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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Poles at the Polls: The big change is no change

Following Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland, the governing centre-right coalition composed of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) and the Peasants’ Party (PSL) has effectively been re-elected, with PO winning 39.2% of the vote and PSL 8.4%. While this might not come as a surprise given the government has been largely scandal free and has presided over the most healthy economic growth in the EU during the ongoing crisis, it is nonetheless noteworthy that Tusk will become the first Polish Prime Minister to win a consecutive term since the fall of Communism in 1989. As the Guardian noted:
In the first 18 years after communism, Poland had 13 different governments, a new one every 17 months on average. Now it seems that Tusk could govern for eight years in a row.
The results suggest that Poland's notoriously volatile and unpredictable politics might be entering a phase of consolidation, although it must be said pre-election polls were far from consistent and set out a variety of possible scenarios. It appears that Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law & Justice (PiS), despite winning a healthy 29.9% of the vote, might have plateaued, and will struggle to expand into fresh political territory. Political commentators last night couldn’t decide whether Kaczynski’s attack on Angela Merkel and Germany’s “new imperial ambitions” helped or hindered his party’s cause, but they agreed that it was unlikely to have had a deciding effect either way.

Meanwhile, the other big news was the poor result of the well established post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (8.3%) and the strong showing by new Ruch Palikota (10%), a socially liberal populist movement established by ex-PO troublemaker Janusz Palikot, renowned for unconventional press conferences, which aims to take on the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland. EurActiv described the result 'good news' for the EU Presidency because Tusk is a “pragmatic liberal conservative” opposed to what he sees as “a new wave of euroscepticism" within the EU.

So looking at the bigger picture, what does this mean for EU politics? It is has been said that if you get three Poles in a room you end up with four different political opinions. We'll not speculate as to whether this is true, but what is true is that there is a significant degree of commonality in Poland when it comes to EU issues. With the exception of PiS, all the main parties are broadly in favour of the current EU arrangement. However, Poland remains a value-conservative nation - a disposition which clashes with the often humanitarian (some would say post-modern) under-current in EU law.

As a socially conservative party, PiS voters in particular tend to be be more assertive when it comes to EU law, and this is why the previous president Lech Kaczynski decided to opt Poland out from the Lisbon Treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which clarified (in theory at least) that it did not extend the rights of the European courts to overturn domestic law.

While the coalition with PSL has in effect given PO free reign in many policy areas, the condition has been to put off reforming Poland's outdated and deeply flawed agricultural insurance system, which is very generous for farmers and sacrosanct for PSL. Poland is likely to remain staunch defenders of generous EU farm subsidies, and will oppose any serious attempts at radically reform the CAP (which we have argued in favour of many times). Poland will instead lobby for a more even distribution of benefits from North-West Europe to Central and Eastern Europe. Likewise, in the context of current wrangling over the EU budget, as a net recipient of EU funds, Poland is unlikely to want to see a reduction or freeze in the budget, as again, we have argued for. Meanwhile, in opposition, PiS is likely to keep an eye out for any value driven EU legislations, especially in the social sphere, which it can use to attack the government for not defending Polish interests. Given the ECJ's renowned judicial activism, it is possible such a tussle is only over the horizon.

But PO is also insinctively economic liberals in many areas, and will hopefully be a voice of reason in opposing top-heavy or disproportional regulations coming out of Brussels. And, with the right diplomacy, there should ample scope for the UK and other pro-growth member states to co-operate on trade liberalisation and expanding the single market.


Paula said...

Really enjoyed the blog post. Great combination of post-election commentary and what this means on the EU level. Nice job!

Peripatetic Scribe said...

The people of Poland should be congratulated on their "career" from the past problems to a bright future.

Rollo said...

The Poles are never happy unless they are being ruled by an undemocratic super state; that is their history. Funny that they put up a bit of a fight the last time the Germans wanted a united Europe; but, obviously, their will has been snapped by the Politburo, and, like chickens liberated from a battery farm, they are scurrying back to rule by the European Commission/Politburo.

Peripatetic Scribe said...

Rollo - I thin k your comment slightly unfair. Obviously I do not know where you are writing from or your background. If you will allow me some space: for the last 20+ years I have lived and worked in what is popularly know as "ex-communist Europe" including Poland, Hungary, Albania and all the others. I can say with all honesty, and grounded in a long and deep knowledge of the people, that they needed time to overcome the traumas with which they were historically linked. I believe this second term for Mr. Tusk (an very westernised and educated gentleman) is the watershed that Poles have longed for, for many years,

Rollo said...

Yes, of course it was unfair. I have huge regard for the Poles, and am still disgusted by their treatment by Churchill after the war, whne he refused to let the Poles march in the victory parade, though they offered more help to us than most.
But I am also disgusted by the way they accept the undemocratic rule of the EC. They are hitching their wagon to the wrong horse, a very slow and plodding one destined to collapse.
I had hoped to get some reaction from a Pole.