frightened many voters, too. And his refusal to hold a televised electoral debate with Tusk made him look out of touch with modern mediated politics.
The third contributor to Tusk’s success is Waldemar Pawlak, a leader of the Polish People’s Party, which formed a coalition government with Tusk’s Civic Platform party. Also a former PM, Pawlak has not engaged in any symbolic political acts, as many junior coalition partners often do, even though his party represents a sizable, partisan agrarian electorate. He has been a loyal, pragmatic ally trying to help, rather than undermine, the coalition government, even if this made him look weak and dull. The voters clearly appreciated his pragmatic stance, however low-key, since they have invited the Tusk-Pawlak combo to stay on for a further four years.
These next four years are likely to get bumpier, however. For Poland is not immune to external economic pressures and needs to reform its public sector, especially the judiciary and the health system, and such reforms are always controversial, and painful for some of the electorate. Moreover, the new parliament will have a new political party that is likely to challenge the government in a far more innovative manner than the old opposition groups did. The new party formed by the former Civic Platform MP Janusz Palikot has become the third largest in Poland’s new parliament. Palikot is a wealthy businessman and eloquent media performer. His attacks on the powerful Roman Catholic Church and his championing of causes, such as the legalization of soft drugs, gay rights and liberalization of Poland’s strict abortion laws, have impressed many young voters. He is likely to move the governing coalition from the center-right to the center-left, even though his economic agenda is fairly neoliberal.
Tusk calls the results of the elections a triumph of optimism. As long as this optimism lasts he has a chance of navigating Poland away from the stormy waters confronting Europe. If he fails, Poland will be back in the news again. So far though, no news is good news for Poland and its neighbours.
This article was first published on 14 October 2011 in Le Monde Diplomatique and is Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global.
Jan Zielonka is Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and author of Europe as Empire (Oxford University Press, 2006).