WARSAW, Poland — Tomasz Nalecz wants to become president of Poland, so he turned for help to someone who has already won a presidential election — Barack Obama.
Obama's assistance came not literally but figuratively — or more accurately, photographically. Nalecz, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, put up billboards with his photo in front of Poland's presidential palace on one side of the ad, and a grinning Obama in front of the U.S. Capitol on the other.
The ad has created a bit of a fuss in Poland because Nalecz didn't ask the White House for permission to use the U.S. president's picture. His adviser says that the image is in the public domain.
Nalecz's gambit underlines just how closely Poland follows U.S. political trends and fashions.
“There is an enormous fascination in Poland with U.S. politics,” said Eryk Mistewicz, a leading Polish political consultant.
Obama serves as model for both the opposition and the center-right government of Donald Tusk, the prime minister. Just before Christmas Tusk was interviewed by a 14-year-old high-school student. Obama had done the same a few months earlier with an 11-year-old. Tusk's staff told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, that, while the parallel is obvious, Tusk had done similar interviews in the past, so he was not simply copying the U.S. leader.
Poland has long been one of the most pro-American countries in Europe. During the final years of the George W. Bush administration, Poland was one of the few countries in the world where the internationally reviled Bush still had a strong base of support.
The fascination with the U.S. comes in part from a very long history of Poles traveling to America for work, with the result that it has a very large ethnic Polish population, and from the role that the U.S. played in helping bring down communism. While European countries like Britain were tainted in Polish eyes for cooperating with the Soviets who occupied Poland after World War II, the U.S. received less of the blame, although it too acquiesced in Poland becoming a part of the Soviet empire.
When Poland regained its independence in 1989, the U.S. was seen as a model democracy and free market economy, and Poland's most reliable ally.
So over the last 20 years, many political consultants have made trips to watch U.S. elections, hoping to bring some of the same razzmatazz to Polish politics.
One of the earliest examples dates back to 1993, when the free market Liberal Democratic Congress decked out pretty girls as tambourine-playing cheerleaders and had them march down Warsaw's main boulevard. Unfortunately, the wintry gray streets of the Polish capital, surrounded by brooding concrete apartment blocks, didn't capture the image of can-do American optimism the organizers were hoping to project. The party was wiped out in that year's elections.
That failure didn't have much of an impact on other political parties, which have frequently tried to jazz up their image by hosting colorful campaign rallies complete with dropping balloons and candidates giving speeches before a sign-waving audience. One of the most enthusiastic fans of this approach was the right-wing Law and Justice party, which governed from 2005 to 2007, thanks to the pro-American leanings of its two leading political strategists, Adam Bielan and Michal Kaminski. In Polish both are known by the Slavic term “spin-doktorzy”
In 2006, the party directly copied a political ad from Ronald Reagan. It showed a couple carrying a carpet for their new home, patrolling policemen and contented citizens — part of both the Polish and the American campaigns' efforts to show how much they had improved their countries.
Just a couple of months later, the center-right Civic Platform ran an exact copy of a Republican campaign ad, with the main difference being that instead of a frothing Howard Dean, the Polish ad featured an angry Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice. Civic Platform said that it made the ad after consulting with its U.S. counterparts.
In that case the campaign worked and Civic Platform won the election. But the differences between U.S. and Polish political cultures are now so large, especially in civic mobilization and the role money plays in politics (minor in Poland, enormous in the U.S.), that Poland would be better served by looking in Europe for a model to copy, perhaps to France's Nicolas Sarkozy, said Mistewicz.
Interested in reading more on politics in eastern Europe? In Ukraine, U.S. political consultants worked for presidential candidates.