Monday, 10 October 2011

Tusk Bucks the Trend

The victory of Donald Tusk's Citizens' Platform party (PO), at yesterday's parliamentary elections, is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, this is the first time in the country's history (which includes the inter-war period) when a governing party has been re-elected in an open and free election. PO has not only won the largest share of the vote, but has gained enough seats to continue its coalition with the Peasants' Party (PSL). It really couldn't have wished for a better night.

Secondly, the victory of PO goes against the current trend in European politics. The expanding crisis within the eurozone has had its own affect upon the political scene in most European countries. One result has been the strengthening of the conservative-right, which has used the ideologies of reaction and division (such as racism and xenophobia) as the liberal consensus is undermined by growing economic hardship.

It is true that the Polish political scene does not replicate those in the vast majority of European countries - dominated as it is by two right-wing parties. Nevertheless, there is a measurable difference between many (although not all) of the social and cultural policies of PO and its more conservative rival the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Furthermore, with the liberal populist Palikot Movement (RP) winning more than 10% of the vote, it can be seen how there has been a shift to the left in this election on social cultural issues; and to some extent on economic issues, as PO has had to temper its more neo-liberal rhetoric.

Yet, although the parties of the conservative right have been strengthened in many European countries, they have still suffered their own defeats. The more general trend in recent European elections has been that nearly all governing parties have been ejected from power as the social effects of the economic crisis have been felt. Any governing party that is able to be re-elected in today's Europe is doing well, let alone in a country which has never done so before in its history.

PO have managed to extend their support into some of the heartlands of PiS and re-establish themselves as the hegemonic party not only of the right but of Polish politics. The graphic below shows how PO has extended out of its western heartlands and won in regions previously controlled by PiS.


How has it been possible for PO to claim such an impressive victory? Well, its the economy stupid. It's been oft repeated that Poland has been the only EU country to have avoided a recession since the outbreak of the economic crisis. Although critics have rightly pointed to the growing hardships for many social groups and the terrible state of many public services, it still has to be accepted that growth is better than decline.

Tusk has proven himself to be a pragmatic leader with a political skill and instinct rarely displayed by his rivals. He has avoided confrontation with the teachers and its strong trade union by raising their wages; and he has sensibly partly reversed the compulsory private pension system - an act of ideological treason for some.

The major slice of political luck for this professed heir of Hayek, has been that while the invisible hand of the market of has been paralysed, the state has been able to flex its muscles. The influx of funds from the EU (and lets call this what it really is - progressive economic redistribution directed by state institutions) has allowed public investment to rise as private investment has collapsed.

Furthermore, the PO government has maintained a relatively high (although not excessive) budget deficit and has not embarked upon a policy of economic austerity that is currently driving many European economies into a double-dip recession.

Yet, as Tusk reflects on his victory today he will realise that it may not be so easy for him during the next four years. The widening economic crisis in the eurozone is knocking on Poland's door and there are already signs of an economic slowdown in the country. The government is committed to quickly bringing down the budget deficit and could embark on its own austerity drive. Also, although it is unclear how much Poland will receive from the next EU budget in structural and cohesion funds, it is certain that the current wave of infrastructural development will slow following next year's European football championships. Add into the mix the possibility of a prolonged economic downturn in the eurozone – including perhaps in Germany - then the challenges for the Polish government are huge.

It should also be remembered that although PiS has lost another election it still enjoys over 30% of the vote. It may have retracted into its heartland and hardened its rhetoric but it is well placed to capitalise on any future decline in support for PO.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the left that is in its weakest position since the end of Communism. Another reason for Tusk to feel particularly self-satisfied today.

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