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Poland: Election Results May Complicate Drive For EU Membership

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Unofficial estimates from Poland's parliamentary elections over the weekend show major gains for the leftist opposition. But the Democratic Left Alliance -- made up of former Communists -- may have narrowly failed to win a clear majority. This may complicate the political scene at a critical time for Poland, which hopes to join the European Union by 2004.

Prague, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Polish parliamentary elections over the weekend saw disaster overtake Solidarity, the mass movement which was so effective in the overthrow of communism. The Solidarity-led rightist coalition which has ruled Poland since 1997 was swept from office, and apparently did not even win enough votes to be represented in the next parliament.

Gaining most in the election were the ex-Communists, now called the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), under Leszek Miller. Unofficial results and exit polls give them an estimated 41.5 percent of the vote. If that is accurate, it would mean they have narrowly failed to get an outright majority in the lower house of parliament -- making a coalition-building process difficult.

Political analyst Miraslava Grabowska, of Warsaw University's Institute of Sociology, explains the problem:

"It will be very difficult for them to create a stable coalition because the rest of the political parties which entered the Sejm [lower house of parliament] are either economically too liberal for them, or too populist for them, or anti-European [Union]. They -- meaning the SLD -- maintain that they are pro-European and moderately market oriented."

Grabowska notes that the SLD has not yet spoken out about a possible coalition partner, apparently preferring to form a minority government if necessary. But she says that too will be very difficult. If a coalition is unavoidable, the likely partner would be the Peasants' Party, the SLD's former partner in a stormy coalition when it was last in office.

Whether in coalition or governing alone, the SLD will have its hands full. Its program of social protection, budgetary spending cuts, and reforms necessary for EU membership appear to be contradictory. SLD leaders say an austerity package is urgently needed to stop the budget deficit reaching threatening levels and sparking a financial crisis. But this is difficult to balance with the party's policy of social protection against the pain of market reforms.

Analyst Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, of the Polish Institute of Political Studies, says he does not know how the SLD plans to achieve its goals:

"That will be the first serious political challenge for the unity of SLD and its popularity, first of all because [budget] cuts are inevitable and the electoral rhetoric they used can hardly allow for any serious cuts in public spending, so I just wonder how they will solve the problem."

The outgoing Solidarity government suffered its dramatic loss because of public disillusionment over its internal squabbling, and over rising unemployment and poor economic growth. Wnuk-Lipinski says Polish voters have turned to the SLD in the hope it will be more effective:

"Much depends on the policies that will be introduced by a new government. Hopes are big -- [and] partly they will be disappointed, that's inevitable, particularly during the construction of the state budget for next year, because cuts are inevitable in public spending. But still I believe the trust in the SLD is big enough to hold social peace, at least for some time."

Wnuk-Lipinski sees EU membership for Poland as a strategic goal of all the mainstream Polish parties, and he says this will not change under the next government. But analyst Grabowska says the entrance into parliament of two small far-right parties, the Self Defense party of rural populist Andrzej Lepper and the Catholic League of Polish Families, will have an impact on the issue. Both those parties are hostile to EU membership for Poland:

"I don't think they will be able to undermine the direction of Polish policy, but they will force the ruling SLD to open serious public debate about this process, and about the advantages and costs of joining the European Union."

She notes that Polish public support for EU membership has declined in recent years from about 70 percent to 55 percent. Under the Solidarity government, Poland's drive for accession lost steam, and over the past year and more there have been suggestions that the country might not make into the first wave of entrants, set for 2004.

In Brussels, analyst Daniel Gros of the Center for European Policy Studies says any trouble in constructing a new government in Warsaw will probably translate into a further loss of focus in the EU membership drive: "Experience has always shown that most countries tend to give priority to their domestic political problems, compared with the foreign policy issues they face with the EU. Hence, [in Poland's case], this can only mean delay."

Gros also says however, that there could be a conscious decision on Warsaw's part not to hasten the complicated accession procedure. The continuing negotiations with Brussels are going to require Polish concessions, as well as much effort on Poland's part to implement the EU's body of rules:

"It might also be the case that the Poles think that no [EU] enlargement can proceed without them and therefore they could say, 'Okay, we might take a bit longer, but everybody is going to wait for us.' In my view they are mistaken in this view, but nevertheless they hold it and might act on it."

German officials in particular have spoken about the undesirability of the EU going ahead with a first wave of eastward enlargement without the biggest applicant, Poland. But any move to slow first-wave entry to accommodate a lagging Poland will certainly enrage other advanced candidates like Hungary. Budapest has repeatedly said each country must be judged on its merits alone, and that none should be held up for another.