Poland re-elects PM Donald Tusk

Civic Platform beats Kaczynski's Law and Justice party but low turnout casts cloud over result

Donald Tusk looks to have won a historic second term as prime minister of Poland, with his Civic Platform becoming the first party to win two consecutive terms since the collapse of communism.

Full official results are not expected until Tuesday, but with 93% of the votes counted, Tusk's free market party had 39% of the votes in Sunday's election. Its main rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Eurosceptic nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), trailed on 30%.

Markets reacted positively to the news, with Polish shares and the zloty up.

On current projections, Civic Platformwould secure 206 seats in the 460-member lower chamber, or Sejm. It also won a clear victory in the upper chamber, or senate, where it was set to win 62 of the 100 seats.

Its ally, the rural-focused Peasants' party, was on track to win 30 seats, giving Tusk enough support to rebuild the same coalition that has steered Poland smoothly through the economic turmoil of the past four years. The two parties enjoyed a drama-free relationship, at least in public, that added to the government's stable image.

Despite his unprecedented victory, the 54-year-old Tusk cannot rest on his laurels. He may have won the most votes, but he and other candidates failed to engage half of the nation: only one in two eligible voters bothered to vote.

Jacek Raciborski, a political scientist at Warsaw University, told Reuters the low turnout was "worrying". Others said it was par for the course in a country which has never had a widespread passion for politics since the first democratic elections following the fall of communism in 1989.

Some say the apathy is caused by a widespread belief that Tusk is "nice but boring" . But Bartek Nowak, executive director of the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw, said Tusk's mild manners are actually a plus point for many Poles. "He makes people feel safe. He can't present a bold vision for the future because there are so many uncertainties right now, but what he has been able to do is quietly shepherd Poland through turbulent times," said Nowak, who believes Tusk was helped enormously by the somewhat anachronistic behaviour of Kacyznski on the campaign trail.

"Jaroslaw Kaczynski was practising politics from the 19th century, fighting with Germany and Russia and going on about Smolensk," he said, a reference to the plane crash in 2010 that killed Kaczynski's twin brother Lech, a former Polish president. The PiS leader has repeatedly suggested the crash was a conspiracy between the Russians and Tusk's government.

Tusk's apparent victory appears to be a reward for presiding over four years of impressive economic growth, a feat attributed to an inflow of EU funds and a large domestic market of 38 million people that maintained an appetite for consumption.

The big surprise in Sunday's election was the 9.9% share of the vote apparently won by a new liberal grouping, Palikot's Movement, formed by a renegade from Tusk's party. Janusz Palikot, its wealthy founder, made his money selling vodka before becoming a Civic Platform MP. His attacks on the powerful Roman Catholic Church and championing of causes such as gay rights, legalisation of soft drugs, and liberalisation of Poland's strict abortion laws, struck a chord among young voters.

"Palikot is going to be difficult opposition for Tusk – a big challenger," said Nowak. "He will be talking a lot about modernisation and questioning the speed of current reforms, something no other party has really been doing in recent years."

A PR whizz, Palikot looks to have eaten away at support for the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which won only about 8.2% of the vote.

Lech Walesa, Poland's former president and leader of the Solidarity trade union in communist times, said Palikot had successfully tapped into issues neglected by other parties. "Palikot had a clearer message ... and people want a simpler, clear message," Walesa told TVN24 television.

Financial markets welcomed Tusk's victory as a guarantee of political and economic stability in the EU's largest eastern member state amid the deepening eurozone crisis. "From the point of view of the markets, this is very good news. Investors feared that we could see a coalition made up of three parties," Ernest Pytlarczyk, chief economist at BRE Bank, told Reuters.

Civic Platform's victory ends a string of defeats for ruling parties in elections in EU member states this year, including in Portugal, Latvia, Denmark and Ireland.

The party has pledged more cautious reforms aimed at reining in the public debt and budget deficit. It also wants to continue a privatisation programme set to bring in 15bn zlotys (£3bn) for state coffers in 2011 and to pursue closer ties with Poland's EU partners.

The result is a personal triumph for Tusk, 54, a pragmatic liberal conservative from Poland's Baltic coast, who was involved in the Solidarity movement. Tusk, whose country holds the EU presidency until the end of this year, favours closer European integration and says joining the euro remains a goal for Poland despite the eurozone crisis. He enjoys good personal ties with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has maintained a cautious rapprochement with Russia, despite strains over the Smolensk air disaster.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski's calls for a halt to privatisation, for higher taxes on the wealthy and for a more combative stance in dealings with the EU unsettled investors.


Helen Pidd in Berlin and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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