Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Bronisław Komorowski Elected President – But Does the Winner Take All?

And so it was Komorowski after all. Following his victory in the second round of presidential elections on Sunday, Citizens' Platform (PO) now have total political power. Alongside the presidency they run the government, under the premiership of its leader Donald Tusk, and have their own appointee in place as President of the National Bank of Poland. Never has a government enjoyed such political success in contemporary Polish history. If it manages to repeat this success at the parliamentary elections next year it will have become the first political party in postsocialist Poland to have been returned to office after having served a term in government. However, this is a big 'IF'.

The second round of presidential elections confirmed the huge social and geographical divide that dominates Polish politics. Komorowski once again won a majority in the wealthier areas in the North-West of the country and won in every city apart from Lublin. His electorate was drawn predominantly from the younger, wealthier and more educated sections of society. To gain an understanding of Kaczyński's electorate, simply invert this picture. The clear social and political schism in Poland was reflected in the narrow victory for Komorowski, who won 53% of the vote against Kaczyński's 47% - in an election where the turnout was 55%, which for Poland's standards is relatively high.

This was an extremely successful campaign for Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Only a few months ago the party had seemed to be running out of steam and unable to recover the trust of society after the debacle of its last government. Kaczyński started the election campaign with support in the low 20s. Therefore to not only take Komorowski to a second round but also to run him close in these elections represents a significant achievement for PiS. It shows how it is once again a force to be reckoned with and has a chance of winning next year's parliamentary elections.

PO now faces some serious political choices. Despite their pragmatic exterior PO and Tusk have strong ideological roots. During communism Tusk was a member of the so-called Gdańsk Liberals. In the 1980s this current criticised the leadership of the Solidarity movement for concentrating on issues such as democracy and equality and for maintaining economic policies that had a 'socialist character'. It looked to promote individual freedom through economic activity and advanced a programme of mass privatisation. They published the work of classical liberals such as Hayek, Popper, Friedmen and Aron and developed a dogmatic support for the free market, even claiming that they would prefer a free-market economy without democracy to socialism with free elections (Gazeta Wyborcza 14.10.2005).

Of course the trappings of power and the weariness of age can smooth many ideological commitments. Since becoming PM, Tusk has generally tried to avoid political confrontation and has steered away from introducing some of the most controversial aspects of his political programme. However, prior to the election of Komorowski, there was always an excuse for this: the presidential veto. Now there is no such pretext and even the presence of the Peasants' Party (PSL) in government will not be accepted as a reason for PO not pushing ahead with its reform programme.

And herein lies the contradiction. On the one hand PO have committed themselves to the privatisation (whoops there I go again – I mean 'commercialisation') of the health service, raising the retirement age, introducing a flat-income tax and reducing the budget deficit from the present 7% to 3% by 2012. However, Mr Komorowski had to sweep all this under the carpet during the election campaign and instead offer his own list of promises. These included introducing a 50% discount for student travel, opposing student fees, arguing against the privatisation of hospitals and introducing the state funding of in-vitro treatment (this latter proposal is particularly unpopular with the most conservative wing of PO).

With pressures (both internal and external) increasingly bearing down on the government to reduce its spending and the budget deficit, PO are going to have to walk a very tricky path to the next parliamentary elections. The opposition parties will be watching the government and president's every move and undoubtedly highlight every contradiction and missed promise.

This does not mean that PiS will have an easy ride itself. Kaczyński managed to expand his support by positioning the party in the political centre and building upon the particular atmosphere that followed the Smoleńsk tragedy. However, this strategy has already raised voices of discontent within the right of the party. Many high-profile politicians from PiS, from the most conservative and anti-communist wings of the party, were notable by their absence during the election campaign. It is to be seen to what extent PiS can continue to promote its cosmetic political conversion or whether it will again go on the political offensive. Certainly it is hard to see how PiS, barring a large fall in support for PO, could win these elections if it remains so unpopular in the cities.

The elections may be over but the campaign is ongoing. Watch this space.

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