Monday, October 15, 2007

Poland: Election ahead

Poland votes in parliamentary elections on October 21 after the collapse of the governing coalition led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, writes Jan Cienski in Warsaw.

Why is Poland holding parliamentary elections only two years after the last vote?

The September 2005 election resulted in a narrow plurality for the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). Efforts to build the coalition wanted by most Poles between PiS and the pro-business Civic Platform party foundered because of personal squabbles and lack of trust despite both parties having their roots in the Solidarity labour union that overthrew Communism. PiS then formed a shaky coalition with two previously marginalised populist parties, the left-wing agrarian Self-Defence party and the nationalist League of Polish Families. The coalition stumbled from crisis to crisis before collapsing over the summer. The reason was a bungled sting operation conducted by a new elite anti-corruption police force against Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Self- Defence.

What are the main campaign issues?

The government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the prime minister, is running on Poland’s strong economic growth and is promising to stamp out corruption he sees as disfiguring post-Communist Poland. He is also promising to defend Poland’s national interests in its relations with Germany and the European Union. Civic Platform is promising to end what it sees the misrule of PiS. It wants to introduce a flat income tax of 15 per cent, continue the privatisation of state companies that has stalled under PiS, and slash some of the red tape that encumbers Polish businesses.

Who’s ahead in opinion polls?

When parliament dissolved itself last month, Civic Platform under its leader Donald Tusk was ahead in most opinion polls. However in the weeks since PiS has shown its superior campaigning skills and has pulled even or ahead. Many political analysts now expect that PiS will win the election. As an example of PiS’s tactical superiority, Mr Kaczynski recently held a televised debate with Aleksander Kwasniewski, the prime ministerial candidate of the Left and Democrats, Poland’s third party, while excluding Mr Tusk, saying the opposition leader was too inconsequential to bother debating with. Mr Tusk’s party took an immediate hit in opinion polls.

Which other parties are running?

The third largest party is the Left and Democrats (LiD), an amalgam of ex-Communists and the intellectual gurus of the Solidarity trade union. The party is expected to get about a fifth of the vote, and is campaigning on being the most radical alternative to PiS. Three other parties are balancing on the edge of the 5 per cent threshold needed to make it into the next parliament: The agrarian Peasants party which is likely to team up with Civic Platform, Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families.

Who is likely to form a government after October 21?

That is the great unknown of Polish politics. If, as many expect, PiS wins the elections, it will still probably need to form a coalition to gain a majority in the 460-seat parliament. The problem is that the party has either alienated or terrified most of the smaller parties in parliament. It has ruled out governing with LiD, and Civic Platform shows little interest in being the junior partner in a coalition with Mr Kaczynski. The prime minister has mused about the possibility of the more conservative wing of Civic Platform breaking away from Mr Tusk and joining PiS, which would be his preferred scenario. The other possibility is for Civic Platform to form a coalition with the Peasants party (if it makes it into parliament) and LiD, although that would open the party to attacks from Mr Kaczynski that is has compromised itself by clambering into bed with Communists. If no party is able to form a government, another election could eventually be called by Lech Kaczynski, the president and the prime minister’s twin brother.

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