Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

New Polish premier to change tone

Donald Tusk's center-right party won a decisive victory in Sunday's elections.

Moderate pro-Europe leader Donald Tusk may have defeated the ardently nationalist Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a Polish election that crystallized two very different visions of this country and its future.

But to gain a ruling foothold in a nation where Mr. Kaczynski has created or taken over no fewer than 12 centers of power, Mr. Tusk must now deal with the prime minister's identical twin brother Lech, who is president. Lech Kaczynski will serve three more years as president and has veto power in parliament.

About these ads

The decisive Sunday victory for Tusk's Civic Platform in a record-turnout election seen weeks ago as a shoo-in for Kaczynski – is widely attributed to Tusk's own rising toughness and maturity as a politician.

He will now need that toughness to revamp three secret service agencies, as well as police, media, tax, and justice agencies stocked with Kaczynski loyalists – and to change a tone of fear in a nation that since the 2005 elections has been called "the Fourth Republic of Poland" by the ruling twins.

Analysts say the election is a rejection by middle-class and younger voters of the contentious politics exercised by the Law and Justice party headed by Jaroslaw – including anticommunist and anticorruption campaigns . Under the Kaczynskis, Poland has also battled with Berlin over Nazi history and with Brussels over the terms of the European Union treaty.

The loss by Jaroslaw, described by critics as having a nearly messianic sense of his rule, is widely regarded as a crushing blow he will not easily accept, experts say. Kaczynski reportedly leads a monastic life with no house or bank account, wife or girlfriend, or driver's license. He lives with his mother, and is famous for thinking only about politics. He established and controls two powerful secret service agencies.

Challenges for new premier Tusk

In Warsaw, intense debates are under way over what tactics – including Lech's veto – Tusk may face in coming months from the twins.

"This will be a very tough fight for Tusk," says Bartosz Weglarczyk, foreign editor of the left-wing paper Gazeta Wyborcza. "You have an extremely complex situation where the leader of the opposition party is the president of the parliament. The power Jaroslaw still holds enormous. Lech consults Jaroslaw daily. New judges need to be approved by Lech, new TV directors, new administration. The situation is hardly resolved."

About these ads

The first hurdle is for Lech Kaczynski to invite Tusk to become prime minister and form a government. This may only be a formality. Still, though final parliamentary results are expected on Tuesday, Tusk will undoubtedly need to form a coalition since he has only 208 of the needed 235 seats.

Largest post-Communism turnout

One thing Tusk does have going for him for changes at the top jobs – is the size of his victory. With 91 percent of the vote counted, Tusk's 41.6 percent of the votes to Kaczynski's 32 percent comes close to a popular mandate.

"We were all surprised by the size of the victory," says Renata Gluza, deputy editor of "Press," a nonpartisan Warsaw magazine. "No one expected a 10 percent differentiation. It's also the biggest turnout since 1989; I think Poles are saying we want to live quietly in a normal country and not be involved in constant internal fights."

One Warsaw intellectual described the victory as "an end to the widespread fear and myth of [Jaroslaw] Kacznyski's genius, the idea that he is always right, and always ahead of every other player."

The high turnout rate, 55 percent, is important not least because the Law and Justice strategy has been to rule as a strong minority party heading a coalition of smaller parties. If only 40 percent of voters turn out, then the Kaczynskis only need 40 percent of that turnout to win.

"It's a terribly intelligent calculation," argues Mr. Weglarczyk.

Before Sunday, much ink has been shed in and out of Poland about the size of the far-right Roman Catholic vote, much of which is delivered by the broad listener-ship of Radio Maryja – a highly organized media conglomerate in the city of Torum, accused of stoking anti-Semetism and a chauvinist Polish-Catholic perspective. Yet the high overall turnout, including hundreds of thousands of Poles voting in England, Ireland, and Spain – may have mitigated the countryside and elderly vote.

Neither of the two smaller far-right parties, Samoobrona, and the League of Polish Families, that Kaczynski was in coalition with until this summer – scored enough to gain the public funding necessary to be taken seriously in Polish political life.

Their further political existence is considered questionable.

Tusk's victory speech came around midnight Sunday, three hours late due to technical problems with polling stations. The probable new prime minister signaled he wants to unite Poland around a broad idea of patriotism, a concept whose meaning was defined increasingly by the executive branch since 2005.

Tusk, flanked by the mayor of Warsaw, started by paying tribute to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former foreign minister and a World War II hero who is still much revered at age 85. Mr. Baroszewski has been at the forefront on civil and human rights in Poland, including confrontations over Poland's role in the Holocaust. In recent weeks, the head of Poland's military intelligence service had implied that the elder statesman may well have been a KGB agent.

Baroszewski denied this and responded tartly that the twins were responsible for so purging Poland's proud foreign service (nearly 50 percent by some estimates) that the country now had a group of "diplo-dummies" working on foreign affairs.

The Warsaw crowd (voting 47 percent Tusk, 21 percent Kaczynski) went wild.

The morning after the election, at least two major newspapers, Rzeczpospolita and Daily shifted position from pro-Law and Justice, to pro-Civic Platform.

One of Poland's best-known journalists, Thomas Lis, an outspoken critic of the twins who was recently sacked, is in talks to head up the Axel Springer-owned Daily, according to Ms. Gluza of "Press."