Wednesday, February 01, 2012

That sinking feeling

Political capital, any politician will tell you, is a precious commodity. Squander it at your peril. But Prime Minister Donald Tusk seems to be doing just that, and this could have a big impact on coming reform.

Tusk and the "new old" Civic Platform (PO)-Polish Peasants' Party (PSL) government sailed into the October elections and prevailed. This was a historic achievement. The pair became the first government to be re-elected since political and economic transformation in 1989.

But that's when a lot of the good news stopped.First, there was the prescription drug refund disaster. Anyone needing to fill prescriptions saw doctor protests followed up by pharmacy protests. Information chaos prevailed throughout. The elderly tend to be most affected by such things, and the new government cannot have won many friends there.

If that was the hammer, the anvil was the mess over ACTA, the rearguard movement by governments and the entertainment business to try to control the internet. Protests gathered thousands of young voters. Schools were even known to have let some students skip class to protest. Who do young people vote for? Till now, the PO.

The new government has thus managed to alienate the old and the young. This might not be a problem since the next elections are long off. But the big issue is that squandering political capital on what are basically side issues is a huge mistake.

This government has pledged ambitious reforms that deservedly have won praise from those calling for reform, including markets and credit rating agencies. Equally deservedly everyone is worried about 'execution risk,' a fancy way of saying 'we'll believe it when we see it.'

To do any of the big reforms, the government will need political capital. One example is the pledge to increase the retirement age to 67, something the vast majority of Poles oppose. Yet, this is one of the most important pieces of legislation in recent Polish history, particularly because Poland's will be one of the oldest populations in Europe in 20 years.

Irking the old, angering the young, pissing off everyone. That is not the recipe for reform or re-election. The gauntlet has been thrown. Now it is up to the government to stop wasting political capital and get to work on what really matters.