Flashes of competence
Poland's new prime minister is matter-of-fact to a fault
AS A chain-smoking doctor, Ewa Kopacz clearly has a certain appetite for personal risk. In her case, it also seems to exhaust any appetite for risk. But as she prepares to take over as prime minister of Poland, following Donald Tusk's elevation to the presidency of the European Council, her central message is one of safety. Her main promise to voters is that she will not make any radical changes before next year's parliamentary elections.
In foreign policy that means dropping the confrontational approach to Russia favoured by Mr Tusk and Radek Sikorski, his foreign minister. In domestic policy Ms Kopacz promises more nursery schools, more old-people's homes, help for students wanting to study abroad and measures to reduce youth unemployment.
“I don't suspect she has any vision,” says Jacek Zakowski, a Polish journalist. Ms Kopacz is a pragmatic centrist, he says, with perhaps a bit more of a natural sensitivity than Mr Tusk.
Although she sets out to present a motherly public persona, Ms Kopacz occasionally displays flashes of Thatcherite steel. When she was health minister in 2009, she refused to be browbeaten into mandating an untested swine-flu vaccine, despite fears of a global epidemic. After the crash of a government plane in 2010 in Russia, which killed 96 people, including Poland's president, Ms Kopacz went to Moscow to take part in the stomach-churning work of identifying the dead.
Ms Kopacz has promised similar toughness during this week's European Union talks on the reduction of carbon emissions, resisted by Poland, which relies heavily on coal for its power. She has promised her public cheap electricity prices and even threatened to veto the climate negotiations if they do not go her way.
The new prime minister has done a good job of seizing control of the ruling Civic Platform party (PO). Some feared the party was about to destroy itself. But Ms Kopacz has carried along her biggest rivals, including Grzegorz Schetyna, who is now foreign minister, and Cezary Grabarczyk, who took the justice portfolio. As a result, PO is firmly under her control.
Jacek Rostowski, the former finance minister, on the other hand, has been sidelined by Ms Kopacz, who refused to make him chief of her team of economic advisers. Mr Sikorski was kicked upstairs to be speaker of parliament, but he is already in trouble with the new prime minister. She berated him this week after he was forced to make a humiliating retreat, first telling an American political-news website that Vladimir Putin had suggested to Mr Tusk that Poland and Russia carve up Ukraine between them. He later admitted that Mr Tusk had not met one-on-one with Mr Putin during his trip in February 2008 to Moscow. “My memory failed me,” he said.
Poles seem to be taking to Ms Kopacz. They had grown tired of Mr Tusk who came to power in 2007. Ms Kopacz's early flashes of competence have easily surpassed the low bar set for her. A new poll shows PO at 34% compared with 30% for its main rival, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). (PO was trailing PiS in polls in the last year of the Tusk government.)
Ms Kopacz will lead her party into local elections in November before the national elections next year. Party activists have become more optimistic about PO's chances of winning both. If Ms Kopacz is still prime minister in 2016, she will need to define some form of a vision for Poland. “Will it be a deregulation agenda or a lightly social one? I don't know,” says Ryszard Petru, president of the Association of Polish Economists; “there are a lot of questions and not many answers.”