October 22, 2007 / 4:00 PM / 10 years ago

Polish vote a warning to East Europe extremists

4 Min Read

WARSAW (Reuters) - The defeat of the nationalists in Poland's parliamentary election is a warning to similar parties in other EU newcomer states that the mood is swinging against them now that voters can see the benefits of joining the bloc.

Poles turned up in force on Sunday to vote against the eurosceptic conservatives of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and twin bother Lech, the president, in favor of the pro-EU Civic Platform party, set to head the next government.

"This two years (of the Kaczynski government) was perhaps a necessary shock to wake people up," said Pawel Swieboda, head of the Warsaw-based demosEUROPA think-tank.

"Poland may be the first country to reverse the nationalist and populist trend in the region."

Analysts say a rise in support for nationalistic parties in Poland and some other ex-communist nations like Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia reflected a weariness with often painful reforms they had to undertake to enter the European Union.

But the strength of a backlash against them showed on Sunday as voters shut the most extreme parties from the left and right out of parliament. Those parties had opposed Poland's 2004 EU membership, and they dismayed its EU partners in 2006 when they joined Prime Minister Kaczynski's government.

The far-right League of Polish Families and leftist Self-Defense party won a combined 3 percent of the vote, down from about 15 percent in 2005.

The parties' impact on a shift away from the pro-EU policies of previous Polish governments was significant, analysts say.

They were at the forefront of quarrels with other EU members over the European treaty, free movement of capital, farming and fishing.

Isolation

Germany- and Brussels-bashing, support for the death penalty and anti-gay sentiment further isolated the bloc's largest ex-communist member. Some other EU newcomers could hardly hide relief at the outcome of Sunday's vote.

"We can see that the Poles' political thinking has returned from extreme parties more into the centre," Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said. "I expect the new, centre-right government ... to cooperate more in the EU."

Analysts said the Kaczynskis and their former allies' defeat was a lesson for other populist parties.

"This election is proof that the ardent nationalism espoused by the (Kaczynski) government does not pay off in European nations," Dominique Moisi, a prominent French commentator, told Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

Populist parties had taken advantage of lingering fears in some countries that EU membership could hurt poorer sections of society and dent fragile national identities, suppressed under Soviet-imposed communism.

But three years of EU membership has largely calmed such fears, while growth, the freedom of travel and the inflow of EU money has convinced many earlier skeptics. In Poland, formerly anti-EU farmers are now among the greatest fans of the bloc.

Young voters in particular have shown little patience for the old-fashioned nationalism and social conservatism that became the hallmarks of the Kaczynski government.

Their heavy participation in the vote boosted turnout to one of highest levels since Poland abandoned communism in 1989.

"I want the international situation of Poland to change," said Aga Oszkodar, a 21-year-old student who voted for the Civic Platform. "I hope we will be more open for collaboration with other countries."

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