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Friday, September 23, 2005

The Economist on Poland's elections

You won't find a better summary

The Economist:

Poland's election race

Right on track

Politics have progressed since 1990 but they have further to go

IN RURAL north-western Poland, a suave, Oxford-educated politician is explaining the advantages of European Union membership. Bad roads are a big problem for Polish farmers, explains Radek Sikorski, a teenage refugee from communism who now runs the transatlantic programme at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. And EU money is now paying for new ones, helping Polish competitiveness. But a middle-aged woman is unconvinced: “Good roads will help foreigners to come here and buy up all our food,” she protests.

Mr Sikorski patiently explains the principles of supply and demand. He is used to this. The previous day a voter in a spa town complained that Germans were going to “buy up all the water”.

Spending time on the campaign trail in Poland reveals both how far the country has changed since the collapse of communism in 1989—and how far there still is to go. Many voters in this Sunday's parliamentary election are on the same wavelength as the savvy, confident Mr Sikorski, grasping the opportunities that capitalism and democracy have created. They pose sophisticated questions about tax cuts, EU reform and cutting bureaucracy. But there is another chunk of the electorate: fearful of change, muddled and disillusioned.

Mr Sikorski's centre-right Law and Justice party tries to appeal to both camps. His stump speech mixes talk of globalisation and competitiveness with references to his time with anti-communist guerrillas in Afghanistan and Angola in the 1980s. It doesn't hurt that his American wife is also a celebrity: the Polish translation of her book on Stalin's gulag has been a bestseller. All that appeals to patriotic, history-conscious voters, regardless of political orientation.

Other parties cast their appeal more narrowly. The other centre-right outfit, Civic Platform, gains support mainly among well-educated, better-off, urban voters. Its candidate for prime minister, Jan Rokita, is a clever, short-tempered free-marketeer. At a rally in Wolbrom in southern Poland this week, he lashed out against the “lazy cretins” in the bureaucracy, and sternly chastised peasant farmers for their whingeing dependence on handouts from the state.

Jan Rokita
Prime Minister until the election

That is fun to listen to, but may be unwise. Mr Rokita's party was in the lead for most of the campaign. That led his supporters to start calling him, hubristically, “Mr Prime Minister” (which he claims to discourage). But voters find the whiff of intellectual and other arrogance off-putting; now Law and Justice is catching up. One poll this week even showed it moving narrowly ahead.

On the face of it, that makes little difference. Although rivals until polling day, both parties agree they must form a coalition government afterwards. There are close ties already and some joint candidates: Mr Sikorski terms himself bipartisan. Both parties have strong roots in the anti-communist underground; both claim to detest the bloated cronyism which flourished in the post-communist years. “We agree about moral and historical questions,” says Mr Rokita, “but my party is also convinced of the need to liberalise the economy and society.”

That's the rub. Law and Justice says it wants a smaller state, but also makes expensive promises about fairness and social protection, popular causes in egalitarian Poland. It wants to simplify the tax system, while criticising Civic Platform's plans for a 15% flat tax, with some justice, as gimmicky and unfair. But it lacks intellectual fire-power: its policies are flimsy and its two main figures, the twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are noted for their honesty, but also for their charmless stubbornness and limited grasp of foreign affairs and economics.

That portends some big squabbles in the coming weeks over jobs and policies in the new government, particularly over who will be prime minister, and for how long. Even if Mr Rokita's party comes out ahead, many doubt that his brittle, volatile personality will rise to the challenges of running a government.

Against that backdrop, Poles will be getting ready for another election next month, for the presidency. Here the Civic Platform's candidate, Donald Tusk, is way ahead of his challenger, Lech Kaczynski, though this probably owes more to his sterling character than his free-market convictions, which few Poles share.

The main lesson of both campaigns is that for the first time since 1989, Poles are arguing more about the future than the past. One big reason is that the once-dominant ex-communist party has imploded after a series of scandals. Its latest stunt, sending voters automated telephone messages apologising for its past sins, has attracted ridicule. Among the political elite—aside from the small demagogic parties of right and left—there is now a consensus about Poland's way ahead: in the EU but friends with America, with modernity and efficiency instead of incompetence and corruption. Given some of the nutty talk and nasty people seen in Polish politics in past years, that's rather refreshing. It's also pretty ambitious.

(Article background)

(Summary of parties)


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