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The Twins' Poland

The Wall Street Journal

The Twins' Poland
By TOMASZ WROBLEWSKI
October 19, 2007

WARSAW -- "Hide Grandma's ID. Save the country. Don't let her vote."


This SMS joke spread on Polish cellphones in recent days, and its meaning wasn't lost on anyone. Older, strongly nationalist and conservative Poles -- many of them devoted listeners of the radical nationalist Catholic radio station Radio Maryja -- make up the core of support for the ruling Law and Justice party.

In Sunday's snap elections, called halfway into the Parliament's four-year term, this party and its twin act, President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are fighting to hold on after after breaking with its coalition partners, the populist farmers' Self-Defense and nationalist League of Polish Families parties. Deprived of their junior partners, the Kaczynskis lost their parliamentary majority, but not their strong political base. Their 33% support in the polls isn't a matter of simple demographics.

The clash between their populist supporters and the more liberal, pro-market Civic Union -- the largest opposition -- reflects age-old divisions in Polish society encapsulated by the 19th-century formula Pany i Chamy, or "the lords and the peasants." Jaroslaw Kaczynski did not create this split. He skillfully played on the tension between the so-called elites and the masses.

Throughout the country's history, the conflict took on different forms, prominent in interwar Poland, with the rise of a nationalist party, and later reanimated by the communist dictatorship. In 1968, the regime launched an anti-Semitic witch hunt that, though it bore all the hallmarks of a disgusting racist campaign, was also a politically useful attack on the anticommunist intelligentsia. Then it was focused on Polish Jews; today the targets are elites with connections to a postcommunist "network," or uklad, and the pro-European liberals led by Civic Platform head Donald Tusk.

So the heated emotions on display in this year's campaign feel atavistic and out of step with the so-called European mainstream. But this election is a continuation of a classic fight: Whose Poland is it really?

The weapon of choice is fear. Jaroslaw Kaczynski repeatedly claims that the uklad -- the lawyers, journalists, businessmen, both former communists and Solidarity supporters -- wants to take over Poland's companies, media and ultimately the state to run it in the service of oligarchs. In one of his speeches, the prime minister went so far as to imply that a victorious Civic Platform would form a coalition with the main postcommunist party, which would lead to the imposition of martial law, just as in 1981.

Civic Platform bites back by invoking the fear of the Kaczynskis pushing the country toward authoritarianism in the service of the basest nationalistic, anti-free market, anti-European and anti-liberal instincts. This message resonates with Poland's educated and urban voters.

Until last week, the Kaczynskis held a lead in the polls by 6-8 percentage points, suggesting that Poles were buying their vision of a strong central government and generous welfare state. But Jaroslaw's advisers erred by agreeing to a televised debate with Mr. Tusk a week before election day.

Ridiculed by the Kaczynskis as a weak politician with inflated ambitions, Mr. Tusk turned out to be a formidable opponent, in command of the facts and exuding personal charm. He pointed out the broken promises made by the twins, such as building three million new apartments. "Instead," Mr. Tusk joked, "we have apartments that cost three million zlotys," a big chunk of change for the average Pole. He also played up the recent price increases for food and other consumer goods.

Mr. Kaczynski didn't not know the specifics of recent price increases. He was unable to make a convincing case that his government had improved the standard of living, one of his other campaign themes. Mr. Tusk went after the twins' foreign policy, describing them as "diplodummies" who'd alienated Poland's closest European partner, Germany, and weakened the country, all while claiming to be standing up for its interests. And he scored the most points by going after the Kaczynskis on corruption. "Corruption breeds at the intersection of the state, bureaucracy and business and you, Mr. Prime Minister, have built the largest bureaucracy in this country's history," he said, calling the much-touted fight against corruption pure propaganda.

Mr. Tusk's victory in the debate was clear from the polls. At the beginning of this week, Civic Platform took a 10-point lead. Jaroslaw Kaczynski responded by sharpening his tone and appealing more directly to the have-nots and their feelings of social injustice and exclusion. We also heard a slogan that sounds especially dangerous in Poland -- that of "the traditional culture of the people of this land" -- which could be seen as an allusion to Mr. Tusk's German ancestors. In the presidential campaign in 2005, Mr. Tusk lost his lead in opinion polls after Lech Kaczynski's campaign claimed Mr. Tusk's grandfather volunteered for the SS during the war. In fact, it was later shown that he had been forcibly enlisted by the Germans. But the damage was done.

* * *
Whatever the result Sunday, these old divisions won't be put to to rest, and not too much will change.

Should he win, Jaroslaw Kaczynski won't easily be able to strengthen his control over the state. In recent months, his grip was steadily weakening. Hand-picked and compliant prosecutors are losing cases across the country, many of them corruption trials built on slim evidence against doctors in public hospitals and government officials. Badly written laws have been struck down by the constitutional court or the EU. The Kaczynski-controlled public television is bleeding journalists. Doctors, driven to desperation by starvation wages and the government's resistance to health-care privatization, are also quitting their jobs en masse. Afraid that the ruling party's war with Brussels will put their generous EU subsidies in danger, farmers are switching support.

Then again, even the most pro-free market Polish government will not be able to quickly conduct large-scale privatization, reduce the size of the public sector or -- like the neighboring Baltic republics -- introduce a flat tax that would come at a price of extensive cuts in social benefits. The "peasant" forces will surely remain strong and shape Poland's politics, including its foreign policy within the EU. The Civic Platform, whose members are educated and speak foreign languages, would surely be more acceptable to the Brussels elites. But neither they nor we should delude ourselves into believing that any Polish politician will be eager to sign the EU constitution with no questions asked, or support reductions in farm subsidies.

It would be naïve to think that the Kaczynski brothers are the only thing that stands between progressive old Europe and the Polish "backwater." The process of integrating our societies is a lengthy one, and it will surely outlast this generation of grandmothers.

Mr. Wroblewski is managing director and vice president of the management board at newspaper publisher Polska.

Re: The Twins' Poland

Whatever the result Sunday, these old divisions won't be put to to rest, and not too much will change.

Should he win, Jaroslaw Kaczynski won't easily be able to strengthen his control over the state. In recent months, his grip was steadily weakening. Hand-picked and compliant prosecutors are losing cases across the country, many of them corruption trials built on slim evidence against doctors in public hospitals and government officials. Badly written laws have been struck down by the constitutional court or the EU. The Kaczynski-controlled public television is bleeding journalists. Doctors, driven to desperation by starvation wages (HOWEVER, I DON'T KNOW ANY POOR POLISH DOCTORS. ALL THE ONES I KNOW OF HAVE LARGE DETACHED HOUSES) and the government's resistance to health-care privatization, are also quitting their jobs en masse. Afraid that the ruling party's war with Brussels will put their generous EU subsidies in danger, farmers are switching support.

Then again, even the most pro-free market Polish government will not be able to quickly conduct large-scale privatization, reduce the size of the public sector or -- like the neighboring Baltic republics -- introduce a flat tax that would come at a price of extensive cuts in social benefits. The "peasant" forces will surely remain strong and shape Poland's politics, including its foreign policy within the EU. The Civic Platform, whose members are GENERALLY educated and speak foreign languages, would surely be more acceptable to the Brussels elites. But neither they nor we should delude ourselves into believing that any Polish politician will be eager to sign the EU constitution with no questions asked, or support reductions in farm subsidies.

It would be naïve to think that the Kaczynski brothers are the only thing that stands between progressive old Europe and the Polish "backwater." The process of integrating our societies is a lengthy one, and it will surely outlast this generation of grandmothers.


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Agreed EXCEPT FOR THESE BITS.