Poland's Rightward Turn and the Significance for Europe

Posted in Other | 29-Sep-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

As expected, a right wing majority was the result of Poland's September 25 general elections. The Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by the twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won 28 percent of the vote, beating its likely ally, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (P.O.), which received about 26 percent of the vote.

Like in previous post-communist era elections, the current ruling party -- the Democratic Left Alliance (S.L.D.) in this case -- has been brutally punished by voters. S.L.D. won a disappointing 11 percent of votes, although forecasts predicted an even worse thrashing for President Aleksander Kwasniewski's party. Poland is perhaps the only European country that has experienced such a sudden, dramatic change in its popular support.

With far-right parties such as the Self Defense Party (Samoobrona) and the catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families each taking 10 percent of the vote, the next parliament will be dominated by Poland's various right-wing factions. However, Polish sources say that negotiations to give birth to a new government have been difficult, for the conflict between PiS and P.O. over economic liberalization and cuts to the welfare state will need a compromise and could lead to an internally divided coalition.

At any rate, a right wing president (who will likely be P.O.'s candidate Donald Tusk or PiS' rival Lech Kaczynski) is expected to be elected when Polish voters return to the ballot boxes in October.

For the European Union, Warsaw's rightward turn means that Eastern Europe's most influential new member will likely strengthen its (already existing) pro-U.S. and anti-Russian policy, and will highlight some fundamental differences in the perception of European construction among European elites and their populations.

Warsaw's Geopolitical Orientation

Poland epitomizes the pro-Western former communist East. With some 40 million inhabitants, it is demographically the most important among the ten countries which joined the E.U. in 2004. At a political level, Warsaw is the new E.U. member that consistently showed the willingness to join a renewed Euro-Atlantic political, security and economic alliance. For Poland, joining the E.U. and entering the transatlantic security community is one single goal -- although composed of two aspects.

During the E.U.'s 2003 split in the face of the Iraq intervention, Warsaw joined the Anglo-American axis without hesitation. This put Warsaw at odds with Franco-German diplomatic maneuvers and let French President Jacques Chirac express his disappointment toward the "newcomers," which some observers expected to show more compliance to the Paris-Berlin combine. On the contrary, Poland actively supported the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government in Iraq.

History and geopolitics has, in fact, inexorably affected Warsaw's foreign policy orientations. Poland was once a powerful state. During the 16th and 17th centuries it formed a multi-ethnic empire extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea's northern region; Poland has known the hard rule of great powers ever since. Split among Austria, Prussia and Tsarist Russia since the end of the 18th century, and occupied by Hitler's army in 1940, the country was then made a satellite by the Soviet Union after Moscow helped to defeat Nazi Germany in WWII.

Germany and Russia are, therefore, inevitably perceived as geopolitical rivals by Warsaw. Although post-1990 relations with the two states are at unprecedented good levels, Poland will carefully avoid weakening Anglo-American influence in favor of a Russo-German axis, or even in favor of any one of those powers increasing in strength. This fundamental interest prevails over Warsaw's traditional excellent relations with France since Paris often looks to be the political brain behind the attempt to build a more autonomous Europe, thus reducing Washington's influence in European affairs.

In addition, Poland is trying to regain its leading role in Central and Eastern Europe by shaping enhanced cooperation with the Baltic states, Ukraine and even Georgia. In 2004, Warsaw actively supported the pro-U.S., pro-Western "orange revolution" in Kiev, and it's rapidly emerging as a solid U.S. ally when it comes to stirring up a similar civic movement in pro-Russia Belarus. [See: "The Poland-Belarus Controversy and the Battle for Eastern Europe"]

Such orientations have clearly emerged in Poland's foreign policy during the social-democratic rule of the last few years, so the rightward turn is not a synonym of Warsaw's reorientation, but instead a strengthening of some already working trends.

In August 2005, Warsaw launched a new initiative with Kiev, Vilnius and Tbilisi, aimed at forging a democratic community to foster liberal and pro-market policies in Eastern Europe. Such a move was clearly directed at easing Belarusian and Moldovan integration into the E.U.-N.A.T.O political, economic and security architecture, while at the same time securing the transport of Caspian oil and gas resources to the Eastern and Northern European markets via Georgia and Ukraine, thus bypassing Russian and Belarusian territories.

For Washington's broad geopolitical aims, Poland is gaining more and more importance. Warsaw's goals coincide with Washington's interests on a number of foreign policy issues. The new containment of Russia is certainly the most evident, but on a more general cultural and ideological level Warsaw's commitment to liberal democracy and pro-market reforms can prove decisive to carry American values in Eastern Europe, where populist policymakers can easily achieve wide popular support.

Moreover, from the American view, Poland's role in the enlarged Europe is also one of containment versus the French and German ambition to lead a united continent from a more autonomous one. However, the Franco-German combine is losing momentum, and some influential politicians in Paris and Berlin (like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel) do not share plans to build a European superpower if it is not in a solid partnership with the United States.

If the more free market oriented policymakers take the lead in Warsaw's coming right wing coalition, pro-British and pro-American politicians in Western Europe will gain an even more valuable ally. However, national contexts still play a major role in the European Union, and dramatic changes in the economic policies in France, Germany and Italy are less likely than progressive re-adjustments of national social models. [See: "In the Heart of Europe: Social Models and Geopolitics"]

Why Poland Matters

European elites have an interest in carefully analyzing the evolution of Polish politics. After France and the Netherlands rejected the E.U.'s Constitutional Treaty, the European integration process as a whole entered a serious crisis. Apart from the fragile constitution's fate, the problem for the E.U. is that public opinion in the core countries is now disillusioned with the process itself.

The Polish right wing coalition set to rule in Warsaw will not help to revitalize the integrationist effort toward a strong political union: the PiS party explicitly warned against an immediate switch to the euro, and will probably win the battle against its allied party P.O. -- which would like to ditch the Polish national currency in favor of Brussels' single currency.

Furthermore, both the PiS and the P.O. have announced that they won't move to help the E.U.'s constitution, but instead will wait and see what Britain will do in this regard. Given the improbability of a short-term British rescue of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty, this will mean even more uncertainty for the constitution's destiny.

The 2004 enlargement was in the end a source of political troubles for the Franco-German combine and its historical allies in Western Europe, though unity remains a diplomatic success in light of Europe's turbulent history. Poland, like the Baltic states, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or the membership candidates Bulgaria and Romania, are afraid of Western European hegemony and clearly opted for a double security guarantee: N.A.T.O. (i.e. the U.S.) and the E.U.'s common security and defense policy.

In addition, Eastern Europe has often chosen to implement pro-market reforms which many advocate be applied to France and Germany. If citizens in France and Germany perceive European integration as a tool to enhance their own social models, voters in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe seem to perceive it as the way toward more free market, U.S.-inspired reforms.

As a consequence, the British view of Europe as a wide free market federation and as the European pillar of a renewed transatlantic alliance has gained new strength to the detriment of neo-Gaullist or social-democratic visions in continental Europe.


The Polish general elections will not overly affect Warsaw's foreign policy, but they will strengthen an already existing pro-American course.

How much a new E.U. member can influence Western countries' policies remains difficult to predict, but when all is said and done, the European political landscape seems fairly fragmented at the moment.

However, the new Polish coalition will have to cope with inner competition, as the Civic Platform will try to gain momentum and to foster decidedly pro-market reforms, whereas the Law and Justice Party will probably seek a more moderate path. If the two parties fail to set a coherent policy, a further rise of radical outsiders such as the nationalistic and populist Self Defense Party could weaken the current rulers and open the way to a difficult phase in Warsaw's post-communist course.

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