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Thursday, December 01, 2005

The bravest woman in Poland

Is Henryka Bochniarz trying to commit political suicide or is she the only sane person in Poland?

Henryka BochniarzIn August this year, outgoing President Aleksander Kwaśniewski signed a very controversial bill which gave miners extremely favorable retirement benefits. The bill was controversial for two reasons: Firstly, it concerned only miners, and no one else. Shipbuilders, foundry workers, and farmers – all very powerful groups here in Poland, and all of which who work very hard under difficult conditions, were left out.

Secondly, the bill would cost Poland zł.18 billion in just the next 4 years. That’s over half of Poland’s projected budget deficit for this year – yes, that includes ALL of the government’s costs. Law and Justice, who control the current government, supported the law, which will cost Poland over 70 billion by 2020 (Polish link). That, as you can imagine, would significantly impede Poland’s progress toward joining the euro zone (not that Law and Justice cares anyway), and hamper Poland’s economic growth for years to come.

The amendment, although supported by the SLD, was not supported by the SLD Prime Minister at the time, Marek Belka. Belka is a technocrat economist who just recently lost out on the job to become president of the highly-regarded economic think-tank, the OECD. Belka decided to challenge the law in Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, roughly something like The US’ Supreme Court.

No verdict was ever handed down in the challenge. The Constitutional Tribunal never decided whether it was just to have the country pay with its future economic growth to provide for better retirement benefits to workers in extremely difficult conditions. The current government had already made that decision. This week, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, Belka’s successor from Law and Justice, withdrew the challenge, meaning the bill passed in August could officially and finally be considered law.

The Leviathan

That is, until Henryka Bochniarz (Polish link, Wikipedia), who ran for the position of President of Poland this year from the Democratic Party (not the US one, but durn close. Think DLC) stepped into the mix. Bochniarz is a respected business leader who not only is a member of several management boards of some of Poland’s largest conglomerates. She’s also a social liberal and former member of the communist party. She was also the Minister for Industry under the government of Jan Bielicki. She is now the President of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers, also known as Lewiatan (Leviathan).

Her group, one of the top business-advocacy groups in Poland, sees the new miner’s bill as a disaster that will ruin Poland’s finances and keep Poland hobblingly poor for a generation. Thus, when PM Marcinkiewicz announced that his government would be withdrawing from the Constitutional challenge, Lewiatan – with Bochniarz at the forefront – brazenly declared that they would continue to support the challenge legally and financially.

According to Bochniarz’s arguments against the law (found here in Polish) the current miners’ retirement scheme costs every Polish worker zł.400 ($120.75 – just less than half the average monthly wage here) per year each, and is twice as high as the average state pension. According to Lewiatan, if the challenge is defeated, the new law will bring miners’ pensions to the level of four times that of the average state pension.

A just demand?

On the other hand, the average state pension (as anyone who knows anyone on a pension here can tell you) is meager. Most elderly cannot survive, or can barely survive, on it, and often work part time in awful conditions (many of them do not have marketable skills) to supplement their income. Miners have extremely difficult and dangerous jobs. Years of breathing in dust leaves them vulnerable to an early death caused by emphysema, at the very least (if they survive the accidents).

Should miners be punished for the ineptitude of the communist government which mismanaged the sector and didn’t train them in any other skills so that they would have some kind of economic mobility?

To be honest, this is a very difficult question for me, and I don’t know which side to come down on. On the one hand, I don’t think the rest of Poland should have to pay the price of economic stagnation, on the other, I do think miners deserve special consideration when it comes to their retirement.

Tough as tack

One thing’s for sure. Henryka Bochniarz is one hell of a brave lady (she was the only woman to run for President this year). As the law was being debated in the Sejm this summer, miners held a violent demonstration in which 37 police officers were injured. Miners are hugely powerful in this country, and as a political debate program on television showed yesterday, where she was incessantly attacked by both the participants and the audience, most of the establishment (powerful activist groups and mainstream politicians) is against her.

Still, she’s a voice of sanity in a loony and extremely aggressive political environment. Right or wrong, this lady cares about the future of Poland, and come hell or high water, she stands on her principles.

It’s a shame she didn’t become President. Poland needs more like her.


Blogger beatroot said...

Hi Gus.

You mention that she was connected to the Bielicki government back in the early nintees. That was a right wing government, but which included people like Bochniarz who, if I am right, come from the , now defuct, Unia Wolnosci party. These are people who are basically European social democrats - people like Kuron, Michnik (Adam!). And that's the difference with the right wing government today - they don't have that wing of Solidarity in them - just the right wing nutty bits.

But there is no support for people like her anymore. What did she get in the presidential election? One percent?

12/02/2005 11:49:00 AM  

Blogger Gustav said...

Or maybe even less. It's a shame that people didn't listen to her more. Do you think it was because she was a woman, because she was an economic "liberal", or because she didn't have the name recognition?
Or was it none, or all, of the above?

12/02/2005 08:32:00 PM  

Blogger beatroot said...

I don't think it was because she is female. Poland has had a woman prime minister, Hanna Suchocka, and Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz was head of the central bamk. It's her party - democratic - which nobody votes for, and she is a bit plain - presidential elections being about personalities. She does look a bit dull, though, doesn't she?

12/03/2005 01:10:00 AM  

Blogger Michael Farris said...

For what it's worth, a whole bunch of people have told me that they would have voted for her "if she had a chance".

Smart, economically sane and socially liberal? She's exactly what the Polish political scene desperately needs instead of the current bunch of nutballs and mediocrities.

gratuituous snipe: I bet stefan hates her.

12/03/2005 11:28:00 AM  

Blogger Gustav said...

Beatroot -

Nobody voted for the democratic party this time around because it was new. I'm not sure it's fair to say that nobody "votes" for the democrats, since it was only founded just before this year's elections. Then again, SDPL was also founded this year, and garnered significantly more.

Is Bochniarz significantly more boring than Borowski?

What I wouldn't give for some boring politics in this country.

Michael -

Those people who would have voted for her if she had had a chance - Did they vote for her in the first round of the presidential elections? It would have brought a lot more credibility to her party if they had.

12/03/2005 01:37:00 PM  

Blogger Michael Farris said...

I'm pretty sure they all voted for Tusk hoping for a first round victory (what I would have done in those particular circumstances it actually seemed sort of possible at the time).

I'm hoping they don't give up on the Demokraci and they can stick it out until the next election and make it into the Sejm.

12/03/2005 02:27:00 PM  

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