In a First for Poland, Ruling Government Gets Re-Elected

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Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk (C), leader of ruling centre-right Civic Platform (PO), waves to supporters and party members after the announcement of election results in Warsaw October 9, 2011. (Photo: Peter Andrews / Reuters)

Donald Tusk, Poland’s center-right prime minister, won re-election on Sunday night, marking the first time since the fall of communism in 1989 that a ruling government has managed to keep its grip on power. With more than 99% of all votes counted, Tusk’s pro-market Civic Platform party claimed 39% of all votes, putting it nine points ahead of the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party.  “I want to thank Poland, the Poles and God,” Tusk told jubilant party members at an election-night celebration. “We have done great things, and now we have the opportunity to do even greater things.”

The historic election says much about the consolidation of democracy in Poland, and its results have been widely interpreted as a sign of Poland’s deepening stability. It also provides some much-needed continuity for the European Union, which has watched as governments in member states including Denmark, Ireland, Latvia, and Portugal have fallen in 2011, paying for the turmoil that’s gripped their respective economies. Poland currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency, so the re-election of the pro-European Civic Platform will likely calm nerves in Brussels as leaders there tackle the ongoing euro zone crisis.

Tusk, who has dismissed radical economic reforms in favor of more gradual changes, made much of Poland’s economic stability during the campaign. Naturally he took the credit. Poland was the only E.U. country not to go into recession in 2009, and in 2011 it surpassed the Netherlands to become Europe’s sixth-largest economy.

But not even Poland seems immune from Europe’s current doldrums. “It looks inevitable that there is going to be as second wave of economic downturn and that it’s going to hit Poland.” says Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex and author of Poland Within the European Union: New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe? “The government is not in great shape. This time it’s under real pressure to cut back on public finances at a time when the economy is contracting.” Poland’s government deficit climbed to 7.9 percent of G.D.P. in 2010, exceeding the E.U.’s three percent limit for the third year running. Amid all that, Tusk will need to find money to modernize Poland’s creaky infrastructure—something it’s long promised Poles, and repeatedly failed to deliver on. No wonder one of their election campaign slogans was “Poland Under Construction.”

Tusk failed to win an outright majority and, as in 2007, will need to seek out a coalition partner. The Peasants’ Party, Tusky’s rural-based ally, appears to have won 30 seats, which would allow Tusk to rebuild the coalition from his previous term.

Elsewhere, the ultra-liberal Palikot Movement has emerged from nowhere to finish third in the election, having claimed ten percent of all votes. Named after its flamboyant founder Janusz Palikot, the party is anti-establishment and anti-church, and ran on a pro-gay rights, pro-abortion ticket. Among its candidates who are poised for a seat is Anna Grodzka, a 57-year old male-to-female transsexual, who will represent Krakow—once home to the late Pope John Paul II.

“We’re fighting a culture of delegalization. In Poland, you go to jail for insulting the President, for a word, for insulting religious feelings, insulting an official,” Palikot told reporters. “You go to jail for drinking beer and then walking with your bike. You go to jail for smoking a joint. For abortion. This is a nihilist policy which hurts people.”

Szczerbiak of the University of Sussex doesn’t think Palikot’s liberal agenda and anti-establishment agenda will be enough to hold its supporters—who include a number of disillusioned young people—together. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Palikot Movement fell apart very quickly,” he tells TIME. “I think quite a few of them will end up drifting into the camp of the government. That’s where the spoils are and the power is.”

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.