Saturday, August 11, 2007

Poland's Political Purgatory

This week, Polish president Lech Kaczyński called for early parliamentary polls this autumn. However, it is unlikely that elections will put a stop to Poland's political crisis. Instead, early polls may propel Poland into a prolonged political purgatory - further polarising positions between parties and political generations.

For long, there was unity to avoid early elections within the ruling coalition government. The dominant party in cabinet, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by the Kaczyński twins, has shunned the option of early elections, while going to the polls this autumn, would cause the next elections to coincide with Poland's 2011 EU presidency. For remaining coalition partners, the Self-Defence Party and the League of Polish Families, early elections hold the prospects of potential political annihilation.

Therefore, it is only after months of cabinet turmoil that the Polish president has finally concluded that there was no other way out than to take the drastic step in calling for early elections. Still, having sacked Self-Defence Party leader, Andrzej Lepper, from government earlier this summer, the for long put off outcome seems unavoidable. What long-term consequences early elections will bring is still unclear, but one might suppose Polish politics will see further crisis and upheaval in coming years. What is at stake is how the generation shift in Polish society will be managed - either purging the communist legacy or leaving history behind.

Poland's transition from communist rule was established by the 1989 Round Table Agreement between the outgoing communist regime and the ascending Solidarność movement. The Round Table resulted in a "contract" for social unity in the face of Poland's democratisation and economic liberalisation. In essence, the communists traded immunity in exchange for ceding power to Solidarność. The Round Table agreement has, over the years, been heavily criticised, but must still be regarded an instrument for the peaceful transition of power in Poland, which in effect meant the end of a divided Europe by the 1945 Yalta agreement.

How to deal with the past, has become the central issue in Polish politics with the rise to power of the Kaczyński twins. Their policy of lustracja represents the wrath of the malcontents - a revanchist policy for all those former dissidents, members of Solidarity, or ordinary people, who never got a slice of the pie during the 1990s' privatisation. Their populist target is the "Salon" - communists, apparatchiks, bureaucrats, and collaborateurs, who were able to benefit from the privatisation schemes as only the very top echelons of the communist system were removed from power. However, having not previously dealt with history, has made most politicans potential victims of persecution, as more or less fabricated scandals about a communist past have often come in handy when populists or others have wanted to permanently discredit next to any public figure. Being able to taint leading personalities of the Solidarity generation, has become a method for young and aspiring politicians to make careers and gain power by removing their seniors by rumours and allegations.

Lustracja also illustrates the generation gap in Polish politics. Today, the Kaczyńskis' PiS is probably the party in Poland with the largest proportion of young people among its ranks. Most other parties represent "have-beens" like former president Aleksander Kwasniewski's Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD), the intellectual Unia Wolności (UW), or Platforma Obywatelska (PO). It is true, opinion polls often give PO high figures as the main opposition party, but come election day, voters may well turn their backs to this market-oriented liberal party.

The simple truth is most likely that few of the opposition's potential activists or voters among the young generation either do not care or have found a future abroad instead. If you want to do a fast political career in Poland today, PiS' populist policies - and not the opposition parties - offer the best chances for advancement. Ignoring politics seems to be the mindset of many Poles. In the 2005 parliamentary polls, PiS gained 28% of the merely 40% of the electorate participating in the elections, and has in effect been running Poland on this weak basis ever since.

For many young Poles, they see their future in the European Union. Still, that does not mean that they equal Poland's future with that of the EU. Instead, many educated Poles in this generation seek a future abroad, in Ireland or Great Britain, producing at least a temporary brain-drain, as in the case of the Baltic States. Domestic opinion about the Union has, to the contrary, for long been skeptic, and the Kaczyński twins are no exception to this rule. In the EU, Poland has thus come to be associated with extreme partisanship, to the point that the country has even been willing to jeopardise the future of the Union. Until recently, playing the nationalist card towards the EU has been both popular and accepted by the Polish people, which has seen little in return for its membership. However, recent EU support to Poland in the meat-war with Russia may be a first sign for swaying opinion more in favour of the Union. Still, with parliamentary elections coinciding with the Polish EU presidency, many European politicians may have reason to fear what Poland might come up with in 2011.

To conclude, with populists in power, an opposition representing the past, and an increasing institutionalisation of political purges, Poland seems set for a prolonged political purgatory in the coming four years. The only remedy would be if the country's voters would use the ballot box to oust the Kaczyński twins from power in the upcoming autumn elections, but then the question is if the opposition might have a viable future to offer the Poles, nationally and as a truly integrated part of the European Union. Regrettably, the odds seem to be on the side of continued political turmoil.

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