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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » October 27, 2011
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Ruling Party Wins Historic Second Term
October 27, 2011   
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Prime Minister’s Donald Tusk’s pro-market Civic Platform (PO) party is poised to return to power for a second term—an unprecedented feat in the history of Poland’s young democracy—after winning the country’s Oct. 9 parliamentary elections.

The PO looks set to renew its coalition with the rural-based Polish People’s Party (PSL), with which it has governed the country for the last four years. But the elections also brought several surprises—a new leftist group, the Palikot Movement (RP), has appeared in the lower house, the Sejm, while the once-powerful Democra-tic Left Alliance (SLD) suffered its worst defeat in 22 years, finishing a distant fifth in the vote.

Tusk’s Civic Platform is the first party since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 to remain in power for two consecutive terms. The PO garnered 39.18 percent of the vote, while its arch-rival, the conservative, euroskeptic Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, prime minister from 2006 to 2007, won 29.89 percent.

As a result, the PO gained 207 seats in the 460-seat parliament, compared with 157 for PiS. The PO also secured 63 seats in the 100-seat upper house, the Senate, while PiS won 31.

The Polish People’s Party (PSL), led by Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak, won 8.36 percent of the vote, finishing fourth among the five parties that made it into parliament after crossing the required 5 percent voter support threshold. The PSL gained 28 seats in the lower house, meaning that the governing coalition will together have 235 votes, enough to ensure a parliamentary majority even if the opposition parties join forces to vote in the same way on some issues—however unlikely such a scenario might turn out to be. In the upper house, the PSL won two seats. In the previous term the PSL did not have a single senator.

Dark horse of the elections
The biggest surprise of the elections was the third-place finish of the Palikot Movement, a group formed less than a year ago by Janusz Palikot, a controversial, flamboyant businessman and former influential PO politician and deputy head of that party’s parliamentary caucus. At the end of last year, Palikot left the PO and started his own group calling for the liberalization of laws governing business, respect for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, decriminalization of soft drugs, legalization of same-sex unions, and putting forward a number of other proposals concerning political issues and issues of conscience.

Just a month before the elections, support for the Palikot Movement in the polls ranged from a paltry 1 to 3 percent, but on the home stretch his campaign proved to be exceptionally successful. The Palikot Movement won 10.02 percent of the vote, which translates into 40 seats in the Sejm. The Palikot Movement fielded no candidates for the Senate as the party’s election platform included a call for disbanding the upper house.

After the elections both the Polish and international media highlighted the fact that Palikot and his team have managed to break several social taboos in Poland. Among the newly elected Palikot Movement deputies is Robert Biedroń, a well-known gay rights activist and the first openly gay member of the Polish parliament. Newcomers in the lower house include the Palikot Movement’s Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first and the world’s second transsexual parliamentarian, the head of a foundation aiming to help people undergoing a sex change. The choice of both Biedroń and Grodzka was criticized by rightist politicians and a section of the Catholic clergy as well as Catholic journalists.

Row over cross
Palikot added fuel to the fire when he declared that his caucus’s first proposal in the Sejm will be to remove a Christian cross from the chamber that was mounted there in 1997 by Piotr Krutul, a member of the defunct Solidarity Election Action (AWS). That election coalition of rightist parties was in power from 1997 to 2001; after the elections of 2001, it failed to make it into parliament and lost power to the SLD.

Palikot says that the cross was hung on a wall in the chamber secretly, under cover of night and without any resolution by the parliament. No one has criticized the cross’s presence in the Sejm until now.

Politicians from all parties except the Palikot Movement have said they want the cross to remain in the house. But Palikot, undeterred, declared that he will appeal to the Constitutional Court and, if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Palikot argues that the presence of the cross violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. His supporters have also suggested that symbols of other religions or other symbols “associated with the idea of tolerance” should be mounted next to the cross.

The Palikot Movement’s first steps in parliament indicate that a potential coalition with the PO—while still plausible in the first few days after the elections—now seems to be ruled out. Stefan Niesiołowski, deputy Speaker of the previous Sejm and a PO politician known for his sharp tongue and outspoken comments, said that a coalition with Palikot would provoke a “war with the Church” and disrupt the parliament’s work.

Spectacular defeat for SLD
Another big surprise of the elections was the worst ever showing by the Democratic Left Alliance, which won only 8.24 percent of the vote and 27 seats. The SLD suffered a spectacular defeat even though just a year ago the party’s leader Grzegorz Napieralski finished third in the presidential elections with over 14 percent of the vote. Napieralski, who ran for parliament in his home constituency of Szczecin, received only 6.28 percent of the vote and barely made it into the Sejm. He was beaten not only by the PO’s Bartosz Arłukowicz, a former SLD politician, but also by a PiS contender. Shortly after the elections, Napieralski said he will not be seeking reelection as SLD leader at the party’s next convention. Meanwhile, the media is rife with speculation about who will succeed Napieralski. Names being listed in this context include onetime party leader and ex-prime minister Leszek Miller, popular deputy Ryszard Kalisz, and former SLD leader Wojciech Olejniczak, now a member of the European Parliament.

Turnout in the Oct. 9 elections was 48.92 percent.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first noncommunist prime minister who headed the government 1989-1990, now an adviser to President Bronisław Komorowski:

It’s difficult to predict if the Oct. 9 election will bring calm to political life in Poland. I do not think Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński is ready to put an end to what many describe as a civil war in Poland. Of course, it would be very good if the result of the elections had such a positive influence on him, but I wouldn’t pin too much hope on that happening.

I want to strongly emphasize that the ongoing so-called civil war cannot be blamed [on Law and Justice and the Civic Platform] in equal measure. Both the media and parties other than PiS and the PO often make such a mistake. It is easy to claim that both warring sides are equally guilty, but that’s not the case. It’s perfectly clear which is the aggressive side here, who starts the conflicts—it’s Law and Justice. The other side only responds to these attacks.

It’s hard to say if this sharp rhetoric will continue in Polish politics. I hope it will subside slightly, at least now in the period directly following the elections. But we can’t be certain.

The Palikot Movement (RP) is a big unknown. With the exception of its leader, the group is mostly made up of people who are not widely known and who have been absent from public life so far. I don’t know how the Movement’s presence in parliament will impact the Pole-on-Pole war. It seems to me that this group rather brings together citizens who do not want to be part of this war.

The fact that so many young people voted for the RP certainly sends an important warning to the Catholic Church. It shows just how much the church was harmed by pre-election involvement and public statements of some senior church officials supporting Law and Justice. This is a warning sign. I would very much want the church to draw conclusions from this and refrain from becoming involved in politics in such a direct way, and to respect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. This separation principle, which has a positive influence, needs to be preserved. It largely depends on the church whether this can be done, or whether we will see some kind of conflict and enmity.

The Democratic Left Alliance, in turn, is in for a major reshuffle and a very uncertain and unpredictable future. It should be a time of reflection. It’s difficult to guess how the leftists will emerge from this crisis; but it’s necessary to point out that such reflection seems to be absolutely necessary after the SLD’s Oct. 9 defeat.

Prof. Andrzej Rychard, sociologist from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences:

The Oct. 9 elections brought some surprises. The first one is that the Civic Platform (PO) won by a larger margin against the Law and Justice (PiS) party than was expected. Another surprise is the better-than-expected performance of the Palikot Movement. And a third surprise is that the Democratic Left Alliance’s (SLD) showing was much worse than expected.

There will now be more continuity than change in Polish politics. But changes are inevitable in the wake of the dramatic weakening of the SLD and the emergence of a new party. Its leader, Janusz Palikot, has correctly identified a cultural change taking place in Polish society—the fact that a section of society that until recently was not represented in parliament is moving in a secular and liberal direction. And this is the most important change we can see happening after the elections.

It is still unclear whether or not the ruling coalition will change. But there is every indication that it will not. The PO and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) will have enough seats between them to have a majority in parliament. And if necessary, they will be able to gain whatever votes they are short of without having to ask another party to join the coalition.

As a citizen, I hope the new government will not be a simple successor of the previous one. The PO has no excuses now to drag its feet on reforming the country. It has to get down to work and improve many things in the functioning of the state. I think time will be working in the party’s favor—investment projects now under way will be gradually completed and it will become clear that Poland is changing for the better. Of course, the risk of a crisis is still looming, but it may turn out to be less painful than expected. Voters decided at the polls that the PO is likely to cope with the crisis better than other parties. So the PO now has to take further reform steps to prove that this indeed is the case. Unless the reform effort is made, the PO will lose people’s trust in the next elections.

The Palikot Movement will now start discovering who the people who entered the parliament on its ticket really are. This will certainly be an interesting process, offering both positive and negative experiences for voters. I think Janusz Palikot himself will be learning about what kind of people he has in his team. It would be bad if it turned out that the Movement is based only on its leader. But I think this will not be the case and that quite a few members of the party will make themselves known in the parliament and will be drawing the public’s attention to various important problems.

The process may mark the beginning of pressure being put on the ruling camp from the leftists and liberals, a pressure the PO has not experienced so far. The SLD has been a completely lackluster party and this is why it was severely punished by voters on election day. The PO has had to respond to criticism only from the rightist and conservative PiS party in recent years. Now the situation is different. The PO will be under pressure from a liberal party and after all liberalism is what lay at the core of the PO when it was founded 10 years ago.
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