To mother or not to mother? Poland's new PM hits bump by citing her gender.

Ewa Kopacz hopes to emulate Germany's popular chancellor, Angela Merkel, but was criticized for comments about 'protecting my children' when answering questions about foreign policy.

Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Poland's newly appointed prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, presents her policy plans in the Polish parliament in Warsaw on Wednesday.

Poland’s new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, might not be well-known outside her home country, but in her first policy speech yesterday she tried to adopt the style of the world's most powerful female leader: Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Yet Ms. Kopacz earlier stumbled over her suggestion of taking a "maternal" approach to foreign policy, showing the pitfalls of bluntly trying to emulate Ms. Merkel. 

A physician and former health minister, Kopacz rose to the top of Eastern Europe’s largest economy after her predecessor, Donald Tusk, was tapped for the position of president of the European Council. Mr. Tusk and his former foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, pushed Poland to the center of foreign policy in Europe, aligning closely with Germany especially on economic matters. But Tusk and Mr. Sikorski also led some Western allies – Germany among them – to worry about Poland's hard-line stance against Russia.

Kopacz said in her inaugural speech that Poland would take a “pragmatic” approach in the crisis. She would push against "land grabs" in Ukraine while preventing the “isolation of Poland” within Europe. 

In setting out her broader plans for Poland’s future, Kopacz tried to paint her government as nurturing and thoughtful, one that wouldn’t make rash decisions and that would take care of Polish families first – not unlike Ms. Merkel in Germany, who is known by her supporters there as “Mummy.”

Rafal Chwedoruk, a political analyst at the University of Warsaw, says Kopacz has already taken a page from Merkel’s book: In trying to assuage disgruntled coal miners, she invited their wives for a tea in Warsaw. “She wants to reconcile interests and introduce herself as a person who is balanced, calm, and has a human face,” he says.

Gender politics?

Ms. Kopacz is the second Polish woman to serve as prime minister; Hanna Suchocka served from 1992 to 1993. Twenty percent of the current parliament are female. 

But she raised eyebrows last month when she invoked her gender in response to reporters' questions about whether Poland would sell arms to Ukraine: "Poland should act like a reasonable Polish woman." She went on to explain: "You know, I'm a woman," she said. "I can imagine what I would do if I saw a person waving a sharp tool or holding a gun. My first thought would be: Right behind me, there is my house and my children. So I'd rush back to protect my children."

She was ridiculed in the press for emphasizing gender over policy – a reaction that underscores just how much Poles have accepted women within the highest ranks of power. “I don't think that men in Poland have a problem with the fact that a woman is a prime minister,” says Iwona Piatek, leader of the Women's Party. “They have gotten used to the fact that women are present in politics and business." 

Kopacz avoided mentioning gender in her speech yesterday. But whether she’ll be successful forging a nurturing leadership style, as Merkel has done, is more uncertain. Wojciech Jablonski, an expert in political marketing at the University of Warsaw, is doubtful. “She can't be ‘a mother of all Poles,' because she is not a person who is non-confrontational. She can be very stubborn and she follows blindly her leader [Tusk].”

'Notably pragmatic'

Still, she was backed last night by 269 of 460 members of parliament in a vote of confidence, which she says gives her a “strong mandate” to carry out her vision.

"All of my and my government's decisions will be taken not based on political calculation, but will have one aim – the security, in the broad sense, of Polish families," Kopacz said.

As the center-left Gazeta Wyborcza summed up: “Ms. Kopacz's speech wasn't rhetorically notable. Instead, it was notably pragmatic.”

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