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In Poland’s Election, Not-Too-Bad Economy Helps Incumbent

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (center) reacts to exit poll results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Photo by Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images.

Even in turbulent times, Polish voters have demonstrated that a not-too-bad economy beats a bad economy for an incumbent government seeking reelection.

Poland was one European nation that did not suffer even a mild recession after the 2008 global crash. But growth has slowed, unemployment has climbed into double digits, and some troubles are on the horizon — which gave the opposition some hope of taking back power. Even so, on Sunday Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his center-right Civic Platform won by a surprisingly comfortable 39 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, nine points ahead of its closest rival in a multi-party field.

It is the first time since Poland gained its freedom from Soviet domination in 1989 that a government has won reelection, a reflection of the inability of relatively new political parties across Central Europe since the end of communism to hold power for long.

As a young Polish friend wrote on the Internet over the weekend, “Poland is a beautiful country, but our politics sux, (cq)” — after only belatedly remembering there was an election happening the day he sent that message.

Indeed, most political analysts say it was the strength of young, urban and aspiring voters that brought two results: the prime minister’s solid reelection and the rise of a new liberal party, Palikot’s Support Movement, that ran against traditional conservative Catholic social policy on such issues as abortion and gay marriage. In a country more than 90 percent Catholic, the new party gained 10 percent of the tally and an even more striking 23 percent among voters aged 18-25.

“That is astonishing,” said Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“That is something new in Polish politics,” said Jacek Przybylski, Washington correspondent for the newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, referring to the party’s campaign for a clear separation between church and state in Polish politics.

Sounding a more cautious note was Jakub Grygiel, an associate professor of International politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He said the vote may have been more personal than political, for the party’s colorful founder, Janusz Palikot, a businessman and former lawmaker in the governing party.

“It was almost an anti-politcal vote,” Grygiel said, and that Palikot may have drawn younger people to the polls who otherwise might not have participated. Turnout for the election was slightly under 50 percent.

The biggest loser was the more nationalist and socially conservative Law and Justice Party, headed by former premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He’s the younger brother of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president killed in an airplane crash in April 2010 that wiped out much of Poland’s political and military leadership. Kaczynski’s end-of-campaign rhetoric about German domination probably backfired, Bugajski said, as Poles increasingly view Germans as neighbors, European partners and even as friends rather than as their World War II oppressors.

Poland, with an internal market of nearly 40 million people (the sixth largest in the EU) has been running a 4 percent plus economic growth rate, down from its peak but still ahead of fellow European Union members.

“Poles keep hearing ‘we are doing okay compared with other countries,'” Bugajski said, and increasingly so from fellow citizens who have returned home from jobs vanished in Ireland and Britain.

But the reelected government may be having to dole out some bitter medicine, trying to bring down deficits and social spending designed to ease the blow for workers in old communist-era factories that have been obliterated by foreign competitors. Also cushioning the changes has been billions in EU aid for farmers and infrastructure.

Follow Michael Mosettig on Twitter.

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