Bronislaw Komorowski

Bronislaw Komorowski won the election.

Election Poland after the Presidential Election

The Polish domestic political scene since the presidential election has been characterized by much sharper political divisions than before the disaster in Smolensk on April 10. At no time since 1989, have the tone of debate and the accusations been as hostile as now. Jaroslaw Kaczynski may have lost the presidential election, but because of the disaster in Smolensk and the good election results, he emerged politically stronger from the campaign. He has now set his sights on the next election campaigns in Poland. In November, municipal elections will be held, including politically important direct elections to mayoral positions in the cities of Poland. Next year it will be time for election to the Polish Sejm. All indications suggest that the strong differences of opinion and the angry tone of Polish politics will continue until the parliamentary election, although some hold hopes that somewhat cooler political winds may blow across the country after the municipal election this fall.

Published on on September 8, 2010

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Bronislaw Komorowski won the Polish presidential election in the second round on July 4. He received 53.1 percent of the votes and his opponent, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 46.99 percent. Voter turnout was 55 percent, a figure that may be classified as neither particularly high nor low for Poland. Bronislaw Komorowski’s victory means that at least until the parliamentary election next year, both the presidency and the post of prime minister are held by a single political party: the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska).

A majority of Polish voters at this year’s presidential election showed once again that they do not wish to return to the so-called Fourth Republic that twin brothers Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Lech Kaczynski and their Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) tried to introduce after their election victories in both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005. The experiment with the Fourth Republic lasted two years before Parliament was dissolved and a new election was held in 2007. These two years were characterized by a strong swing to the right in Polish domestic policy, an EU-skepticism in foreign policy, and an unusually rancorous tone in the domestic political debate. Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former as Poland’s president and the latter as its prime minister, were responsible for this policy. The new parliamentary election held in 2007 – after the collapse of the Law and Justice Party’s government coalition with the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin) and the populist Samoobrona – strongly mobilized young voters, including Polish emigrants, resulting in victory for the liberal-conservative Civic Platform, which formed a coalition government with the traditional Polish Peasant’s Party PSL (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowa).

This year’s presidential election once again represented a clear mobilization of young voters as well as voters in the more prosperous parts of the country, who finally blocked a victory for Jaroslaw Kaczynski and brought Bronislaw Komorowski to the presidency. The clear expression of this “extraordinary mobilization” was the unusually large number of voters who prior to the crucial ballot on July 4, a date when the school term had already ended and the vacation season begun, went to their local municipal office to get the certificate that Polish law requires to be able to vote outside the community where they are registered. The evidence suggests that the election outcome was ultimately determined more by fear of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s return to leadership than by active support for Bronislaw Komorowski.

Thus Komorowski’s victory reflects the results of repeated opinion polls showing that a large majority of Polish voters strongly support EU membership and are basically satisfied with the Third Republic they now live in, which symbolizes the changes since the fall of communism in 1989.

As in previous elections, the results also showed the strong regional political divisions in the country. With the exception of the small geographical area where a large proportion of voters are ethnic Belarusians, Jaroslaw Kaczynski won in the East, while Bronislaw Komorowski won the election in all counties in central and western Poland. One reason for this recurring political division of Poland into two distinct halves is the economic development of each half. Eastern Poland is the poorer part of the country, where residents benefited to a lesser extent from the positive economic development in Poland over the past two decades.

However, a closer look at the election results in these two “political halves” also shows significant differences within each of them. Yet, even more important than the economic basis of Poland’s political division is probably the strong ideological difference between a majority of the Citizens’ Platform electorate and voters from the Law and Justice Party. The victory of Bronislaw Komorowski, like that of the Civic Platform in the 2007 parliamentary election, is due to a modernized, Europeanized Poland that is more open to the outside world.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice Party represent a Poland with strong roots in the ideological thinking of the 1920s and 1930s guided by insularity, a “Polish patriotism” accompanied by an extremely conservative version of traditional Polish Catholicism.

The political division of the country is thus not simply a matter of “winners” and “losers” in the modernization process that Poland has undergone since the early 1990s, but has deeper historical root 

The presidential election was strongly influenced by the air disaster in Smolensk on April 10 that took the lives of Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and an additional 95 high-ranking politicians and military personnel. As a result of the president’s death the election, originally scheduled for the autumn and in which Lech Kaczynski would have run for reelection, was brought forward. Left politician Jerzy Smajdzinski, who would have been a candidate for the Democratic Left Alliance, SLD (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej), was also among those killed.

Within the space of two weeks, both the Law and Justice Party and the Democratic Left Alliance were forced to nominate new candidates: Jaroslaw Kaczynski decided to run in his brother’s place and SLD appointed its young leader Grzegorz Napieralski to be the new candidate. Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his election staff skillfully took advantage of the national mourning and the wave of Polish patriotism that swept across the country after the air disaster. His election campaign was based on a well arranged two-part choir: he himself appeared as a politician, who as a result of his brother’s sudden death and the disaster in Smolensk, had undergone a personality change. Instead of the highly aggressive politician who used to talk about his political opponents as “enemies” or portray them as gravediggers of the Polish state, Jaroslaw Kaczynski suddenly appeared as a man of compromise.

His constant mantra throughout the campaign was that there must be an “end to the Polish-Polish War,” referring to the bitter tone of domestic political debate. This new image of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, coupled with his avoidance of confrontations with the critical press corps, was directed at voters in the center, and during the second round, also against left-wing voters in Poland. The intention was to take the edge off Bronislaw Komorowski’s campaign strategy, which was to launch himself as the only one of the two who could hold the country together.

Poland is a parliamentary democracy and the ruling power rests in the hands of parliament and the government. Nevertheless, Poland’s president has a stronger formal position than, for example, the German president. Hence the difference in the electoral process. Poland’s president is elected in a general election. The president ratifies foreign treaties and agreements. The president is the supreme commander of the country’s armed forces and in that capacity appoints the head of the general staff as well as the commanders of all branches of the service. The president also approves the laws enacted by parliament – the Sejm and the Senate – with his signature and his veto right provides the opportunity to return the adopted law to the Sejm for reconsideration. In such cases, overriding the president’s veto requires the support of at least three fifths of the members present in the Sejm, with an attendance totaling at least half of the 460 members.

What role the constitution ascribes to the president in foreign policy has at times been the subject of fierce debate among Poland’s lawyers, especially during Lech Kaczynski’s term of office. Clearly, the government is responsible for shaping Poland’s foreign policy. However, as the representative of the country, the president has the right to participate in the implementation of foreign policy. The wording of the constitution, which has been criticized as being too vague, assumes that the government and the president will cooperate on foreign policy issues.

If there were any specific issue that Bronislaw Komorowski highlighted as a key theme during the campaign, it was the necessity of effective cooperation between president and government on foreign policy. Among the issues discussed that can formally be said to fall within the president’s remit is the military engagement in Afghanistan, where Bronislaw Komorowski promised that Polish troops would leave the country by the end of 2012. In his Foreign Policy Bronislaw Komorowski further promised to try to ease the strained relations between Poland and Russia and seeking a new modus Vivendi with his countries eastern neighbor and restore Poland’s reputation inside the European Union, being a bit tarnished during the presidency of Lech Kaczynski. After his victory, the first foreign trip of president Komorowski went to Brussels and from there to Paris and Berlin, a tour indicating that Poland today will try to reestablish the so called triangle Warsaw-Berlin-Paris in order to try to strengthen its influence in European policy.

In other respects, the election campaign was characterized by a focus on a series of individual issues, such as the pension and healthcare systems, which did not fall within the remit of the president but were brought up for discussion.

In the two televised debates organized for the second round, both candidates appeared more as party politicians facing a parliamentary election than candidates in a Polish presidential election. At the same time that Jaroslaw Kaczynski initiated his “soft” policy, already during the first days after the disaster in Smolensk, the mass media controlled by his party – including the large state television channel TVP1 and newspapers such as Nasz Dziennik (Our Daily) and Gazeta Polska (Polish Gazette) – launched a vicious campaign against Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Bronislaw Komorowski. The two were accused, directly or indirectly, of being responsible for the disaster in Smolensk. Several articles argued that a Russian attack was probably behind the disaster and the above-mentioned newspapers accused Donald Tusk and Bronsiaw Komorowski of pandering to Putin and thus “Poland’s traditional historic enemy,” Russia.

That was the tone of the rumbling choir whose words were aimed at the traditional voters of the Law and Justice Party. When monitoring the election, independent organizations such as the Batory Foundation, the most important NGO in the country, criticized the state-owned public television station, especially Program 1 for favoring Jaroslaw Kaczynski in its coverage.  The reason is that over the years, even after the fall of communism, state-owned Polish radio and TV both remained strongly politically controlled. With long terms of office in the Television and Radio Committee that appoints the heads of the various radio and TV channels, at the time of writing these public media are also controlled by people that the Kaczynski brothers’ party, Law and Justice, appointed before the 2007 election defeat.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski restrained himself right up to election night on July 4, when he declared in his first speech after the polls closed that “the organizational, moral, and political responsibility” for the disaster must now be investigated. Just a week later, he gave his own response to the issue of responsibility when he claimed in an interview that “in a normal democratic country the government would have been forced to resign” and that “Donald Tusk and his government” should “be leveled to the ground.” Other senior politicians in the Law and Justice Party stated that “Donald Tusk and his immediate associates should disappear forever from Polish politics.”

Instead of continuing the “soft line” from the campaign, Jaroslaw Kaczynski personally adopted a line even more aggressive than had ever before characterized his political behavior. The “soft” conciliatory politicians who led his election staff, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and Pawel Poncyljusz, were set aside in favor of well-known “hawks” within the party, including former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who now regained a prominent position in the party’s face to the world.

The Polish domestic political scene since the presidential election has therefore been characterized by much sharper political divisions than before the disaster in Smolensk on April 10. At no time since 1989, have the tone of debate and the accusations been as hostile as now. It is difficult to put such meaning into words, but to find an adequate historical comparison to the political climate that has characterized the first month after the presidential election, it would probably be necessary to go back to before the Second World War and thus the beginning of 1920s, when a hate campaign in the right-wing press against the resurrected first president of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz, led to his assassination by a fanatic just one week after taking office.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski may have lost the presidential election, but because of the disaster in Smolensk and the good election results, he emerged politically stronger from the campaign. He has now set his sights on the next election campaigns in Poland. In November, municipal elections will be held, including politically important direct elections to mayoral positions in the cities of Poland. Next year it will be time for election to the Polish Sejm. All indications suggest that the strong differences of opinion and the angry tone of Polish politics will continue until the parliamentary election, although some hold hopes that somewhat cooler political winds may blow across the country after the municipal election this fall. Despite Bronislaw Komorowski’s victory in the presidential election, the Civic Platform and the government are in a much worse position than before, which already on election night was expressed by former president of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski, when he stated that the Civic Platform now “has all the power in their hands, and therefore also full responsibility for what happens in the country.”

In the past, the government could blame President Lech Kaczynski, who, armed with the Polish president’s constitutional right of veto over legislative procedure, could prevent or at least delay the great policy decisions of the Sejm. And indeed it did just that from time to time. However, today this argument is no longer relevant, at the same time that there is a pressing need for reform. Poland not only needs fundamental healthcare reform, but also reform of public finances, which is politically more difficult to implement; otherwise, the public debt is likely to exceed 55 percent of the country’s GDP, the constitutionally permissible limit. At the same time that the government has problems with the budget deficit for the current year, and even though economic growth in 2011 is expected to be higher than in 2010, the thankless problem remains of reining in the budget deficit during an election year. In order to resolve its political dilemma, in early August the government decided to postpone the large structural fiscal reforms, and would address both the current budget and the proposed budget for 2011 with a slight increase in VAT. The government’s position before the 2011 parliamentary election is not enviable. Normally, the election is held in the autumn. Since Poland will assume the EU presidency on July 1, 2011, the government is considering trying to bring forward the election to the spring so that the electoral campaign does not collide with the presidency.

What tactical solution Donald Tusk will adopt with regard to the date of the election is uncertain. Dissolution of the Sejm and election during the spring would require agreement with at least one other party in parliament, since his own party lacks a majority. It is likely that Donald Tusk and his advisors will closely follow the opinion polls before making a decision in either direction. Also of great importance will be the political alliance strategy that the Civic Platform focuses on for the next term. The Civic Platform currently steers the country in coalition with the Peasant’s Party PSL, which received nine percent of the vote in the 2007 election. In this year’s presidential election the party suffered a significant defeat: party chairman Waldemar Pawlak received only 1.75 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.

Although the presidential election cannot be compared with a parliamentary election and even though support for the Peasant’s Party PSL is likely greater than a couple of percent, the poor election results of party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak have opened the way for a reshuffling of political alliances in Polish domestic policy.

 As current opinion polls stand, the possibility that the PSL will not reach the four percent threshold next year cannot be discounted and if so, for the first time since the fall of communism, they would then not be included in Parliament.

For Donald Tusk and the Civic Platform, it is therefore unclear in the run-up to next year’s election whether they should bank on their alliance with the PSL or already now begin to redirect their politics to target a future alliance with the Democratic Left Alliance SLD. It is highly unlikely that the Civic Platform would achieve its own majority in the Sejm in the 2011 election. Democratic Left Alliance party leader Grzegorz Napieralski, in contrast to the Peasant’s Party leader, had a strong showing in the first round. Although nearly counted out early in the election campaign, Grzegorz Napieralski had to assume the role of candidate for the election as an “emergency solution” for the party after the death of Jerzy Zmajdzinski and in just one month Napieralski worked his way up from just a few percent in the opinion polls to support by almost fourteen percent of the electorate on June 20.

Grzegorz Napieralski clearly emerged from this summer’s presidential election as a political winner. Although both the Peasant’s Party PSL and the Democratic Left Alliance SLD are closer to the Civic Platform in most issues, they do not exclude some degree of cooperation with the opposition party Law and Justice. The PSL has previously participated in coalition governments with virtually every other political nuance in Poland and before the election the SLD formed a tactical alliance in the Sejm with the Law and Justice party in media policy, while in the run-up to the second and decisive round of the presidential election the party leadership decided not to support either of the two candidates for tactical reasons. In the second round, polls showed that one third of Napieralski’s voters went in favor of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

It may be unique to Polish domestic politics that the ideologically far-right Law and Justice party could find common platforms with the left-wing SLD. Indeed, such is the case because Law and Justice advocates greater government involvement in its economic and social policies, which is closer to the philosophy of left-wing voters than the much more liberal Civic Platform policy. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a driven leader and highly skilled tactician in the sometimes inscrutable Polish political scene, will surely craft well-directed overtures aimed at both PSL and SLD alongside his fierce campaign against the government and Prime Minister Tusk.

 The most natural and safest strategy for Donald Tusk and the Civic Platform party would probably be to shift their policy a bit to the left and try to prepare for a future coalition with the Democratic Left Alliance SLD. However, the Conservative faction within the Civic Platform is against such a solution for ideological reasons and if it were announced before next year’s parliamentary election, such reorientation could also entail loss of party support among voters in favor of the Law and Justice party.

 As in the case of economic reform, even here the Civic Platform party and Donald Tusk find themselves in an unenviable situation. Civic Platform candidate Bronislaw Komorowski and thus the largest government party emerged as the formal victors in the presidential election. Nevertheless, it is largely the second and third-place runners up in the presidential election – right-wing politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski and left-wing politician Grzegorz Napieralski – who hold the cards that determine how the political game in Poland will move forward to the parliamentary election next year.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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