Poles decide on a president and a war

WARSAW, Poland — Poland's ruling party celebrated the election of its candidate as president last week, but now the real challenge for the Civic Platform begins: leading Poland through perilous economic times and negotiating a seemly exit from the unpopular Afghan war.

Bronislaw Komorowski eked out a narrow 53 percent victory over his challenger, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Poland's former president Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in the April 10 crash of a Polish government airliner.

The win gives the pro-business Civic Platform party the most dominant position in Polish politics since the days when the Communist Party ruled under Moscow's tutelage. The party leads a governing coalition headed by Donald Tusk, the prime minister and Komorowski. The party's candidate, Marek Belka, became the governor of the central bank last month and the party is set to oust the opposition from their control of public TV and radio as well.

Until now Tusk has been cautious about pushing his reform ideas too strongly, always wary of the veto pen that Lech Kaczynski had been unafraid to wield against legislation proposed by the government. But now that Komorowski is president, the threat of obstruction vanishes.

“There will be no more excuses,” Grzegorz Schetyna, a leader of Civic Platform's parliamentary wing, said before the election.

As well as opening the way for more vigorous action on the economy, Komorowski is also taking action on Poland's 2,600-strong contingent in Afghanistan, where 18 soldiers have already lost their lives. Just before the election, while he was still acting president, he asked the government to come up with a plan to reduce the Polish mission by next year and to withdraw almost all troops by 2012.

“We do not intend for Polish troops to be in Afghanistan even one more day than the American army,” he said after a meeting of Poland's National Security Council, referring to President Barack Obama's promise that U.S. troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2011.

Poland has been one of the toughest NATO allies in Afghanistan, with its soldiers taking part in bloody fighting against the Taliban. The Polish contingent never labored under restrictive engagement rules that hampered the action of soldiers from countries like Germany, which made them particularly valuable allies for the Americans and the British in Afghanistan.

But the long-running war has become increasingly controversial in Poland — opinion polls show three-quarters of Poles want out – and the election campaign showed politicians were starting to pay attention.

Komorowski also acted after the dust-up in Washington over Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the sense coming from the United States that the war in Afghanistan was perilously close to failing. For Poland, a NATO defeat in Afghanistan could have very dangerous consequences, as spelled out recently by Gen. Stanislaw Koziej, the secretary of the National Security Council.

He laid out his concerns in an open letter, in which he warned “The situation in Afghanistan is systematically worsening. There is no prospect of stopping that trend.”

He said that NATO was already “strategically exhausted” by the Afghan mission, and pointed out that, with the Canadians and the Dutch pulling out their hard-fighting contingents by next year, the process of retreat from Afghanistan may prove to be unstoppable, which threatens the alliance with a "strategic catastrophe."

That could be dangerous for Poland, which has built its security around its membership in the Western alliance. The mission in Afghanistan was never about protecting Poland from attack, rather it was seen in Warsaw as a way of showing the rest of its allies that it was willing to fight in a common cause, something that would help Poland's security in a future stand-off with the only realistic potential threat it faces: a resurgent Russia. A weakened and defeated NATO could leave Poland vulnerable.

Koziej also said that Poland's current mission in the southern province of Ghazni was too ambitious for the number of soldiers it has on the ground — military experts think that pacifying the area under Polish control would require at least 5,000 soldiers.

“We are unable for political, economic and military reasons to expand our contingent,” the general wrote in his statement, which was criticized by the defense ministry and senior officers for being too gloomy.

The increasing Polish dissatisfaction with the Afghan mission comes after a similar disenchantment with Iraq. Polish special forces took part in the 2003 invasion, making Poland one of the four original countries to invade Iraq, alongside the United States, Britain and Australia. The Poles were then given command of a multinational division that controlled part of central Iraq, and at its peak had 2,500 troops there.

But after 22 deaths and the withdrawal of contingents from Spain, much of Latin America and Hungary, Poland too wound down its mission in 2008 – this time as as the result of an election pledge by Donald Tusk, the current prime minister.

Poland had gone into Iraq hoping to build better ties with the United States. At the time of the invasion, a senior Polish diplomat in Washington boasted: “Officials from smaller countries like Norway look at who I get to meet and they just salivate.”

But in the end Poland won few of the commercial contracts in Iraq it was hoping for, and did not make much headway in issues that are very important for Warsaw like the removal of visa requirements for Poles traveling to the United States. 

Analysts, meantwhile, said the election result was positive for the Polish economy. The expectation of renewed reforms had already proved to be of help to the Polish currency, which rebounded strongly this week.

“We believe the result is positive for the Polish markets, but the longer term impact on the markets will depend critically on whether the government now moves ahead with passing reforms to consolidate public finances,” said Lars Christensen, emerging markets economist with Danske Bank.

As in much of the rest of the world, Poland's public finances were severely strained by the economic downturn, and the government is now scrambling to bring the budget deficit — likely to be about 7 percent of gross domestic product this year — under control. Tusk has proposed a new rule that will limit spending, making it difficult for Komorowski to keep his promises to hike pensions and increase salaries for teachers.

Going in to the snap election called after the death of Lech Kaczynski and many other senior politicians in the air crash, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was one of Poland's least-liked politicians. 

People remembered his two-year stint in power from 2005-2007, when he trampled on civil liberties in a bid to root out corruption, while also putting party cronies into cushy jobs in state companies and seizing control of the state media, all while worsening relations with Germany, Russia and the European Union.

But views of him changed dramatically after the April 10 crash. First, Kaczynski was the beneficiary of an enormous outpouring of sympathy for the personal loss he had suffered — he and his twin brother had been inseparable since childhood — calling each other several times a day; one of Lech Kaczynski's last conversations was a satellite phone call to Jaroslaw just minutes before the plane crashed.

When he decided to replace his brother as the candidate of the party the twins had founded, he completely changed his public persona. Instead of aggressive attacks on political foes, often treating them as traitors to the country, the new Jaroslaw Kaczynski was all kind and optimistic, calling for reconciliation in Poland and for better ties with Russia and Germany abroad.

“I think that this is the real Jaroslaw,” said Jadwiga Staniszkis, a sociologist who has been a close ally of the twins for many years. “In the past he responded fiercely whenever his brother was attacked. I think he's freer now.”

But Civic Platform refused to believe that the transformation was genuine, trying and failing to rattle Kaczynski into returning to his past aggressive tone.

The party as also hindered by Komorowski's lackluster campaign. The scion of an aristocratic family, Komorowski has an old-fashioned charm about him that fails to translate into an appeal acceptable to younger voters, who want a modern and open Poland. His gaffes and stiff manner ended up making the election a lot closer than polls had predicted just a couple of months ago.

“I couldn't support either Komorowski or Kaczynski, I simply didn't bother to vote,” said Maciej, a Krakow artist who is gay, and who found the social conservatism of both candidates off-putting.

The campaign ended up revitalizing Law and Justice, which earlier had the support of about a quarter of the electorate. Now that Kaczynski has managed to appeal to almost half of the voters who took part in the election, the party is counting on doing well in this year's local elections, and is even daring to dream of retaking power in next year's parliamentary vote.

“There are more elections before us. We have to be mobilized, we have to win,” Kaczynski told cheering supporters after the July 4 vote.

That has analysts worrying that despite taking control of Poland, Civic Platform will do little with its new-found power.