Likeable PM stands strong

WARSAW — The recent elections to the European Parliament have left Poland’s ruling Civic Platform party strengthened while throwing the opposition into disarray, a result that is likely to fortify the position of Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Civic Platform scooped up 25 of Poland’s 50 seats with 44 percent of the vote, showing that the party has cemented its hold on about half the electorate despite the crisis that has slowed economic growth to close to zero this year.

“It's a great thing to get a better result than we scored in the parliamentary elections one-and-a-half years ago, while being in power during such a difficult conditions,” Tusk told his supporters on the night of the vote.

As in almost every other European country, European themes didn’t play much of a role in the campaign. The workings of the parliament are too obscure for most people to work out what the well paid MPs do in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the vote was really treated as a referendum on Tusk’s government.

Tusk has managed to persuade people that the economic crisis is not his fault and is rather a result of a global problem that cannot be solved in Poland alone.

That didn’t help the main opposition party, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). It won 15 seats and got 27 percent of the vote, much better than its outcome in European elections five years ago, but a bit less than it got in national elections in 2007.

Although Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader and a former prime minister, tried to put a positive spin on the vote, calling it “not bad,” the outcome still smarts. It shows that the party has essentially been spinning its wheels, unable to gain much traction against the likeable Tusk.

One reason has been Kaczynski’s irascibility. In the increasingly bitter atmosphere after the election, he turned on reporters during a news conference, denouncing one popular radio station and comparing it to Poland’s German occupiers during the war.

Another has been dissension within party. Anyone who is seen as disloyal to Kaczynski quickly gets the boot — one of Civic Platform’s most successful candidates, Pawel Zalewski, used to be a deputy leader of PiS before being ejected for crossing Kaczynski. Not long after the vote, Kaczynski attacked his biggest vote-winner in the election, Zbigniew Ziobro, a former justice minister, who had dared to suggest that there had been some flaws in the way the party had conducted its campaign.

However, despite the lackluster results for PiS, the election has confirmed that Poland has essentially evolved into a two-party system. Unlike in the United States or in most European countries, the division is not between left and right — both Civic Platform and Law and Justice spring from the Solidarity movement that helped overthrow communism. They both call themselves center-right, although PiS’s economic policies are more populist. Their big difference is over foreign policy — PiS is prickly, nationalistic and hostile toward Russia, Germany and suspicious of the European Union arrogating too much power to itself.

“We loudly say what we don’t like in the EU,” said Adam Bielan, a leading PiS political strategist. “We want more economic freedom in the EU and less emphasis on political integration.”

To that end, PiS is hoping to create a new eurosceptical grouping in the European Parliament with Britain’s Conservatives and the Czech Republic’s Civic Democrats.

The other two smaller parties that won seats were the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance, which won seven seats, and the agrarian Polish People’s Party, a member of the governing coalition, with three seats.

No other parties made it past the 5 percent threshold to win places in the parliament, a marked contrast to five years ago, when two populist eurosceptical parties won almost a third of Poland’s seats. Unlike in other European countries, all of Poland’s seats were won by mainstream parties with a presence in the national parliament.

In 2004, many Poles, especially farmers, were very nervous about joining the EU. However, over the last five years a flood of money from Brussels for infrastructure and farms has made Poland one of the most pro-EU countries in the union.

That positive attitude may be one of the reasons for a slightly higher voter turnout. This year, as many as 24.5 percent of Poles may have taken part, more than the 20.9 percent who took part in 2004, but still less than the European average.

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