Poland's conservative win shows fear of the Bear

It’s not a good day for the left in when 96% of a nation votes for right-wing or center-right-wing candidates for president ahead of run-offs, but this is what happened in Poland yesterday.  A previously unknown 42-year-old, Andrzej Duda, got the highest projected percentage in the race, beating out the incumbent president, Bronislaw Komorowski, who had been heavily favored to win outright.

Poland is following the path of the United Kingdom, where the Conservatives (despite ambiguous polls) pulled out a decisive majority in Parliament last week.  The run-off election is in two weeks, but the results so far are already being called a historic win for the Law and Justice Party of Mr. Duda.

Duda and his party are anti-corruption and politically Euroskeptic, and they take a hard line on relations with Putin’s Russia, which has been doing its best to provoke and frighten the Poles with its revanchist approach to Ukraine.  The party’s platform is firmly Atlanticist, and it desires ever greater military and political cooperation with the superpower. 

Polish commentator Pawel Wronski called Sunday's lurch to the right "the biggest surprise in Polish politics in the last years."  Mr. Duda himself described his initial win as "a serious warning for the whole broadly defined governing camp," and he argues that if Poland adopts the Euro currency, as President Komorowski wants, consumer inflation will skyrocket.

Poland holds eastern Europe’s largest economy, which has been on a bit of a tear in recent years.  But since Poland joined the EU in 2004, more than two million Poles have left the country for greener pastures in the Eurozone.  Some of this has to do with the Russian Bear lurking over the border.

A Polish diplomat put it to British journalist Natalie Nougayrède this way: “In 2014, with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian assault in the Donbass, the unthinkable became reality.”  Fear over Russian aggression, she wrote, “is deeply felt by the population.”

Poland hasn’t forgotten the horrific plane crash five years ago in Smolensk that killed 96 Poles, including the anti-Russian president and a good slice of the nation’s top defense and national security establishment.  President Putin still refuses to authorize the return of the jet’s wreckage, long after the Russian “investigation” was completed.  Poles are understandably curious just what this pile of twisted metal would actually show the world, and why Russia won’t turn it over.

The nation has asked NATO for reassurance, which has been given sparsely: NATO performed its first ever exercises in Poland this year and promises to construct a new “rapid-reaction force” to meet any threat.  Poland has repeatedly requested the presence of two American Army brigades under NATO to be stationed in-country but has so far been rebuffed.

But it’s the Russian aggression in Ukraine that really drives Poles to distraction.  “If Putin is undeterred in Ukraine, he may go further and stir trouble, for example in the Baltic states. If he is not met with a sufficient response, it will open an era of NATO weakness that would be very undermining,” opined Marcin Zaborowski, who heads the Polish Institute of International Affairs.  

Counting on President Obama to deter Russia from further aggression on its borders may be a bridge too far.  With President Putin sending Bear bombers routinely to the skies over the British Isles, and even submarines to the Irish Sea, all with nary a word from the American administration, Poland can count only on itself.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, holds a master’s degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University.