As the biggest of the new European Union members, with an economy that outsizes those of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia put together, and with a US-friendliness reminiscent of Germany's during the cold war, Poland can logically be compared to its hefty West European neighbor. To a point.
Unlike the Germans, though, Polish voters have not returned a muddled election result that still has political leaders in Berlin trying to form a government more than two weeks after a divided electorate spoke.
No, a week after the Germans voted, Poles decisively rejected the status quo in parliamentary elections Sept. 25. They punished the incumbents, ex-Communists of the Democratic Left Alliance, for mismanaging the economy and government. The alliance drew only 11 percent of the vote, compared to 41 percent that swept them to power four years ago.
Instead, Poles threw their support behind two center-right parties: Law and Justice, which ran on a clean-government message, and the free marketeers of Civic Platform, which promised less regulation and lower taxes.
That's a welcome combination, and understandable considering Poland's postcommunist history of scandal-plagued governments and its unemployment rate of 18 percent.
The two parties will have to work together in a parliamentary coalition, though Law and Justice, which garnered the most votes, will take the lead and occupy the prime minister's slot. Civic Platform, on the other hand, is ahead in the race for president, which will occur Sunday.
But will a partnership last? With its revolving-door and scandal-ridden governments, Poland desperately needs political stability. The two parties can find common ground in honest government and lower taxes, if only they don't get hung up on their differences over economic reform.
Those aren't minor. In the campaign, Law and Justice, which aspires to a social-welfare economy more in the mold of Western Europe, skewered Civic Platform for its proposed flat tax, saying it would benefit the rich. Yet the flat tax is being practiced with good results in several Eastern European countries, and Civic Platform rejects the German and French socioeconomic model.
For the sake of Poland's potential, these two parties must find a way to move beyond the recent past of reform fits and starts. The country positively brims with ingenuity, and it's building a base of educated workers (the number of students has increased fivefold since the collapse of communism in 1989). Despite cronyism and non-sensical business regulations, it's still managed strong economic growth.
Poland can also play a key role in building democracy in the region. It assisted Ukraine in its "orange revolution" in 2004. A new opportunity lies next door in Belarus, where the opposition just fielded a candidate to challenge the authoritarian ruler.
Twenty-five years ago, the world witnessed the Poles' capability in the Solidarity trade union movement that started the democracy ball rolling in communist Europe. Both Law and Justice and Civic Platform are made up of former Solidarity activists. Perhaps they can reach back to the unity of that time and repeat it. •