Turnout in Polish elections has been declining since the end of communism as voters have grown increasingly disillusioned with their politicians. On Sunday that disillusionment became a spur as hundreds of thousands of mainly younger voters turned out to repudiate the populist political style of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose Law and Justice Party (PIS) was defeated after just two years in office. The turnout was especially high in larger cities such as Krakow, Gdansk and the capital Warsaw (where it reached 70%) and in the huge 1.2 million strong Polish diaspora in Britain and Ireland; it was correspondingly low in rural areas of Poland, where the main strength of the PIS lies. The result was a resounding victory for the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party, which is considered friendlier both to business and to the European Union. According to preliminary results released mid-day Monday, the PO received 45% of the vote, compared to just over 30% for the PIS. PO leader Donald Tusk, the likely Prime Minister in a coalition government, said last night: "I am the happiest man in the world."
Polish analysts say the vote represents an unexpectedly forceful rejection of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the combative style he has brought to Polish politics over the past two years. Even parties that did not do well themselves, such as the left-wing alliance led by former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, which received 12% of the vote, welcomed the result. "I have good news: the [Kaczynskis' self-styled] 'Fourth Republic' has ended," Kwasniewski said after the vote. "The verdict is unquestionable."
In the coming days Tusk's PO is expected to choose a coalition partner, most likely the socially conservative Polish Peasant's Party, which received about 8% of the vote. Domestically, a PO-led government will seek to deliver on promises to lower taxes on families and businesses. Party officials say Poland's foreign policy will change more in style than in substance: Its leaders will continue to defend national interests but will also seek to have a positive say in the European Union, where the Kaczynski government's recalcitrant stance often caused considerable anger. Radek Sikorski, a former Defense Minister under the Kaczynskis who has since joined with the PO, said that while the previous government referred to "them in Brussels," the new government will say "us in the E.U." as the new government will drive a harder bargain with the U.S. over Washington's request to base a missile shield on Polish territory; it is also expected to withdraw troops from Iraq next year.
The most likely candidate to become Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, comes from a small ethnic group known as Kaszebe (Kashubians) from the region around Gdansk on the Baltic coast. Like many Polish politicians, he is a veteran of the Solidarity trade union movement; he joined its student wing as a young history student, and as a result was forced to work as a manual laborer under martial law. Tusk is a familiar figure in the country's post-communist era, having served as deputy speaker of the Senate from 1997 to 2001 and as deputy speaker of the more powerful lower house, the Sejm, from 2001 to 2005.
Tusk's strong finish came as a surprise, but hardly the first in Poland's often mercurial political scene. Less than three weeks ago, the PIS was ahead in the polls. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski performed badly against Tusk in a key televised debate, appearing overly combative, according to observers. The Civic Platform also succeeded in galvanizing the anti-Kaczynski vote, persuading voters mainly among Poland's younger middle classes to voice their unhappiness with the government at the polling booths. In an unusual move, Tusk and other party leaders even traveled outside of Poland to campaign, visiting both London and Dublin in the past month. Sikorski, an Oxford graduate who joined Tusk on the campaign trail, said the aim was to reach not just Poles working in the United Kingdom, but also their families back home. The strategy paid off: turnout among the diaspora was two to three times higher than it was two years ago, and votes went disproportionately against the PIS: preliminary results indicate that it received only 6% of the vote in London and Dublin, while the PO received 75%.
Polish voters abroad are particularly aware of how Poland's image has suffered under Kaczynski's government. They are also anxious to see economic reforms that would make Poland as business friendly as their adopted countries, allowing them to return. In the previous election in 2005, the Civic Platform failed to appeal to voters beyond Warsaw's elite. This time, said sociologist Tomasz Zukowski, "The Platform won because it became the leader of anti-PIS camp."
Still, despite losing, the PIS did manage to increase its share of the vote to 30% on Sunday as opposed to 26% in 2005 as it soaked up support from smaller right-wing groupings. Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, conceding defeat, said he would pursue a vigorous opposition. His brother Lech will stay on until 2010 as President, a post that carries considerable influence on foreign affairs. "We shall keep track of [the PO's] promises", the outgoing Prime Minister said. "I repeat, we shall account for everything that was said." Poland has new leaders and, in all likelihood, a more stable government. But as that veiled threat from the outgoing government suggested, the fireworks are far from over.
With reporting by Tadeusz Kucharski/Warsaw