Successful Poland braces for change
- If it wins power, Law and Justice must govern better than last time
t is a measure of Poland’s weight on the European stage that its October 25 parliamentary elections are drawing attention from Washington and London to Berlin and Moscow. Poland’s allies and neighbours are anticipating a possible change of government that could recast the spirit, even the substance, of Warsaw’s policies on post- Soviet eastern Europe, EU affairs, the economy and public finances. Precisely because of its progress since the peaceful overthrow of communism in 1989, and because of its frontline role as a state bordering Ukraine, anything that threw into question Poland’s political stability, economic health and national security would be an immense concern for Europe and the Nato alliance.
The frontrunner in opinion polls is Law and Justice, a rightwing opposition party which upset the apple cart in May when Andrzej Duda, its candidate, was elected president. Having ruled Poland since 2007, Civic Platform, a centre-right party similar to Germany’s Christian Democrats, looks set to lose power. But in seven elections since 1991 no party has won an outright legislative majority. A wild card will therefore be Kukiz’s Movement, an anti-establishment party founded by former rock musician Pawel Kukiz, who once starred in a band called The Breasts and who came third in the presidential election preaching a strident message of social conservatism.
Political change is coming to Poland for several reasons. The most important is that Civic Platform’s generally successful management of the economy has failed to improve living standards for many of Poland’s 38.5m people. Second, Civic Platform, despite a brave effort at refurbishment under Ewa Kopacz, prime minister since September 2014, looks out of touch after eight years in power. Finally, young voters have little or no memory of Law and Justice’s waywardness in government from 2005 to 2007, a period dominated by party founders Lech Kaczynski, who died in 2010 in an aeroplane crash in Russia, and his twin Jaroslaw.
If they had a vote, many of Poland’s EU partners might plump for Civic Platform. Under the Kaczynskis, Polish foreign policy was so presumptuous that the government achieved the extraordinary feat of alienating both Germany and Russia. Civic Platform has won praise for its responsible conduct, earning its reward when Donald Tusk, Ms Kopacz’s predecessor, last year became EU president.
Law and Justice would promote Poland’s interests more assertively. It would demand tougher Nato protection of the alliance’s eastern members against Russia. It might press Poland’s allies to act more robustly in support of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. The essential question is whether Law and Justice would refrain from steps that might reignite the tensions with partners that marked the 2005-07 years. Happily, Mr Duda and others have given assurances that the party would co-ordinate policy closely with the US, Germany and other allies.
Similarly, the party would need to pursue economic policies less extravagant than proposed in its election platform. Vote-catching promises to roll back pension reform, lift income tax thresholds and increase family benefits would, if implemented, raise doubts about Poland’s fiscal soundness. It is reassuring, however, that Law and Justice has named Beata Szydlo, a talented politician aware of these risks, as its candidate for prime minister.
In many respects Poland is the great success story of post-communist central and eastern Europe. If Law and Justice wins in October, it must take care not to jeopardise that hard-won reputation.