Monday, October 22, 2007

Government defeated in Polish election

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has admitted defeat in yesterday’s general election, with exit polls predicting victory for the populist Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska - PO) party. His conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) polled about 31 percent, far short of its centre-right rival with 44 percent. Kaczynski’s defeat will see the 12th change of leadership in Poland in the 16 years since the end of communism.

Despite chilly weather, Poland had its best post-Communist election turnout with barely 55 percent of eligible voters going to the polls (only 40 per cent voted in the last election three years ago). Kaczynski called the election two years early after the collapse of a right-wing coalition. PiS had constantly bickered with its two minor partners and Kaczynski was eventually left bereft of supporters to form an effective government.

PO campaigned on a platform to bring Polish troops home from Iraq. They also favour lower taxes, less bureaucracy and market-oriented policies aimed at speeding up Poland’s entry into the Euro. It seems likely they will take at least 224 seats with their preferred coalition partners the Peasants Party taking 27 seats. Together this will be a comfortable working majority in Poland’s 460 seat lower chamber known as the “Sejm”.

PO is led by the Gdansk born but very unPolish sounding Donald Tusk. The country’s likely next Prime Minister is 50 years old and married with two children. Both his parents came from what was then the free city of Danzig and survived German slave labour camps. Tusk was involved in the underground early days of the Solidarity movement. In the later 1980s, he left Solidarity and became a Liberal. In 1991 he stood for parliament and his fledgling party got 7.5% of votes (37 places in the Sejm). In 2001 he set up PO and has grown the party gradually through the decade.

He now says that Poland needed to focus on the economic opportunities presented by membership in the EU. "It is Civic Platform's intention to make Poles feel much better in their own country than they have felt so far,'' Tusk told cheering supporters. "We are going to do huge work and we will do it well. You have the right to rejoice today." Although Tusk is believed to have a close relationship with Washington, his party has threatened to break the outgoing government's negotiations with the US on hosting a missile defence system on Polish soil unless offered sufficient security trade-offs.

Kaczynski’s defeat brings to end a unique situation where a country’s two key roles are filled by twin brothers. While Jaroslaw has been PM, brother Lech Kaczynski is Poland's president. Lech does not face a presidential election until 2010 but opposition parties together look set to get enough seats to override his power to veto legislation. The new government is likely to rebuild ties with EU partners such as Germany that have been badly strained by the Kaczynski brothers.

Both Kaczynskis earned a reputation of troublemakers with their nationalist agenda since coming to power in 2005. Despite Poland’s booming economy, the twins had ruled over a party cursed with constant infighting. Tusk’s party has successfully accused them of abusing secret services and undermining democracy with attacks on the judiciary and tight control of state media.

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