Democratic Poland loses its solidarity

Poland recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the birth of Solidarity, the trade union that helped bring down the iron curtain.

Only the most wild-eyed dreamers among those striking shipworkers in Gdansk who formed it could have conceived of today’s Poland – independent, capitalist, a member of Nato and the European Union.

But not even the craziest fantasist could have come up with the wild riot of Poland’s elections, which this year sees the likely eclipse of former communists and an overwhelming triumph of politicians with their roots in the Solidarity movement, if no longer in solidarity with each other.

Parliamentary elections this month will be followed closely by a presidential contest.

Law and Justice (PiS), the party of presidential candidate Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin Jaroslaw, who is in line to become prime minister, has taken the gloves off after falling far behind ex-fellow travellers in Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO).

PiS’s new advertising campaign slams the PO’s main economic idea of a flat tax as a giveaway to the rich.

Meanwhile, a PO activist, Maciej Bialecki, has repaid the compliment, writing a tell-all book eviscerating Lech Kaczynski’s three-year tenure as Warsaw’s mayor.

And this is before the vote takes place. There could be blood on the floor if the two sides have to form a coalition government.

Beauty contest

Every Polish voter can see that presidential candidate Lech Kaczynski is short and roly-poly, but it doesn’t help when the Warsaw mayor’s own spokesman, Adam Bielan, can’t help pointing out that his man is a lot less photogenic than rival Donald Tusk.

That might help explain why Kaczynski is stuck at just over 20 per cent in the opinion polls, while Tusk soars near 50 per cent, which could mean he wins the presidency on October 9 without recourse to a second round of voting.

Calling the elections a “beauty contest”, Bielan notes that Tusk is handsome and statesmanlike – making him difficult to beat.

But in spite of Kaczynski’s reputation for a fearsome temper, Bielan is still in his job.

Slow march

The country of 39m has one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU – 17.6 per cent – but one of the myriad minor political parties has a great idea about how to get all those jobless people back to work.

Taking a page from the employment policies of Mao Zedong’s China, the suitably-titled Polish Peasants party wants to use “labour-intensive techniques” for building roads, highways and other infrastructure projects.

The party’s deputy leader, Janusz Piechocinski, says the idea would be to favour gangs of workers over expensive machines, while admitting the work wouldn’t be of the highest quality. However, Tok FM radio found that it would take about 80 men to replace a single grader, and they would cost more than twice as much.

Poland’s long-suffering drivers – who have to contend with some of the worst roads in Europe and a highway construction programme that proceeds at a snail’s pace – are unlikely to be thrilled at the idea of driving on hand-built roads.

Little wonder that the Peasants party is hovering at around 2 per cent in recent polls, far below the 5 per cent needed to get seats in parliament.

Lack of reserve

Text-book economics are not a strong point of Poland’s Self-Defence party, founded by rabble-rousing ex-pig farmer Andrzej Lepper, either.

The core of its programme is making conventional economists tear out their hair. The idea would be to tap Poland’s hard-won foreign currency reserves – about $38bn at last count – transfer them to Polish banks and use the money to help finance loans for businesses.

Economists’ explanations that the reserve isn’t a big juicy pile of cash waiting to be spent and is the anchor for Poland’s free-floating currency fall on deaf ears, as do arguments that pumping so many additional zlotys into the economy would set off a wild bout of inflation.

Maybe that’s why Lepper is calling for Leszek Balcerowicz, the president of the national bank and architect of Poland’s post-communist economic transition, to be prosecuted.

Sightseers

Poland’s new Democratic party was supposed to be a brave new centrist alternative, combining sensible ex-communists with left-leaning former Solidarity types.

But an inept campaign, and a lacklustre presidential candidate, business lobbyist Henryka Bochniarz, has left it bumping along at about 1 per cent in the polls.

The party’s leaders, including Solidarity founder and hero Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, recently took a publicity bus tour past the parliament and presidential palace.

That should be about as close as they get to entering either building.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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