After the Polish Presidential Election: Fight to Keep the Victory
WASHINGTON—Bronislaw Komorowski’s victory in last Sunday’s presidential elections in Poland gives the Warsaw government a rare window of opportunity to advance a packed domestic reform and foreign policy agenda. With a fellow member of the centrist Civic Platform as the head of state, Prime Minister Donald Tusk can finally move to act, without the daily obstructions and veto-threats emanating from the office of the late President Lech Kaczynski. But both will have to fight to keep their victory. Komorowski won—after a nail-biting election night, and initial exit polls that gave his opponent Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) a clear lead—by a mere six percent, a significant drop from a commanding advantage earlier this spring.
Everything changed on April 10, the day a government plane crashed in Smolensk, taking the lives of much of Poland’s leadership, including then head of state Lech Kaczynski. After much deliberation, Jaroslaw, the late President’s twin brother, decided to run for PiS. Shrewdly, he discarded his penchant for divisive policies, and recast himself as a moderate, even on sensitive questions such as Poland’s Communist past. The strategy clearly worked: Kaczynski got an unexpected 47 percent of the vote. This success may well encourage the PiS leadership to continue their political shift from the far right to the center. This could turn them into a formidable opponent in this fall’s local elections, and even more importantly, in the October 2011 parliamentary elections. Some observers even argue that Kaczynski’s narrow defeat buys him time to consolidate the PiS’s position as well as his own.
All this puts considerable pressure on the winners of the election, President-elect Komorowski and Prime Minister Tusk. The challenges of reform are indeed enormous: despite the fact that Poland’s conservative fiscal policies (including a constitutional debt brake) have largely sheltered it from the otherwise devastating impact of the global economic crisis in Eastern Europe, its budget deficit stands at 7 percent, and public debt is nearing the ceiling (55 percent of GDP) which, if breached, would trigger unpleasant spending cuts. Experts are also calling for health care and pension reforms, as well as a more general overhaul of public finances: all likely to be unpopular steps in a country that feels it has already paid a high price for austerity. On the foreign policy front, Komorowski’s election largely signals continuity—albeit without the nuisance factor. The squabbles between the Prime Minister and the former President ranged from disagreements over ambassadorial appointments or over who would represent Poland at international summit meetings to running a parallel foreign policy through the National Security Council. One of Mr. Komorowski’s first state visits will take him to Brussels; Poland will hold the EU Presidency in the second half of 2011.
However, his main foreign policy focus will be on bilateral relations: in particular, on building better bilateral ties with Russia and Germany. One of the key topics with Berlin will be the disputed status of the large Polish diaspora in Germany (estimated at between one and two million). As for Moscow, Komorowski’s main objective will be to cajole the Russian government into continuing its current constructive stance towards Poland. On transatlantic relations, Komorowski’s record is one of friendly pragmatism. The President knows and likes the United States; his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama immediately invited him to visit. Nonetheless, there is one highly sensitive issue: the withdrawal of Polish troops from Afghanistan—a mission deeply unpopular at home. During a visit to Afghanistan in June, Komorowski said his country’s soldiers should leave by 2012; the U.S. position is that troop drawdown should begin in 2011.
Careful handling and coordination with American and European allies, not least ahead of the Lisbon NATO summit, will be critical. Bronislaw Komorowski’s greatest challenge, however, will be to become the supreme representative of all Poles, a role all his post-Communist predecessors have struggled to assume. That will mean bridging deep-seated divisions within society--reflected in the presidential poll—and standing above party politics, as the Polish Constitution demands. One final fact will certainly help Prime Minister Tusk and President Komorowski focus on their tasks: since 1989, no Polish government has managed to win reelection. They have just over a year to break with that tradition.
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