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Poles apart
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 09 - 2005

Poland shook off its Communist past in Sunday's parliamentary polls, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The left in Poland appears to have lost its appeal and at a time when, like neighbouring Germany, the country is facing a host of economic woes including, at 17.8 per cent, the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. But Poland has at least been spared Germany's political deadlock. Compared to the impasse afflicting its western neighbour Poland's prospects for economic reform look good.
Economics dominated Sunday's poll with the two centre- right parties -- the conservative Catholic Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the pro-business and free-market Civic Platform (PO) -- ousting the left leaning government, which suffered a crushing defeat at their hands.
The two centre-right parties are preparing for all-out battle in the upcoming presidential elections. Though they share their origins in the Solidarity movement that led to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 they have radically different political and economic agendas. They remain keen, though, that that should not interfere with coalition talks.
PiS and PO have said that they will not form a coalition government until after presidential elections on 9 October. The presidential vote will determine the relationship between the two parties. PiS won 27 per cent of the parliamentary vote, PO 24 per cent. Together they control 285 seats in the 460-member lower house of parliament, the Sejm.
The Self-Defence Group came third with 11.41 per cent of the vote, slightly ahead of the Democratic Left Alliance (DLA) which, after dominating Polish politics for a decade managed to secure only 11.31 per cent. They were trailed by the far-right League of Polish Families and the Peasants' Party.
The elections served as a vote of no confidence in the economic policies pursued by the DLA, which has been plagued by a series of scandals and allegations of corruption.
"The most important thing now is to establish an economic programme," says PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski . That is not going to be easy given th e differences between the coalition partners over the scope of market reforms.
They do, however, agree, according to Kaczynski, on the "absolute need to lower taxes for the Polish economy to move forward". That said, the
precise nature of the relationship between the two victorious parties remains a bit of a mystery.
Voter turnout, which hovered around 40 per cent, was disappointing.
"The low turnout means that the greater part of society does not trust politicians," Jan Natkanski, the Polish ambassador to Egypt told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"I do hope the turnout will be much bigger for the presidential poll," he added. "Poland is an example of a vibrant democracy at work and the electorate wants politicians to live up to their promises and deliver on them."
With an average per capita income of $5,270, and a standard of living far lower than its EU partners in Western Europe, the conservative PiS has vowed to protect the "social market economy" of the DLA. It is a pledge its coalition partners in PO will find hard to swallow, with the differences likely to centre, initially at least, on fiscal policy as the conservatives and free-market liberals push to replace the zloty with the euro.
"[The presidential] campaign should not be allowed to hamper efforts to build a good government," said presidential front-runner, the PO's Doland Tusk.
He is being challenged by the Jaroslaw Kaczynski's twin brother, Lech, who is running on the PiS ticket.
"Should my brother win I will be obliged to refuse the post of prime minister. It would be unacceptable to Poles for two brothers to hold the two main posts in government," Kaczynski said on Monday in Rzeczpospolita newspaper. But by the time he appeared on Polish television he had changed his mind.
"The fact that we are twins makes us better known and that can only be in Poland's interests," he said on Poland's national television.
Presidential contender Lech Kaczynski is as eager for power as his twin. "We must re-build many things in Poland," he said. "We must restore trust in the state, something that has been highly compromised."
The Polish prime minister enjoys extensive executive power, though the president, who is also the commander in chief of Poland's armed forces, can veto legislation.
After 16 years attempting to wrest power from the reformed Communists of the DLA the portly Kaczynski twins, nicknamed the ducks, are promising tax cuts and clean government. Having waddled to power they are determined to push the pace of economic reform forward.
Poland's shift to the right alters not only domestic politics but the political landscape of Eastern Europe.
So is there any chance of a revival for the reformed Communists?
"One and a half million voters opted for the DLA," says Natkanski. "The left alliance is undergoing a radical change in leadership. The old guard is stepping down and younger, fresher faces are poised to take over. They have some 50 deputies in the new parliament. The left is not going to sink into oblivion."
The new Polish government must also decide what to do with the 1,500 Polish troops now stationed in Iraq. Poland has been among Washington's strongest allies, staunchly backing the US-led invasion of Iraq. Indeed the Polish contingency in Iraq, among the largest and best armed, helped lend legitimacy to the invasion, initially committing 2,300 troops. Almost half of those are now back in Poland, with the remaining 1,500 scheduled to leave by the end of the year.
The Bush administration was grateful to Poland for deploying 2,300 troops in south-central Iraq in September 2003. Almost half returned to Poland and the rest are scheduled to leave Iraq by 31 December 2005. That would be one of the foreign policy issues the new government would have to deal with.


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