Small President vs Great Chancellor

By this time next year Donald Tusk might have concentrated more power in his hands than any other Polish politician since 1989.

Who cares these days what the president of, say, Germany is called?  That’’s precisely what it will be like in Poland if the leader of the ruling Civic Platform gets his way. The presidential election this coming autumn is just a stage in his plan.

It is a plan Tusk has been putting into practice since 2007 when the Civic Platform won the parliamentary election. Since then the Prime Minister has repeatedly clashed with President Lech Kaczyński who, due to the present constitution, has been able to paralyse the government’s work more effectively than the opposition Rights and Justice Party, to which he has close ties. Following the embarrassing wrangling over who should attend EU summits or who has priority over the use of the government aircraft (and also after the President torpedoed a number of key legislative proposals) Tusk concluded it was time to take a decision. Either he would become President (a goal he tried, and failed, to achieve in 2005) or he would limit the powers of the president. His announcement a few weeks ago that he was withdrawing from the presidential contest made it clear he has chosen the second option.

Public opinion polls show 43% support for the Civic Platform, which means it would have enough votes to change the constitution. And it is determined to do so whether Lech Kaczyński stays in office (which is not out of the question) or is replaced by a Civic Platform candidate. There are two contenders for the party nomination: the Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and Speaker of the Sejm (parliament) Bronisław Komorowski. The latter, with his long record of anti-communist opposition is a more realistic candidate, enjoying the support of the majority of the 45,000 party members, many of whom he knows personally.

Sikorski’’s candidacy serves an obvious purpose: to provoke the Kaczyński brothers to aggressive actions that put off moderate voters. So far Sikorski has been successful in this respect. Also, his rivalry with Komorowski helps create the impression that the presidential duel will be fought between two Platform candidates (in party primaries due at the end of March).

In fact, things are not quite as clear-cut. The support for the Rights and Justice Party is steady at 25% and Lech Kaczyński could garner as much as 35% of the vote in a second round. That is not enough to win but it would be quite a respectable result for a sitting president who has been the focus of general criticism. And there are still six months to go until the elections.  In the 2005 pre-election polls Kaczyński trailed in fourth place and nobody gave him a chance – yet in the second round he annihilated Donald Tusk.

Kaczyński’s best hope lies in the Polish predilection for centre-right politicians with an anti-communist pedigree and a passion for national traditions; we must not forget that half of the Polish population never turns out to vote and that the post-communist Left has disintegrated following corruption scandals. All three candidates – Kaczyński, Komorowski and Sikorski – fit this bill.  They could easily belong to the same party; after all, Sikorski did serve as Minister for National Defence in a Rights and Justice government from 2005 to 2007, while both Kaczyński and Komorowski belonged to Jerzy Buzek’s centre-right cabinet in 2000-2001. Their views on most issues are similar: on Poland’s role in the EU and NATO (needs strengthening), on the adoption of the euro (yes, but no rush), on relations with Russia (negative), on lustrations (yes), decommunization (yes), the Catholic Church (needs protecting), abortion (needs banning, more or less), gays (what gays?). Between them they would get 60% of the vote. Lech Kaczyński’’s biggest problem is his twin brother Jarosław, leader of the Rights and Justice Party and a man who inspires wildly mixed feelings.  It remains to be seen if the Poles are sufficiently fed up with him to hand all power to Donald Tusk just to spite Jarosław. This is quite likely since Tusk is a skilful politician who has been lucky so far: Poland has not been affected by the economic crisis and the population does not blame him for a corruption scandal in his cabinet. And after all, we came back with six medals from Vancouver and came 15th, right after the Czechs.

So what about the next President? He might not be too tall but not too short either, said Radosław Sikorski, alluding to Lech Kaczyński’’s stature (167 cm). The opposite is more likely: the president might be tall, like Sikorski (181 cm), or of medium build, like Komorowski (174). However, he will certainly be small in terms of his powers. Those will pass to Chancellor Tusk (174 cm).

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article appeared in Orientace, a supplement to the daily Lidové noviny.