Germany & Poland turn right
Parliamentary elections in the two biggest countries of Central Europe last month both resulted in a shift in favor of the conservative parties. Until this week, however, the final outcome was yet undecided, for different reasons.
In the German elections three weeks ago, the Christian Democratic / Christian Social Union won a plurality of seats in the Bundestag, but not much more than the Social Democratic Party, which has held power since 1998. A stalemate ensued, and no one knew who would lead the country. This is the kind of situation in which the president often steps in to resolve intractable quarrels in parliamentary governments, but that didn't happen this time; President Horst Koehler remained a mere figurehead. After tough negotiations with the incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, by which his Social Democratic Party will receive several key cabinet positions, a "grand coalition" government was formed on Monday, and Angela Merkel will become the first woman chancellor of Germany. She grew up in East Germany, and never became involved in politics until after the Berlin Wall fell. She has a very aloof, reserved personality, making it difficult to discern her intentions about policy sometimes, and she is known to be suspcious of rivals. She aims to reform the German economy by cutting workers' health care benefits as a first step toward reducing Germany's ultra-cushy entitlements, and she wants better relations with the United States, which would certainly be very welcome in Washington. Without a majority in the legislature, however, Merkel probably won't accomplish much. The loss by Schroeder stems from his failure to reinvigorate the German economy, as well as voter anger over some belated cuts in government spending he was forced to make.
In Poland, Donald Tusk of the free-market Civic Platform won 36 percent in the first-round presidential elections, and Warsaw mayor Lech Kaczynski of the populist, socially conservative Law and Justice Party won 33 percent. Since neither won received a majority of votes, there will be a runoff between those two later this month. In the late September parliamentary elections, the incumbent governing Democratic Left Alliance was ousted, and the Law and Justice Party came in just ahead of the Civic Platform Party. The two will form a conservative coalition, and some tax cuts are certain, although exactly which kinds of people will benefit most is yet undecided. The Economist magazine mused at the paradox that, since 1989, Poland has emerged as a model of stable democratic capitalism when viewed from outside, but the internal reality is one of policy incoherence, corruption, and foot-dragging. Well, that's democracy for ya! It is striking that Poland has played a high-profile role in supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism, deploying significant armed forces to Iraq, even though the government has been under leftist control in recent years. The new president may review Polish foreign policy, and it will be interesting to see the connection between foreign policy and economic policy. As Mexico and France have shown, even conservative presidents sometimes appeal to nationalism by acting in ways contrary to U.S. interests.
What's interesting is that in both the German and Polish cases, the economic conservatives and social conservatives recognized their common long-term objectives, and have found a way to cooperate with each other. Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S.A. are up in arms over, on one hand, Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and on the other hand, the runaway spending spree by the GOP Congress and the consequent soaring deficits. I'm one of those for whom the latter is a much bigger problem. Rush Limbaugh has bravely talked of how the conservative movement is undergoing a healthy debate and mobilization, but I still hear a lot of sneers about "Republicans in name only," an example of the unhealthy attitude that if you're not an evangelical Christian dogmatic tax-cut advocate, you don't belong. That kind of talk has to stop, or else Rush's upbeat spin will be nothing more than whistling in the dark.