Polish elections : continuity and a dash of surprise

La victoire du Premier ministre conservateur polonais, Donald Tusk, aux élections legislatives du 9 octobre, a signifié aux partenaires européens de la Pologne qu’ils ne doivent pas s’attendre à un changement notable d’orientation de la politique suivie par Varsovie. C’est la gauche qui a pâti le plus de ce scrutin, avec l’arrivée du petit parti laïc du Mouvement de Palikot. Analyse publiée par le German Marshall Fund. 

On October 9, Poles returned their government to power in a parliamentary election for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Poland’s course over the next four years will again be defined by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, most likely in a coalition government with its current partner, the Polish Peasant Party (PSL). This victory sends a signal to Poland’s EU partners that the next four years are not going to see a dramatic reorientation of policy. With the Civic Platform earning 39 percent of the popular vote and the main opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), collecting almost 30 percent, Poles are generally pleased with the government’s performance.

Poland has fared quite well during the past four years, especially compared to the rest of Europe, and the Tusk government’s success at the polls reflects that. Its decision during the first term to focus on stability paid dividends at the ballot box, even if it meant delaying some urgently needed reforms in the area of public finance, deficit reduction, and infrastructure investment. But today, as the Civic Platform savors its electoral victory, the government is keenly aware of tough economic times ahead. In his second term, Tusk will be confronted with the deepening European sovereign debt crisis, the prospect of declining demand for Polish exports in key EU markets, and the impending battle over the country’s portion of the EU budget.

Still, this Polish election was not just about continuity. The biggest surprise was the meteoric rise of the so-called Palikot Movement (RP), named after its founder, Janusz Palikot, a wealthy activist and businessman. The RP, which formed in the fall of last year, participated in parliamentary elections for the first time. Running on a platform advocating a radical secular social agenda, it came in third, with 10 percent of the votes. Palikot’s new party outpaced the government coalition partner, the Polish Peasant Party, which placed fourth with 8.36 percent. It also dealt a devastating blow to the Social Democratic Left Alliance. The Alliance — which prior to the election had designs on becoming Tusk’s new coalition partner — was relegated to fifth place, earning just 8.24 percent of the vote.

The election results underscored two important trends in Polish politics today. It confirmed the power distribution among the post-Solidarity political class while reaffirming the established voting patterns and allegiances of large segments of the Polish electorate. At the same time, it showed the power of an emerging, more amorphous electorate that is no longer satisfied with the traditional establishment. RP voters embrace a hodgepodge of liberal/leftist views on social issues, but hold strong liberal views on the economy. The spectacular rise of the RP movement indicates that there is still a good deal of churning in the Polish electorate. The program of Janusz Palikot’s party, with its demands for gender parity, the liberalization of Poland’s restrictive abortion law, and its overall criticism of the role of the Catholic Church in public life, suggests that Poland’s deepening integration in the European Union has reached beyond economics and is now beginning to shape the values and attitudes of some parts of the electorate. It is too early to say whether the rise of the RP movement is merely a transitory phenomenon or the beginning of a new political force, but it seems clear that the voters wished to warn the government not to be complacent.

Polish politics two decades after independence is now first and foremost about continuity, notwithstanding the 10 percent of the vote that went to the RP. The electoral results of the two largest parties, the PO and the PiS, reflect deep political divisions in Polish society. However, these are unlikely to change Poland’s overall trajectory of further integration with the EU while maintaining strong ties to the United States. Poland continues to buck the trend of economic and political turmoil gripping Europe today, though it is not immune from the clouds gathering over Europe’s economic horizon. The Polish economy is still expected to grow at 3.7 percent this year, but the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development projects Poland’s growth to decline to only 2.2 percent in 2012. The broader context of the Polish story, including the recent election, is the accelerated restructuring of Europe. The current eurocrisis has put paid to Europe’s traditional East-West polarization. In this new climate, the path flows ever-more North-South, dividing the countries that have been able to insulate themselves better from the crisis and those where economic troubles continue to deepen. In this new Europe, Poland has thus far been able to weather the financial storm better than some of the older and more established European players — viewed as a sphere of stability when compared to an unraveling Greece or a deeply troubled Italy. The recent Polish election results have reinforced that message.