It was barely noticed on Monday morning as the world reeled from the violence in Egypt and Syria and the turn toward authoritarianism in Russia, but Poland's national election showed how a formerly authoritarian country can defy the odds and step peacefully into democratic and economic stability.
It's worth studying the Polish situation, as it raises some important questions about why some countries make the transition from dictatorship to democracy and economic openness much more easily than others. After all, little more than a day after the election, Poland's next-door neighbour Ukraine descended further into darkness by sentencing its opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, to seven years in prison in a trial widely seen as unfair and political. How have these formerly authoritarian countries diverged so widely?
The reelection of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the Sunday vote, after his liberal Civic Platform party won a strong plurality of almost 40 per cent, not only marks the first time since the fall of communism that any Polish leader has been awarded a second term, but it an example of a professional and fairly fought election giving the victory to a competent and intelligent leader without any appearance of corruption. It was what every democratic revolutionary dreams about: a boring election.
This was even more impressive in that it was far from being a placid or insignificant contest. Poland's election showdown could not have been more stark or ideological.
Facing Mr. Tusk's European-minded liberalism from the right-wing nationalist corner was Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former Prime Minister and identical twin brother of the former president Lech Kaczynski, who was among many Polish leaders killed in a Russian plane crash last year.
Mr. Kaczynski's angry brand of religious, anti-Europe, anti-Germany nationalism is the sort of thing that has proven popular in former communist countries recently – notably in Poland's neighbours Ukraine and Russia. Yet, despite his near-heroic status in Poland, his ideas were squarely rejected by voters.
Mr. Tusk's combination of an open economy, free trade and a fairly robust social safety net (by eastern Europe's lower standards, at least) has proven more appealing: Poland has seen an economic boom that has made it the only European country to avoid recession throughout the global economic crisis, and it has seen robust inward investment from companies like Google and Samsung, turning its southwestern district of Silesia into a "Polish Silicon Valley."
While Poland is far from a paradise today – it has a budget deficit approaching six per cent of its economy, and a system of subsidies that keeps a large part of the population tied to low-productivity peasant farming – it has surged ahead of its post-communist neighbours.
This leads to the central mystery: Why has Poland, which had a typically awful time during its years of privatization in the 1990s, as did Ukraine and Russia, do so much better in both democracy and economy? They all started out at nearly the same point, with similar cultures and economies. Both Poland and Ukraine were economic and agricultural powerhouses at earlier periods in the twentieth century. They have similar languages.
But they have diverged wildly. Just look at the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index: Even though Poland and Ukraine both started at the same desperately poor economic level when communism ended in 1991, Poland has now become the 41st most prosperous of the world's 172 countries – ranking it as a "developed country" by the UN's ranking, while Ukraine sits at 71st, making it a developing country, poorer than Uruguay, Cuba, or Kazakhstan.
On democracy and freedom, Poland has also surged ahead: Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index – a good measure of both democracy and commercial probity – ranks Poland at 41st place, and Ukraine far behind at 134th, between Togo and Zimbabwe. The conservative Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedoms places Poland at 68th place, ahead of Portugal and just behind France (Canada is 6th), while Ukraine is far behind at 164th place, between Uzbekistan and Chad.
The Economist's Democracy Index places Ukraine far below Poland (and Russia even further below, as a quasi-democratic "hybrid regime"). Obviously it helps that Poland is in the European Union, which supposedly enforces democratic and fiscal standards. (Though this has not helped either Greece's economy or the flawed democracies of places like Bulgaria.)
Poland also wisely decided to stay out of the euro – even though its economy would likely now qualify for membership in he 17-nation monetary bloc – in order to use the lower value of the zloty to attract investment, and to avoid the crises and payments imbalances that have jeopardized other members.
Others suggest more exotic hypotheses: that Eastern Orthodox countries (Russia, Ukraine, Serbia) fare worse than their Catholic neighbours (Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic), or that Poland has benefited inordinately from its proximity to Germany.
But, more realistically, it is clear from any visit to Poland that well-established democratic institutions have more to do with it. Poland's elections look like modern elections, of the sort most developed countries experience; its politicians and media function well. In Ukraine, even the most recent elections had the look and feel of the bad old days of the 1980s: Candidates (even the "reformist" opposition) appearing before uniformed ranks of state-company employees, reading lists of five-year plans.
Poland has done what its neighbours have yet to accomplish: It has held a boring election. The world had no reason to pay it heed, because it simply worked. For that reason, we ought to figure out what they're doing right.