Kopacz puts imprint on Poland’s new government


For Poland, former prime minister Donald Tusk’s elevation to the presidency of the European Council wasn’t the end of a complex inter-institutional process so much as the launch of a new domestic political process.Poland_Flag_Icon

When former parliamentary speaker Ewa Kopacz, a Tusk loyalist and former health minister, succeeded Tusk as Poland’s second female prime minister on Monday, she did so with a reshuffled cabinet that she will hope to lead into the next Polish election, which must take place before October 2015.

For the time being, Kopacz (pictured above, left, with president Bronisław Komorowski) is expected to act as little more than a placeholder for Tusk, and the rap on her is that she won the job through her loyalty to Tusk, not through any innate political ability or policymaking chops. For now, she’s expected to do Tusk’s bidding, even as he and his team head for Brussels. It’s rumored that Komorowski disapproved of Kopacz’s elevation to the premiership, and there’s no shortage of figures within her own center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) who would rather be prime minister instead.

But if she wins a mandate in her own right, Kopacz could gradually build her own political base and, as time passes, you can expect Kopacz to develop her own policy priorities separate from Tusk’s.

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Among the most surprising changes was the end of Radek Sikorski’s seven-year tenure as foreign minister. Sikorski, one of the most hawkish voices against Russian aggression, instead assume the job that Kopacz once held, the marshal of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament. Though the job doesn’t bring the same high-profile notoriety as the foreign ministry, it will given Sikorski more direct parliamentary and domestic political experience and it’s technically second only to the prime minister. That makes it more likely that Sikorski himself could become prime minister one day, especially if Kopacz fails to win a third consecutive term in government.

Despite Sikorski’s shift, the new government has a ‘team of rivals’ feel to it. Grzegorz Schetyna, a Tusk rival who previously served as interior minister from 2007 to 2009 and as Sejm marshal from 2010 to 2011, will return to frontline government as Sikorski’s replacement, giving a softer edge to polish diplomacy. Schetyna considered challenging Tusk throughout the years, and he is believed to have wanted to challenge Kopacz now.

Defense secretary Tomasz Siemoniak, a rising star on the Polish right who was mentioned more than anyone else as Tusk’s potential replacement, will become Kopacz’s deputy prime minister.

Mateusz Szczurek, who succeeded the longtime finance minister Jacek Rostowski in a major cabinet reshuffle last November, will remain in the role in Kopacz’s new government.

Though polls show that Civic Platform will struggle to win reelection, the party managed to win the, however narrowly, the latest share of the vote in May’s European elections. There’s a sense that the Russian threat, felt especially keenly in Poland, which found itself stuck behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, has bolstered the current government’s chances. Tusk’s elevation to one of the highest offices in the European Union has also maximized national pride — it’s the first time that such a high EU office has gone to an Eastern European official, let alone a Polish one.

All of which explain why the latest CBOS poll, conducted between September 11 and 17, now shows Civic Platform leading the more socially conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) by a margin of 38% to 33%. PiS, under the leadership of former  prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late president Lech Kaczyński, previously led polls, benefitting from the release of embarrassing conversations among top government officials, including the head of Poland’s central bank.

Kaczyński, at age 65, may opt for a rematch against Komorowski, the Tusk ally who narrowly defeated Kaczyński in the July 2010 presidential race, despite a wave of sympathy for Kaczyński, whose brother Lech, was killed along with dozens of other Polish officials in an April airplane crash en route to Russia to commemorate the Katyń massacre.

In any event, Kaczyński remains a wily opponent with strong populist appeal, and he’ll certainly be gunning for either the presidency or the premiership in 2015.

Kopacz, meanwhile, has two weeks to win a vote of confidence in the new government, which should be easy for a government that, with its allies, holds a narrow majority in the 460-member Sejm. Her first electoral test will come on November 16 in local elections that are widely seen as a prelude to next year’s national elections.

Voters in all 16 voivodships (województwa) will vote on sejmiks, or local assemblies, that include between 30 and 51 members.

In the most populous voivodeship, Masovian, whose capital is Warsaw, the national capital, Civic Platform holds 18 out of 51 seats; its ally, the Christian democratic, agrarian Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (PSLPolish People’s Party), controls another 13; and PiS controls just seven.

In the Silesian regional assembly, the PO holds 22 seats and the PiS holds 11, while the center-left Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD, Democratic Left Alliance) holds 10 seats.

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