Poles shift to right in voting for Parliament

By Graham Bowley
Published September 26th 2005 in International Herald Tribune
WARSAW - Poland took a decisive shift to the right in a general election on Sunday, as initial exit polls suggested that an alliance of two center-right parties had swept into power, ousting the government of former Communists under President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
In their first parliamentary election since joining the European Union last year, Poles elected the two center-right parties, which both trace their origins to the anticommunist Solidarity movement, and punished the governing Democratic Left Alliance, which has been mired in corruption scandals.
The Democratic Left Alliance also faced lingering voter discontent over its failure to tackle the former Communist nation's painfully high unemployment of about 18 percent.
According to exit polls after voting had finished Sunday evening, the conservative Law and Justice party was in the lead, with 28 percent of the vote. Its likely coalition partner, Civic Platform, had 24 percent of the vote.
The formerly Communist Democratic Left Alliance was trailing with 11 percent.
Voters were electing representatives in both the 460-seat lower house of Parliament and the 100-seat Senate, just two weeks before the first round of presidential elections on Oct. 9.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Law and Justice, said the result gave him a mandate to become prime minister. "We have won, everything shows we have won," he said.
"We have won as a party and what is more important we have won as a program, as a certain idea for Poland, and this should turn out to be decisive."
The Civic Platform party and the Law and Justice party have pledged to form an alliance once in power, and together could command a comfortable majority of about 60 percent of the 460-seat lower house, analysts said earlier in the day.
It was still not completely clear Sunday which party would command the balance of power and thus choose the prime minister, although analysts said Law and Justice had the upper hand.
This would be important for the future direction of economic reform in Poland, since Civic Platform is committed to radical change to stimulate the economy, including the rapid adoption of the euro and the introduction of a 15 percent flat tax rate for personal, company and consumption taxes.
Instead, Law and Justice, led by Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, identical twins who aim to become, respectively, prime minister and president, favor a more interventionist, welfare-state approach to the economy.
They are more nationalist and socially conservative and have led their campaign on fighting corruption and crime, and on upholding Christian values.
Until last week, Civic Platform commanded a big lead in opinion polls, but Law and Justice began to draw strong support when it raised bitter objections to its would-be partners' radical economic plans.
The markedly opposing economic and social policies could point to a possibly unstable political future for Poland, analysts said.
"They are both center-right but they have very different priorities and very different approaches to the economy," said Aleks Szczerbiak, an Eastern Europe expert at the European Institute at Sussex University in Britain.
The parliamentary election on Sunday came two weeks ahead of the first round of presidential elections on Oct. 9. Then, the center-right parties are again expected to wrest power from the Democratic Left Alliance as the current president, Kwasniewski, steps down after serving two five year terms.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader, told reporters after voting Sunday: "Regardless of who will finally win this race between Law and Justice and the Platform, the road to change will be open."
Jan Rokita, Civic Platform candidate for prime minister, told reporters Sunday: "These are very important elections because they mark the end of the post-Communist era." After the exit polls Sunday, he insisted he would not abandon his radical reform plans despite coming in as the junior party of the coalition.
On the streets of Warsaw on Sunday, people expressed rage and disappointment at what they described as the corruption of the government, but they were also optimistic that things could change.
"The issue is corruption in the current government," said Katarzyna Wozniak, 21, an economics student. "And the new parties want smaller government spending and lower taxes, and in that way unemployment will be lower."
Outside a polling station beneath the towering Communist-era Palace of Culture and Science, Jerzy Cymanski, a pensioner who worked for 40 years in railway construction, said that people from the Democratic Left Alliance "were not socialist, but people who just wanted to make quick money. The same can happen again."
The new rightist government could seek to redefine its relationship with the United States. Poland has been one of the United States' biggest supporters in the EU, but Lukasz Pawlowski, chief media spokesman for Civic Platform, said Poland would start to demand more in return, including pushing for a less restrictive U.S. visa policy for Poles, and on Iraq, where Poland has committed about 1,500 troops. "We would like to withdraw troops as soon as possible but only with a debate with the Americans and with Britain," he said.
The coalition has also said it would seek to rewrite Poland's post-communist constitution. "They both want to inject references to Poland's historical past, the role of the church and the struggle over communism," said Marek Matraszek, a political commentator and head of CEC Government Relations, a private consultancy.
Pawlowski said the coalition could also try to end immunity from prosecution for politicians, cut the number of seats in Parliament and perhaps even change the balance of power between the president and Parliament. In a fight against what it sees as widespread corruption in Poland, Law and Justice has said it would seek to ban former communist functionaries from public office.
Sixteen years after the end of communism, Poland is now a democratic, capitalist, independent state, a member of NATO as well as of the EU, but its politics remain volatile. This election repeats the pattern of the four other elections since 1989, where no ruling party has ever won reelection.
In Warsaw's Old Town on Sunday, Jacek Czarnek, 28, a physiotherapist, said: "We have had plenty of our own Watergates. I am optimistic, but now I am still thinking about leaving Poland for the U.K. or New Zealand because the salaries are so depressed in Poland."