Komorowski’s presidential win strengthens governing party’s hold on Poland, offers challenges

By Vanessa Gera, AP
Monday, July 5, 2010

Komorowski win strengthens Polish government

WARSAW, Poland — Poland chose a rival of the late president over his twin brother in a vote seen as a move away from three months of shock, grief and mourning that followed the death of Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash.

Bronislaw Komorowski was declared the winner Monday, meaning his governing pro-business Civic Platform party now has a year of control of both government and the presidency before the next parliamentary elections.

It represents a chance for them to fulfill promises to dismantle some remnants of the old communist-era welfare state. They have pledged to attack privileges ranging from permanent sick leave to low taxes for rich farmers in an attempt to prevent the European debt crisis from spreading to Poland.

The eastern European nation of 38 million people is the largest of the new European Union members and has a vibrant economy that has grown even amid the global downturn. But it is still struggling with legacies from its decades of communist rule, including dilapidated infrastructure and large numbers of unemployed who haven’t adjusted well to capitalism — many of whom draw welfare benefits.

Komorowski was elected for a five-year term, separately from the government, ending three years in which Lech Kaczynski, a social conservative who favored strong welfare protections, used his veto power to stop Prime Minister Donald Tusk from pushing through free market reforms.

Financial investors hope for ambitious moves to bring down the debt and cut welfare spending.

Kazimierz Kik, a political analyst and head of a political sciences institute in Kielce, said that Komorowski’s victory gives Tusk and his party the chance “to modernize the country.”

“Now nothing stands in the way of reforms promised by Civic Platform,” Kik said.

But Maja Goettig, chief economist for Bank BPH in Warsaw, notes that the “political calendar” will put great pressure on Civic Platform to go slow with reforms. Local elections across Poland are planned later this year and new parliamentary elections are expected by the fall of 2011. Going too far with reforms would likely anger many voters and threaten Civic Platform’s continued hold on power.

Among the fiscal reforms that many investors want — and which Tusk has promised — are a raising of the retirement age from 60 for women and 65 for men, and restricting the chance for early retirement for many other professions.

Poland made it through the global economic downturn without falling into recession, yet it has seen its jobless rate creep ever higher — it is now about 12 percent — and it’s deficit jump to just over 7 percent of gross domestic product in 2009.

Goettig said that economists are also eager to see the government raise the low tax rates enjoyed even by wealthy farmers, and halt the widespread abuse of the welfare system, including falsely claimed sick leave.

“It will be a problem to implement the reforms in a one-year period,” Goettig said. “What they would risk is the political support they have because the vast majority of voters would be hit.”

Sunday’s presidential election was held months ahead of schedule after Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash in western Russia on April 10 along with his wife and some of the nation’s top military, civilian and religious figures. His identical twin brother Jaroslaw, a relatively unpopular politician just months ago, won significant support after shedding his once-combative image and benefiting from a surge of sympathy over the loss of his brother.

Memories of a chaotic government that he led from 2006-2007 probably helped keep him from victory, but his strong showing has boosted his followers’ hopes that he might regain power in coming elections.

Komorowski’s victory is welcome news for leaders in Berlin and Brussels. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a noted nationalist and euroskeptic reluctant to adopt the euro currency or to cede much sovereignty to the EU. When he was prime minister, his government was often at loggerheads with officials in Brussels.

Both Kaczynski twins were also suspicious of Germany and Russia, and frequently made a political issue of the past suffering inflicted on them by the large neighboring countries.

“Komorowski’s victory is good news for Poland’s foreign relations,” IHS Global Insight analysts Blanka Kolenikova and Ralf Wiegert wrote in a note Monday.

Germany’s new president, Christian Wulff, congratulated Komorowski on his victory and said that he would visit Warsaw early next week for talks with the new head of state.

Associated Press Writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.

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