Friday, 30 October 2015

POLAND: Beata Szydlo & Law and Justice Party

Poland's parliamentary elections in late October swept the right-wing Law and Justice party into power. Its current popularity is partly due to leading candidate Beata Szydlo, who has helped tone down its strident, nationalistic image.

Poland's conservative Law and Justice party won an absolute majority in both chambers of parliament in elections last Sunday, marking the first time in 26 years of democratic rule that one party will form a government. Law and Justice, also known by its acronym PiS, broke through that glass ceiling with more than 37 percent of votes. It won the plurality of votes in all categories of the electorate, by reaching out to better-educated urban voters and making advances in the western provinces of the country for the first time.

After being in opposition for eight years, Law and Justice will now occupy 235 out 460 seats in the lower chamber of parliament and 61 out 100 in the Senate. The 2015 parliamentary elections were in stark contrast to those held in 2011, when the governing party, the center-right Civic Platform led by then Prime Minister Donald Tusk, won easily.

That election was also a milestone: It was the first time since Poland's post-communist transition to democracy that governing coalition parties held on to power for another four-year term. In 2015, however, Civic Platform scored just 24 percent of the vote, winning only 138 seats in parliament's lower chamber and 34 in the Senate.

For the first time since his twin brother Lech died in the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, Jaroslaw Kaczynski chose not to run for election and to endorse a woman as the party's leading candidate. For the conservative, Catholic PiS, this amounted to the dawning of a new era, one that first shimmered on the horizon in the spring of 2015, when the party leadership named the little-known member of the European Parliament Andrzej Duda as its presidential candidate. He was handpicked by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who singlehandedly decides who gets on the ticket.

Unexpectedly, Duda, a 43-year-old lawyer from Krakow, went on to defeat the centrist incumbent in a stunning victory. Five months later, Beata Szydlo repeated his success. But she has a reputation for being well-adjusted, hard-working and resilient. But also a little dull. Since it was founded in 2001, PiS has dominated Poland's political right. It only once triumphed over the rival Civic Platform. Between 2005 and 2007, Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski were respectively prime minister and president of Poland, constituting a power-sharing team never seen before, notable not only because the twin brothers were so hard to tell apart.

Civic Platform, whose top dog Donald Tusk went to Brussels last year to take over as president of the European Council, the powerful body that represents the EU member states, is struggling to rise to the challenge. In the past, it was enough to deride the PiS as a party of nationalist nutcases. But as the presidential election demonstrated, this no longer flies. When incumbent President Bronislaw Komorowski refused to participate in a televised debate with his opponent Andrzej Duda, seriously underestimating his popularity, the voters saw it as an expression of arrogance and held it against him.

Recent weeks have seen his party colleague, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, conduct an uninspired campaign that has resolutely refused to catch fire. Kopacz is seen as an unimaginative technocrat; her party as a bunch of power-mad, arrogant liberals.

The party was also damaged by what has been dubbed the "taping scandal." Eighteen months ago, the press came across recordings of conversations that took place among senior Civic Platform politicians over boiled octopus in exclusive Warsaw restaurants. Not only did they seem decadent, they also seemed a little coarse.  It also emerged that a member of parliament with the Civic Platform had omitted to mention a wristwatch worth over €5,000 when he declared his assets, and that Education Minister Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, accountable for the dilapidated condition of many elementary schools, was sending her children to private schools.

The Kaczynskis ushered in a difficult era for Poland, then a freshly minted EU member. At home, the brothers launched political witch hunts against old Communist networks, while on the foreign policy front they ramped up the rhetoric against Germany, which they accused of playing down its World War II guilt. Poland assumed the role of Europe's troublemaker.

When its coalition government with two unreliable smaller parties collapsed, PiS was defeated in snap elections. The Polish people were tired of constant domestic turmoil and polarization. Donald Tusk's liberal Civic Platform came to power in 2007, and in 2010, incumbent President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage were killed when a government jet crashed while attempting to land near Smolensk, Russia.

Shortly thereafter, Jaroslaw announced he would replace his brother and spearhead the PiS alone. He suffered a string of defeats. His strident tone and nationalist pathos seemed obsolete at a time when the country was enjoying an economic upswing and evolving into a respected European partner.
It was time for fresh, friendly faces. Politicians like Duda and Szydlo, with realistic demands and moderate voices. For the first time in years, the party looked as though it could break out of its core supporters' 20 percent ghetto and attract voters in the political center.

Expensive wristwatches and gourmet restaurants don't feature in the world of Beata Szydlo. She doesn't have to pretend to be down-to-earth -- she just is. She served seven years as mayor of her home-town of Brzeszcze, a city of 12,000 inhabitants in southern Poland -- the most senior political office she's held so far.

She hasn't been afraid to get her hands dirty during her campaign. In the small town of Pcim she knuckled down with locals renovating the school, which lost its roof in a storm. In Brzeszcze she mingled with miners protesting against the threatened closure of their pit. Her campaign slogan is "Damy rade" -- "We Can Do It."

Today's Poland is not the same country as the one once ruled by the Kaczynski twins. Despite the global financial crisis, its economy has grown steadily. Unemployment is low. The country doesn't need to go begging. Thanks to agricultural subsidies and billions worth of aid for infrastructure projects, the EU remains highly popular. The Polish people wouldn't forgive Kaczynski and his party were their country to be turned back into an outsider.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Expert