Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

The Smooth PresidentP O L A N D:
Heating Up For the Presidency

Wojtek Kość

In November 1995, in the second round of the presidential elections (since no one managed to harvest over 50 per cent of the votes in the first), Aleksander Kwaśniewski defeated Lech Wałęsa. It was a narrow victory. Less than one per cent separated the rivals who both - but especially Lech Wałęsa - ran rather aggressive campaigns. The two final television debates did not contribute much to the positive image of the candidates, as Kwaśniewski avoided concrete statements, and Wałęsa concentrated on emphasising his opponent's Communist, or even "Bolshevik" past.

This behaviour was received with disgust as a symptom of the Polish political class's lack of the elementary features political culture. The media presented the Kwaśniewski - Wałęsa duel as symbolic: old versus new, totalitarian tradition versus democratic tradition. Kwaśniewski won, but his presidency soon silenced most of those who, quite irrationally, had sought the return of Communism in his success, which had taken place two years after the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) triumphed in the parliamentary elections.

In November 2000, the scenario is likely to be very different. First of all, according to recent public opinion polls, Kwaśniewski has quite a chance of winning already in the first round. According to the latest survey of the OBOP polling agency, if the presidential elections were to take place this week, as much as 61 per cent of voters would vote for Kwaśniewski.

The current President has another asset going for him and that is the fact that he has finally ceased to be seen as merely a representative of his party. By serving out a calm, non-confrontational term in office, he is perceived now more as representative of most Poles, as a true president who should be able to rise above mundane political conflicts and divisions.

Of course, Kwaśniewski's political views are still situated on the left, perhaps with a slight shift to the centre, but these seem to be in tune with those that the society has acquired recently. The backdrop to this mood is the growing disappointment with the current coalition government of Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and Freedom Union (UW), with the ineffective Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek at its head and the general arrogance of the new ruling elite in tow.

Whichever of these factors contributed most to Kwaśniewski's leading position, the fact is he is the hot favourite in the upcoming elections.

Kwaśniewski's strength makes for a neat and easily analysable pre-electoral portrait. The opposition camp, however, is more complex, as personal ambitions mix with the political games played out between the two ruling parties.

Putting forth a joint coalition candidate would be the most rational option. The coalition, however, has been suffering from substantial differences from the very beginning of its existence, looking more like a forced marriage than a natural, logical consequence of similar policies. If the differences surface in the everyday routine of parliamentary life, then the presidential elections will certainly add to them. They are a prestigious political event, even though the President's powers are not so vast.

The Freedom Union has not appointed any official candidate thus far and probably will not do so until April. Some shy voices have been suggesting that Olga Krzyzanowska or Tadeusz Mazowiecki might be the party's candidates, but the former is practically unknown to the public and the latter (the country's first non-Communist Prime Minister) withdrew from competition before it even started. Thus under these circumstances, the current minister of finance, Leszek Balcerowicz, is now also being talked about as a possible candidate, but although he is known to most Poles, he is not popular.

The circumstances surrounding a possible candidate from Solidarity Electoral Action are more difficult to assess. The AWS is a conglomerate of several political parties, and each of them has its own ambitions. AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski seems the natural presidential candidate, but the end of last year and the beginning of 2000 proved that AWS is no longer willing to be the monolith it was. Krzaklewski's own position may even be threatened, as there have been opinions expressed on the necessity of internal AWS elections prior to the presidential elections, the results of which would not be certain by any means.

Krzaklewski has brushed those speculations off with characteristic ease, saying in an interview for Polish Radio Program 3 that "there is no need for pre-elections in the AWS, as it is sure that a man with initials MK would win them."

All considered, it is the most possible result indeed, but Krzaklewski should not underestimate the right's amazing capability to cause schisms and undermine its own position. Besides, what other choice does Krzaklewski have? He is the leader of the Parliament's biggest party: to withdraw would be interpreted as political cowardice, to compete means a nearly inevitable defeat. Both he and the AWS would be better off if he managed to consolidate everyone around him and ran against Kwaśniewski with the strong support of his own party, even if only in order to lose.

However, in the above-cited OBOP poll only four per cent of voters would vote for Krzaklewski, which would place him behind a third potential candidate - economist Andrzej Olechowski, who has recently been talked about as the right choice for the indecisive coalition. With just seven per cent of voters ready to vote for him though, he poses no threat to Aleksander Kwaśniewski but may dent the AWS leader's position, as he is overtly supported by some AWS activists.

At a recent press conference in Warsaw, however, Olechowski avoided solid confirmation of his candidacy. He only said: "If I were to employ someone as President, I'd choose a man with my qualities."

Let no one be surprised at the absence of Lech Wałęsa in this analysis. There is now only a trace of the former president in the polls. All signs indicate that Aleksander Kwaśniewski is a shoo-in for a second term. To refer to the OBOP poll once again: among right-wing supporters, Olechowski could count on 18 per cent of the votes and Krzaklewski would receive 14 per cent; the current president would bring in 24 per cent.

Maybe there is no need for pre-elections after all?

Wojtek Kość, 10 March 2000


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