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Jerzy Buzek, a Polish phoenix

The new head of the European Parliament remade his political career on the EU stage.

Jerzy Buzek, now the president of the European Parliament, arriving at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg July 13, 2009. The newly elected European parliament started its five-year term on July 14 in a combative mood, which could slow the passage of laws intended to fight Europe's worst economic crisis in decades. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

WARSAW — Second acts are supposed to be an American specialty, but the career of Jerzy Buzek, Poland’s former prime minister, is proof that the principle has wider application.

Buzek was recently chosen to be the head of the European Parliament — arguably the highest profile international job ever won by a Pole.

In his victory speech, Buzek said: “Today I take over the leadership of the European Parliament, something that I could not have even dreamt of in my country.” Neither could many of his compatriots when Buzek left office as head of a deeply unpopular government in 2001.

Buzek, a gray-haired professor from the western coal mining region of Silesia, had been an unexpected choice for government head when the Solidarity Electoral Action party, uniting the former anti-Communist opposition, won power in 1997. The party leader, Marian Krzaklewski, who had no particular electoral program, decided to be a political backseat driver and pushed forward the relatively little-known Buzek.

Buzek, then a rather bland and colorless politician, embarked on major reforms to four institutions: regional governments, and the pension, education and health care systems. The reforms were needed and ambitious, but often badly thought-out — they plunged the country into chaos. Coupled with the fissioning of his party and frequent corruption scandals that plagued his government, Buzek stumbled to the end of his four-year term but he seemed to be finished as a politician.

The center-right party he had led collapsed in the 2001 elections, paving the way for a triumphant return of the ex-Communist left to power, and a defeated Buzek retreated to academic life.

When the ex-Communist government of former Prime Minister Leszek Miller became extremely unpopular thanks to corruption scandals that dwarfed anything seen in Buzek’s time, the moderate Protestant began to be more fondly remembered. His ultimate salvation came through the unlikely avenue of European politics, often a haven for political has-beens and never-weres.

In 2004, when Buzek ran in Poland’s first-ever vote for the European Parliament, he barely campaigned and still won 170,000 votes — the highest total in the country.

Five years later, Buzek again was the highest vote winner in the country, effortlessly pulling in 393,000 votes. This time around he ran as part of the ruling Civic Platform party, which used the election to promote the idea that Buzek should become the head of the European parliament.