Is the Polish Election Another Crack in the Coalition?

Once upon a time the King of Poland addressed Parliament and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, the Tartars are coming to raid Poland and sack Warsaw.”

“What’s the good news?” asked the Prime Minister.

“They’ll have to cross Russia twice!”

Explaining Polish politics is like trying to explain your favorite long-running soap opera to a friend who’s never seen it. This is no less true of the recent election.

The basic facts are: in last Sunday’s parliamentary election, the opposition Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk, beat the governing Law and Justice Party led by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski, by a whopping 41 to 32 percent of the vote, with an unusually large voter turnout of 53 percent.

The Civic Platform campaigned as pro-European Union, pro-business, anti -government corruption, and strongly critical of Poland’s presense in Iraq. Observers now wonder if their election victory means the loss of one of the most pro-American voices in the councils of the EU, and the withdrawl of the second largest contingent of combat troops in Iraq (after the United Kingdom.) Poland was the only continental European country to contribute combat troops to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Kaczynski brothers were popular in Poland for their foreign policy stands.
Outspokenly pro-US and suspicious of the EU, Jaroslaw Kaczynski gained notoriety in Europe by bluntly violating the Euro-political taboo “Thou Shalt Not Mention World War II,” when he objected to a German-proposed proportional representation plan. The Prime Minister pointed out that Poland’s population was considerably smaller than it might have been, had Germany not killed so many Poles in World War II.

Under the Kaczynski twins, Poland has maintained troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are strong supporters of modernizing and professionalizing the Polish military, and of lustracja, the policy of revealing the names of citizens who cooperated with the communist secret police and banning them from public office and government service.

However, their domestic and economic policies have been widely unpopular. Privatisation of remaining state industires has stalled and government anti-corruption investigations have been widely seen as heavy-handed and politically motivated.

In a televised debate last month, Tusk was widely perceived to have emerged with a huge lead when he lambasted Jaroslaw Kaczynski for failing to move Poland further in the direction of a prosperous market economy.

Kaczynski replied that economic growth must be combined with a welfare system that targets groups that have not benefitted from growth, and that “liberal (i.e. free-market) policy should be abandoned.”

Tusk replied that two million Poles have voted for a market policy by moving abroad to find work, and that Poland had to “abandon an economy restricted by regulations in favor of a liberal economy” and that Poles pay bribes because “they can’t get things done due to bad legal regulations.”

Tusk pointed out that, although the government had promised a “cheap state” two years previously, under the Kaczynski administration the number of public officials had grown by 39,000 and the budget increased to the point that Poland might not meet the criteria for joining the Eurozone by the target date of 2012.

The European Union requires that member states adopting the Euro must bring levels of government debt, inflation etc down to set targets.

On foreign policy, Civic Platform accused the Kaczynski government of creating bad relations with Germany and Russia and of acting “servile” towards the United States. They have talked about pulling Polish forces out of Iraq, though not Afghanistan, nor have they publicly opposed the US placing an anti-missile defense system in Poland, over the strenuous objections of Russia.

So, on the surface this looks like it could be a classical lose-lose situation for American interests. One where you have an alternative between a government that enacts policies good for their country, but is hostile to American interests; versus a government which is friendly to American interests but a disaster for their own country.

Or maybe not.

When it comes to the question of purging former communist collaborators from government service, Civic Platform and the Law and Justice Party are in complete agreement. This policy is widely supported by voters and unlikely to change.

On taxes, the Kaczynski government was criticized for enacting a large child income tax deduction while enacting huge budget increases. However a Reagonomics-style tax cut should actually result in more revenue — and a child deduction may encourage a rise in birth rates. In any case, the new government is bound to hesitate before repealing a tax cut as popular as this.

Civic Platform favors a flat tax, privatization of remaining state industries and health care, devolution of government power to local authorities and direct election of mayors and city councils. On foreign policy they have made pro-EU noises, “Poland is a part of Europe, not the United States” said a party representative.

However, Radek Sikorski was elected as one of the party’s main candidates and is expected to assume a high post in the new prime minister’s cabinet, perhaps as foreign minister.

Sikorski was a Law and Justice Party senator and Minister of Defense in the Kaczynski government and known for his outspoken support for Poland’s presence in Iraq. He resigned from his post in February 2006 and joined Civic Platform. What is interesting for conservatives is that Sikorski was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute from 2002 to 2005 and is married to Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist and historian Anne Applebaum.

So, will Poland disengage from the American-led coalition in Iraq? Though they have talked about it, they have not exactly promised to. During the debate, Tusk angrily asked Kaczynski "Why are we still there? Where are our visas? Where’s the business of it? Why are we endangering the lives of our soldiers?"

Herein may be a clue. What Tusk was referring to was the US government’s recent decision to exclude Poland from the expanded list of countries whose citizens are not required to have visas for travel to the US. Poles perceived this as a slap in the face after their support for the US.

Poles are not likely to become anti-American any time soon. What they are, and always have been, is prickly about their independence and resentful of anybody’s assumption that they can be told what to do.