Europe’s Island of Stability

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Once a bastion of staid, steady bureaucracy, Europe has lately become a house of high drama. In the Mediterranean, thousands of migrants have drowned as they attempt to flee to Europe. To the east, Russian aggression in Ukraine and the wider neighborhood is rattling even the most peaceable of Nordic nations. The Greek government seems ready to default on its debt, leave the European Union, and perhaps bring the whole house down. Countries like France, Spain, Hungary and Slovakia are increasingly questioning the European project and turning to populist parties for answers.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary elections have clouded the country’s future. Increased devolution has led to the rise in influence and significance of regional parties like Plaid Cymru (Wales) and the Democratic Unionist Party (Northern Ireland). The Scottish National Party, which just raised its numbers from 6 to 56 seats in Parliament, could very well once again push for dissolution of the Union at some point in the near future.

While Europe and the UK appear to be splintering, Poland is increasingly united. Just three days after Britain’s elections, Poland will hold presidential elections that will set the stage for its October parliamentary contest. The end result is not very much in doubt and the campaign has been comparatively dull. Poland has quietly become one of Europe’s most boring countries—and that is a remarkable achievement.

Twenty years ago, such a situation was unimaginable. Poland was still climbing out of its post-Communist economic hole and striving to make the myriad of reforms that would allow it to enter the European Union. When it finally managed to do so in 2004, its success was still not a foregone conclusion. Nor were its politics so predictable.

The 1990s saw their fair share of political crises, corruption investigations and instability; a new constitution in 1997, which among other things made the role of the Prime Minister much more powerful in the government, helped matters immensely. The populist twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczynski dominated Polish politics for much of the 2000s and sent some into paroxysms of worry that their overzealous pursuit of former communists was undermining democratic legitimacy in the country, and that antics like stopping gay pride parades in Warsaw would reduce Poland’s standing in Europe.

Yet the Kaczynski’s reign did not leave any lasting damage. Had it been a weaker democracy, the 2010 airplane crash that killed then-President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of members of government and parliament could have sent Poland into a tailspin. But Poland has proven itself resilient and become increasingly unified, particularly in the wake of the turbulence that emerged in Ukraine in 2013. And where the unrest in Ukraine has seen many of Poland’s Central European neighbors waver under Russian pressure, there has been very little debate in Poland about both supporting Ukraine’s European ambitions and standing up to Russian aggression in the east of that country.

Last summer, Poland sailed reasonably unscathed through a scandal that leaked tapes of several embarrassing conversations between senior government officials. At the time, many thought that the revelations—which have been blamed on machinations related to a coal deal as well as on Russian intelligence—would both bring down the government and spoil Poland’s chances of attaining an important post in the European Council. But Prime Minister Donald Tusk easily survived a no-confidence vote and was appointed president of the European Council just two months later, a recognition both of Tusk’s leadership abilities and of Poland’s growing importance in Europe.

Today’s Poland is decidedly a center-right country. The current ruling party, Civic Platform, is a center-right party, while its main rival, the Law and Justice Party, is also right-leaning. Both parties are generally economically liberal but Law and Justice is rather more socially conservative, and in general lines up with the Catholic Church, a powerful player in Polish life. Together, these two parties are set to take around 70 percent of the vote in the first round of voting.

As Annabelle Chapman recently noted, the once-strong Democratic Left Alliance has lost its political footing to such an extent that it opted to run a young, attractive, and completely politically inexperienced church historian, Magdalena Ogórek, as its candidate. Her numbers have never peaked above 8 percent, and now hover around only 3 percent.

Barring a major political earthquake, incumbent president and Civic Platform-backed candidate Bronisław Komorowski seems certain to win out, though it is not certain in which round of voting he will triumph.

His numbers have slipped somewhat in the past weeks and polls, inaccurate as they are, now suggest that he will win 40 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Andrezj Duda of Law and Justice sits in the polls at about 30 percent. His team has said that their main goal is to prevent Komorowski from triumphing in the first round and forcing him to a second.

Should it go to a second round, Duda and Komorowski will be left to fight it out for the 30 percent of Poles who voted for the wide array of leftist and anti-establishment candidates. The most interesting of those is Paweł Kuzik, an aging punk rocker who names Ronald Reagan as a model, is now polling in third place, at 11 percent.

Quietly, Poland has emerged as a bastion of stability in an increasingly volatile Europe. While political prognosticators loudly ponder the possible end of the United Kingdom and the European commitment of Greece and Hungary, very few bother to even consider the future of Poland so strong and certain does it seem.

It is a result that Europe should be proud of. Poland has worked hard to position itself alongside France and Germany as a pillar of the European Union. Sunday’s election moves them further along that path. And next door in beleaguered Ukraine, politicos will be taking notes. Poland has proven its doubters wrong and a new generation of Ukrainian leaders hopes that in another twenty years, they will have done the same.

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