Poland’s Centrist Leader Claims a Second Term
WARSAW — In the race to govern Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk appeared to have a strong lead on Sunday over his conservative rival and predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, while a party that supports gay rights, abortion and some drug legalization seemed set to win representation in Parliament for the first time.
Election officials assisted Roman Catholic nuns with their ballots on Sunday at a polling station in Warsaw, the capital.
Though final results are not expected until Tuesday, Mr. Tusk claimed victory late Sunday and Mr. Kaczynski conceded defeat after exit polls reported on state television indicated that Mr. Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform was receiving nearly 40 percent of the vote and Mr. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party just over 30 percent. Hours later, preliminary returns from 15 percent of the nation’s polling places showed Mr. Tusk’s party leading, 37 percent to 30 percent.
If the results hold, it will be the first time since the fall of Communism that any party in Poland has won consecutive parliamentary elections. The election was widely watched because of concerns over Mr. Kaczynski’s confrontational approach toward the European Union.
Analysts hailed the vote for continuity as a sign of political maturity in Poland, another step in the democratic development of the largest of the Eastern European countries to join Western institutions like the NATO alliance and the European Union.
“It is a success of optimistic Poland,” Mr. Tusk told supporters on Sunday night. “I would like to thank all Poles for the fact that four years later, in this most significant act of democracy, which is the universal vote, that they confirmed once again that those moments back then were meaningful.”
Mr. Kaczynski conceded that “the forecast outcome is not favorable for us,” but said, “We maintain our position, our confidence, that Poland requires far-reaching changes.”
The new party that had the surprise showing, the Palikot Movement, appeared in the exit polls to be drawing about 10 percent of the vote, enough to place an unlikely third.
“It’s amazing that millions of Poles want a modern state,” said Janusz Palikot, the founder of the movement.
The Democratic Left Alliance, Poland’s post-Communist party, appeared to have done surprisingly poorly, with just 8 percent in the exit polls, conducted by TNS OBOP for Polish national television, and about 9 percent in the preliminary returns.
Mr. Kaczynski served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, with his twin brother, Lech, as president. Lech Kaczynski died in April 2010 in a plane crash that killed 96 people, including much of Poland’s political elite.
During his tenure, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was famous for his confrontational course toward Europe, and Germany in particular, and for gleefully playing the spoiler whenever possible. While Poland is not a member of the struggling euro currency zone, under Mr. Tusk the country has provided a steadying influence in the European Union, and a Polish politician was even made president of the European Parliament.
“For the last quarter-century, Poland has really remade itself, and in so doing changed the European landscape as a result,” said Stephan Richter, president of the Globalist Research Center in Washington, noting a “core of stability” between Poland and Germany.
“In a European historical context,” Mr. Richter said, “it is monumental that Poland finally has done everything right.”
The prospect of Mr. Kaczynski’s return to office with the same combative attitude toward the European Union boded ill for the bloc. Mr. Tusk, meanwhile, steered Poland through the financial crisis and ensuing global slowdown without letting it slip into recession.
But the weakness of the bloc in these troubled times, with the raging European debt crisis and the inability of leaders to settle on a lasting solution, may have been one of Mr. Kaczynski’s strengths. “Poles look now at Brussels and the fight over the debt crisis and they legitimately wonder whether the union is fragmenting,” said Charles Kupchan, a European expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“When Kaczynski charts a course that is more independent, that is more stand-alone, he speaks to Poles about the future of the E.U.,” Mr. Kupchan said.
In 2007, Mr. Tusk defeated Mr. Kaczynski and steered Poland to closer ties with Germany and the rest of Europe. While relations with the United States remained warm, Mr. Tusk’s government was less reflexively pro-American. He removed the last of Poland’s troops from Iraq in 2008 and bridged the often yawning divide between Poland and Russia.
Mr. Kaczynski has played on Polish fears of its larger neighbors. In a recent book, he suggested that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, had been elected with the help of the Stasi and wanted to restore German influence in western Poland.
Mr. Tusk has benefited from the strength of the Polish economy in difficult times, but there are signs that it is cooling and that unemployment is rising. He has campaigned on domestic issues, leading an American-style “listening tour,” to learn about voter concerns.
“I don’t know if Tusk is a good manager, but these guys still have their sleeves up and are doing something,” said Vasile Transdafir, 52, who works in the insurance business and voted for Mr. Tusk.
With the largest share of the vote and a number of potential coalition partners, Mr. Tusk seemed assured on Sunday night of continuing as prime minister. “This reflects the normalization of Polish politics and the consolidation of a broader and more stable center in the country’s political system,” Mr. Kupchan said.
“One can only continue to marvel at how successful the transition has been in Central Europe,” he said. “You can safely say that almost all the countries in the region are past the point of no return” as stable, economically liberal democracies.
Mr. Richter, from the Globalist Research Center, said monumental decisions, including treaty changes, would ultimately be necessary to get the European Union through its crisis. “Poland is large enough and important enough to really make things go awry,” he said. “This is a time where we can’t have people who are spoilers for no reason.”