President Komorowski

07/12/2010 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the final results of the Polish Presidential election officially announced, Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of the ruling PO (Civic Platform) party has just managed to beat Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, with 53% of the vote as against Kaczynski's 47%. Few had expected the race to be so close, and the result opens up a new chapter in Polish politics -- a chapter that may not, however, be to the advantage of the ruling party and Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Although Komorowski will now be sworn in as President in early August, his victory does not necessarily presage a bright future for the ruling Civic Platform party. The very fact that Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was catapulted into the elections only three months ago as a result of the unexpected death of his twin brother Lech, managed almost to win the election will be a signal to the PO that not all is well in how they are perceived by the Polish people. All the more so, since Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- according to popular media mythology -- was seen as the less electable of the twins and supposedly had a strong national negative vote against him.

Most of the campaign of Komorowski was centered around the key message that the only reason that Poland had not reformed more quickly was that key legislative proposals were being vetoed by Lech Kaczynski. Now that Komorowski is President, this represents a major challenge for Tusk. He now has to make good on his promise to accelerate on reform proposals that may result in genuine social pain in the short term -- one year before parliamentary elections and six months before local elections. Few really believe that he will risk electoral popularity, however. In that case, Tusk faces another challenge: to his credibility, as failure to even attempt more reforms will damage the government's reform credentials. In either case, whatever choice he makes in this Catch-22 situation, he will be taken advantage of by a renascent PiS. One option being floated by some PO leaders is that of snap general elections in the autumn of this year to try to avoid this dilemma.

Despite having lost narrowly, PiS has achieved great success in laying a credible claim to winning the next parliamentary elections in 2011. The party has rocketed from reaching about 28% in the national opinion polls, to its leader taking almost 50% of the vote in a large national turnout -- at a time when many observers felt that the party itself is more popular than its leader. PiS will be hugely emboldened by this result, as will its supporters -- it is they who have the momentum, whilst PO -- having long seemingly claimed sole ownership of the hearts and minds of the Polish people -- will be regarded as having fallen short of expectations.

Kaczynski has the best of both worlds -- a strong electoral base, and the luxury of being able to watch the PO tackle the pitfalls of governing Poland over the next 18 months in increasingly hostile international economic surroundings. The way forward for PO is not easy, since the campaign victory has brought them more problems than solutions. During the campaign, the hitherto isolated ex-communist SLD party regained both popular support and general political legitimacy, and relations with the PO's junior coalition PSL (Polish Peasant Party) have been much damaged. Above all, the dynamics of the campaign caused Komorowski to make promises that the government may not be able to deliver. All of this is to the long-term advantage of PiS.

At the same time, Kaczynski himself has cemented his own leadership of the PiS party, when many were coming to believe that he was unelectable, and moreover that the trauma of having lost his brother had made him lose his appetite for politics altogether. Instead, the result will energize Kaczynski and drive him forward in galvanizing his party to face the next two elections as a united force. Many of the putative successors to Kaczynski will have to wait their turn for another couple of years at least. On the other hand, the result will probably in the long run moderate PiS, as the party has achieved its relative success precisely by toning down some of its more radical messages of the past. That tactic has brought dividends and will likely be replicated in future campaigns.

In terms of Poland, the main impact of Komorowski will be in foreign policy, where indeed he will work hard to maintain a common front with PM Tusk as Poland approaches 2011 and the year when it will hold the Presidency of the EU. Whereas former President Lech Kaczynski was universally seen as more Atlanticist, Euro-skeptic, and wary of Russia, Komorowski has made it clear in his campaign that his focus will be elsewhere, specifically Brussels and Poland's immediate Western neighbors, Germany and France.

Tusk, the PO, and Komorowski hold great store in these relationships, believing them to be the key to Poland maintaining influence at the heart of Europe. Relations with the US will be less central, despite yesterday's signing of additional agreements with the US over missile defense in Poland. Instead, Komorowski will work hard to create an alliance in Europe around Poland's EU agenda over the 2014-2020 budget perspective, and over such issues as the development of a common European Defense and Security Identity. It is over Russia that the greatest shift will be evident, with the future President Komorowski leading an effort by the Tusk government to deepen relations with Poland's eastern neighbor after the initial seeming rapprochement following the Smolensk air disaster. It remains to be seen how far this rapprochement will be possible given the range of genuine conflicts of interest between Poland and Russia.

Komorowski's election will also stabilize financial markets, and maintain confidence in the Tusk government's economic strategy geared to reducing the long-term budget deficit of Poland. Komorowski, although during the campaign making several un-costed spending promises, will be seen as a figure who will support tax and welfare reform proposals emerging from the Tusk government. Nonetheless it remains to be seen, as indicated above, the extent to which Tusk will have the courage to actually make these proposal in a parliamentary election year.
There remain issues to be resolved in personnel terms, as Komorowski formally moves from being Speaker of Parliament to becoming Polish President. The PO will need to nominate a Speaker that can command a majority in parliament, and this might not be easy, as it will need to rely on the votes of the junior coalition partner PSL, which following the major defeat of their candidate Waldemar Pawlak in the first round of the elections may not be minded to be as cooperative as in the past. A number of names have been floated, including that of Health Minister Ewa Kopacz, who would be Poland's first female parliamentary Speaker. A more likely candidate however is Grzegorz Schetyna, the current Secretary General of the PO, and former deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior.

There may be changes in two key ministries, Foreign Affairs and Defense. It is by no means certain that Radoslaw Sikorski, following the victory of Komorowski, can feel secure in his position as foreign minister. Sikorski, of course, ran against Komorowski in the primary election for the PO nomination, and although he supported Komorowski during the campaign, Komorowski may not feel comfortable with him as Foreign Minister, especially at a time when Poland will need to redouble its foreign activity as the Polish EU Presidency approaches. Sikorski may be moved back to the ministry of defense, to take over from the much-criticized Bogdan Klich, and his job as Foreign Minister may be taken by Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the former left-wing Prime Minister and Foreign Minister -- who demonstrably supported Komorowski early in the campaign. Giving the job of Foreign Minister to him will be a reward, as well as play a crucial role in the PO's electoral strategy of expanding its voter base to the left in an attempt to maintain popular support.

Bronislaw Komorowski ran his campaign on the slogan of "Unity Builds". Now that Poland is divided as it has never been politically, he will have a crucial role to play in determining whether politically the government does seek to take account of the views of the 50% of the electorate which rejected it, or whether instead the elections are interpreted as a signal that just one more push against the opposition is needed to defeat it completely in the upcoming set of elections. If Komorowski fails to disarm the opposition, in just over a year's time he may well find himself in the position of his predecessor -- possessing a popular mandate, but facing a hostile government and with no real influence over the realities of day-to-day politics in Poland.

Marek Matraszek is based in Warsaw. He has written widely on Polish and international affairs and is a regular commentator in international media and on his blog, FromtheFront.net.