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Analysis: European Elections In Poland -- Everybody's Happy, For Now

On 13 June, Poles took part in their first elections to the European Parliament (EP) for the recently expanded European Union. Eight political parties cleared the 5 percent voting threshold, thus obtaining the right to participate in the distribution of 54 mandates ascribed to Poland. Turnout in the Polish ballot, 20.87 percent, was the second-lowest in the EU, after Slovakia.

"Such turnout makes our presence in the European Parliament less legitimate to some extent," commented Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a new European parliamentarian elected from the list of the Civic Platform. Saryusz-Wolski was minister for European integration in Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek's cabinet in 2000-01, and he seemed to be worried about this drastic decline of interest in EU affairs on the part of Polish voters, of whom nearly 60 percent took part in Poland's EU referendum only a year before.

But for most Polish politicians across the political spectrum the 13 June elections were primarily a popularity contest before parliamentary elections that may take place as soon as in August if the Sejm fails to approve a new prime minister this month. From this point of view, the EP elections were a fairly reassuring experience for them -- six current parliamentary parties and one bloc seem to be poised to make it to the next Sejm, in addition to one extraparliamentary party.
For most Polish politicians across the political spectrum the 13 June elections were primarily a popularity contest before parliamentary elections that may take place as soon as in August if the Sejm fails to approve a new prime minister this month.

The elections were won by the opposition centrist Civic Platform with 24.10 percent of the vote, which translated into 15 EP seats. The Civic Platform was followed by the League of Polish Families with 15.92 percent, or 10 seats; Law and Justice with 12.67 percent, seven seats; Self-Defense with 10.78 percent, six seats; the ruling Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc with 9.35 percent, five seats; the Freedom Union with 7.33 percent, four seats; the Peasant Party with 6.34 percent, four seats; and the Social Democracy of Poland with 5.33 percent, three seats.

Repeating a wider European pattern, Poles in the European elections severely punished the ruling coalition for its poor performance in managing matters at home. Poland's jobless rate firmly stands at almost 20 percent, roughly the same figure as in autumn 2001, when the Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union bloc won the parliamentary election with 41 percent of the vote. Since then, the popularity of the government has been steadily waning, not only because of its inability to deliver on its election promises, but also due to a long record of high-profile corruption scandals involving government and party officials. Prime Minister Leszek Miller stepped down in May, effectively leaving the country without a functioning government. The new nominee for the post of prime minister, Marek Belka, has so far been unable to muster sufficient support for his confirmation in parliament.

The victory of the liberal Civic Platform is not a surprise. Its election result quite accurately reflects the party's current popularity measured by various surveys. Besides, the Civic Platform is a staunchly pro-European party, so it was expected that it would mobilize its electorate for a European ballot better than other groupings. "There is a chance that the Civic Platform will win the next parliamentary election," Civic Platform leader Jan Rokita commented on preliminary election results publicized on 13 June, immediately after the conclusion of the EP vote. Many see Rokita as a future prime minister. But some also predict that if the results of the next parliamentary elections were to reflect those in the 13 June European vote, chances for forming a stable government would be very slim.

The Civic Platform's most likely partner in an anticipated future ruling coalition is the right-of-center Law and Justice party led by two brothers, Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski. But Law and Justice's result of less than 13 percent in the 13 June ballot does not suggest that the two parties will be able to run a government on their own. On the other hand, it is already clear that the most vociferous Euroskeptics in Poland, the populist Self-Defense of Andrzej Lepper and the far-right, nationalist League of Polish Families led by Roman Giertych, will have sizeable representations in the next Sejm.

The showing of the League of Polish Families, which has consistently opposed Poland's integration with the EU the past several years, is the biggest surprise of the 13 June ballot. The League of Polish Families on 13 June doubled its gain from the 2001 parliamentary election, when it obtained less than 8 percent of the vote. Polish commentators suggest that the League of Polish Families owes its political successes primarily to campaigning by Radio Maryja, an enormously influential media outlet among the ultra-Catholic, nationalist-minded electorate. This time, too, such commentators argue, Radio Maryja mobilized its listeners to vote for its "political arm," notwithstanding the fact that the vote was for the institution that both Radio Maryja and the League of Polish Families deem detrimental to the country's interests.

The result of Self-Defense was well below its recent level of popularity in opinion polls, which fluctuates around 20 percent, but this can be explained by the fact that the party's hard-core supporters -- primarily jobless people, farmers, and artisans -- are not very interested in European matters and mostly stayed at home on 13 June. But it is widely believed that in a domestic parliamentary election the showing of Lepper's party will be much stronger. In the past two years Lepper has begun to conspicuously dissociate from the image of a firebrand populist he built in the 1990s. According to media reports, his party has recently been joined by many young, university-educated people, for whom the association with Self-Defense would be a blasphemy just a year ago.

The election to the European Parliament has raised from political oblivion the centrist Freedom Union, a party much-respected and much-criticized in the 1990s, when it participated in Solidarity-rooted ruling coalitions. The Freedom Union lost the 2001 election and most Polish commentators believed it would sink into history. Its current result -- more than 7 percent of the vote -- bodes well for the party as regards the next parliamentary election. The Freedom Union's two major icons -- Bronislaw Geremek and Janusz Onyszkiewicz -- became EP deputies.

It is noteworthy that the largest number of votes in the 13 June ballot -- 173,000 -- was obtained by former Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek (Civic Platform), who just three years ago left the political scene amid general criticism of and disappointment with the performance of his cabinet. Buzek's showing is a good illustration of the thesis that voters in Poland on 13 June rather punished the current government than showed their enthusiasm for the opposition. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, with a view to the next parliamentary election, commented that the European elections "have resolved nothing." "[The situation after the European elections] is clear as regards the support of the electorate, and completely unclear as regards the reaction of the enormous part of society that did not go to vote," Kwasniewski added. For the time being, however, both the opposition and the ruling coalition seem to be satisfied with what has been made clear and what has not been by the European Parliament elections.