Thumbs up for Poland’s liberals after 100 days in power

As they mark their first 100 days in power late last week Poland’s liberals are getting a thumbs up from voters and foreign policy pundits, but flak for failure to tackle economic reforms. With his conciliatory brand of politics, polls show liberal leader Prime Minister Donald Tusk is Poland’s most trusted politician in stark contrast to his truculent nationalist predecessor Jaroslaw Kaczynski – the most mistrusted.

“People think this government is trustworthy and they hold hope it will make the improvements it promised in the campaign,” Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, director of Poland’s Institute of Public Affairs, told AFP. Tusk’s liberal coalition has brought the kind of stability and calm that was sorely absent during the volatile tenure of Kaczynski’s ideologically-driven nationalists.

“It’s a pragmatic administration, not an ideological one like the Kaczynski government was – society became very disillusioned with that,” Kolarska-Bobinska said. She forecast the post-election honeymoon could last a year, giving the coalition between Tusk’s Civic Platform and the Polish Peasant Party time to address the wage demands of under-paid public sector employees like teachers and nurses, otherwise likely to air their grievances on the street.

“So far Tusk is just drifting on the surface, when he should be swimming against the tide” on the economic front, according to Andrzej Sadowski from the liberal Adam Smith Center think tank.
Tusk’s business-friendly party campaigned on promises to slash the red-tape stifling business growth and introduce a 15-percent flat tax. “A hundred days have passed and the government has done nothing to keep its word on tax reform or privatisation,” Sadowski charged.

Lars Christensen, senior economist at Danske Bank was more circumspect. “I wouldn’t give them an A,” he said, but conceded, “even if a lot hasn’t been done, no harm has been done either.”
“We now have a finance minister and prime minister in Poland that are committed to reform – and that’s a major positive,” he said, contrasting the liberals to the Kaczynski’s market-rattling populist thrust.

Tusk was expected to unveil a long-promised strategic development plan, which he has called a “calendar leading to Poland’s economic miracle.” The economy of the 2004 EU entrant grew 6.6 percent in 2007, according to preliminary data, with 5.0-5.5 percent GDP growth forecast for 2008. Inflation hit 4.3 percent in January, up from 4.0 percent in December.

On the foreign policy front, a troop withdrawal from Iraq by the year’s end has scored points with voters, as have moves to mend tattered ties with key neighbors Russia and Germany. The liberals moved swiftly to thaw frozen relations with Russia, drop Kaczynski’s anti-German rhetoric and seek extra security benefits from Washington should Warsaw agree to host a controversial U.S. anti-missile shield.

“This government has dropped the unnerving anti-foreigner phobia, especially the anti-German phobia,” said Marek Ostrowski, international affairs expert for the respected “Polityka” weekly.
“They’ve also normalized contacts with Russia and while for the time being nothing important has happened, opening dialog was absolutely necessary,” he notes.

The Kaczynski government refused even to talk to Moscow, accusing it of expansionism. It also slapped a veto on the start of negotiations on a new EU-Russia agreement in retaliation to a Russian embargo on Polish food. After taking office in November, Tusk quickly dropped Poland’s objection to Russia’s OECD entry. Moscow responded by lifting the import ban, thus opening the door for Poland to remove its veto on talks for a new EU-Russia deal.
But in a canny move, Warsaw says it will drop its veto on the condition the EU to put energy security on its agenda with Moscow.

Tusk will meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on March 10, with talks focused on the U.S. plans to install interceptor missiles in Poland. In January Tusk upped Warsaw’s demands for extra security guarantees, saying 1999 NATO entrant Poland would only consider hosting the shield “on condition that it will increase rather than decrease the security of Poles.” A majority of Poles oppose the shield. Tricky talks are underway to plant 10 U.S. interceptor missile bases in Poland by 2012 in what Washington says is a bid to thwart potential attacks by “rogue states,” notably Iran. Blasting missile defense as a grave national security menace, Russia has threatened to point its own missiles at its Soviet-era satellite Poland, should it agree to the U.S. missile shield.

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