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Poland's New PM Faces Uncertain Future - 2004-05-05


Poland's new Prime Minister, Marek Belka, took office Sunday - the day after his country joined the European Union - following the resignation of his predecessor Leszek Miller. Mr. Miller's government had hit record low approval ratings of less than eight percent in public opinion polls. Mr. Belka must still receive a vote of confidence from parliament later this month, but some political observers say there may not be enough backing for him in the legislature and early elections are a possibility.

Just as Poland joined the European Union with huge celebrations Friday night, it plunged into political turmoil. The ruling Democratic Left Alliance has led the country through a massive transition, but economic hardships and scandals have drained its popular support.

Experts say they can not predict with any certainty what lies ahead.

The new prime minister, Mr. Belka, is from the ruling party. He has vowed to restore public trust in the government and to use Poland's strong economic growth to bring down unemployment, which is about 20 percent. But despite such pledges, analysts say, he still carries the legacy of his party, which has lost its majority in parliament.

The deputy director of Warsaw's Institute of Public Affairs, Jacek Kucharczyk, says the political scene is fragmenting, and radical and populist parties are on the rise.

"[The] Polish political scene has become a puzzle and it is very difficult to see how you can make some sort of order out of this," he said. "The main reason for this is the dramatic drop of support and confidence in the government and also in the ruling party, combined with a rise in support for radical parties."

The key radical party, according to Mr. Kucharczyk and other political analysts, is the Self-Defense party. Much of its backing is in the countryside, where economic conditions are the worst, but recently it has picked up support in the cities.

On another side of the political spectrum, a reform party called the Civic Platform is also gaining popularity. Business lobbyist Marek Matraszek says the group is more westward-looking in its approach.

"The Civic Platform has essentially brought together most of the reform politicians of the last few years under a new leadership," said Mr. Matraszek. "And they are picking up very substantial support across the board from Poles who really want the country to move forward, who want an end to the nepotism and corruption that has marked the last 2.5 years of government. And essentially want to carry Poland forward in a westward direction."

Prime Minister Belka faces a vote of confidence in parliament by mid-May, which he says he is likely to win. But Mr. Matraszek and other observers say parliament may be too deeply divided to back the new leader, and this could bring about new elections.

And the experts say even if there are new elections, this may not produce a clear result. Once again Mr. Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs.

"If you look at opinion polls, it is very difficult to see that even if we have new elections what sort of government coalition could be created after those elections, because of the fragmentation of the political scene," said Jacek Kucharczyk.

While many Poles express concern about the prospect of a political shake-up, some say it may be a healthy thing to help clean up the political system. Poland has gone through a lot of painful economic restructuring in the past few years, and analysts say political changes may now follow.

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