Polish centrists win vote, anti-clerical party storms in

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Poland's centrists moved Monday to craft a new cabinet after winning a landmark second term in a vote that also saw a fiercely anti-clerical party storm into the deeply Catholic nation's parliament.

The victory of Prime Minister Donald Tusk -- whose Civic Platform (PO) pushed a message of solid economic stewardship in a nation that has avoided recession -- is a political watershed.

No incumbent had survived a general election since Poland's communist regime fell in 1989.

President Bronislaw Komorowski, a former PO kingpin, said the result "opened a new era in Polish democracy".

Markets also gave the thumbs up, with the Polish zloty climbing against the euro and the dollar.

Near-final results showed PO won some 39 percent of the vote and 206 seats, down from 208 in the outgoing parliament.

Junior coalition partner the Polish People's Party (PSL) scored just over eight percent and won 28 seats, down from 31.

The combined 234 seats were five fewer than the coalition's previous tally, but still gave it a majority in the 460-member chamber.

The new Polish parliament will have added spice, after the new Palikot Movement of flamboyant former vodka tycoon and PO rebel Janusz Palikot came from nowhere, taking 10 percent of the vote and 40 seats.

It sets itself apart for anti-clericalism, in a country where over 90 percent of the population are professed Roman Catholics and where the Church, a hub of communist-era opposition, has had huge political clout since the regime's demise.

Taking on a string of taboos, it opposes Poland's strict anti-abortion law, seeks an end to public funding of catechism classes in state schools and backs gay partnerships.

One of its incoming lawmakers is a transsexual, a first in Poland.

Over coming days, the coalition will have to settle the share-out of ministries, widely expected to be reshuffled.

"The goal is to form a stable coalition for the next four years," Economy Minister and PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak told reporters after holding talks with Tusk on Monday, adding that the two parties did not exclude seeking a third partner for their coalition.

The coalition's reduced majority may give more clout to the PSL, which reportedly wants to add transport to its current economy, agriculture and labour portfolios.

In a 2007 snap election, disgruntled Poles voted out the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party's fractious, two-year-old coalition with the far-right and populists and handed power to Tusk.

PiS, led by ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski, obtained 158 seats Sunday, up from 146.

The party, which enjoys clergy support, campaigned on issues such as inflation, pensions and healthcare, saying ordinary Poles deserve better.

But Tusk's image as a safe pair of hands won out.

Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and holds the 27-nation bloc's six-month presidency until December 31, boosting Tusk's prestige as the nation of 38 million seeks to punch its weight.

Poland's economy expanded 1.7 percent in 2009 which, while a shadow of the rates recorded in previous years, still made it the only EU member to have growth.

The 2010 rate was 3.8 percent. This year's forecast is 4.0 percent, and for 2012, 2.7 percent.

Poland is not a eurozone member, but with its main trade partners in the debt-stricken currency union, jitters remain. Tusk pledges to keep cutting the budget deficit to offset the risks.

"The coming four years will see an even more crucial challenge, because we will have to work twice as hard and act twice as fast," Tusk said.

Highly divisive at home, Kaczynski and his identical twin president Lech Kaczynski, elected in 2005, also clashed regularly with Poland's EU allies -- and Jaroslaw blasted Germany during the election campaign.

Lech was killed in a plane crash in Russia in April last year, and PO's Komorowski beat Jaroslaw in a snap presidential election.

Tusk has mended fences abroad since 2007.

The opposition Democratic Left Alliance -- spun from the communist party in 1989 -- dropped from 43 seats to 27, a major blow for a movement that governed in 1993-1997 and 2001-2005.

Its leader Grzegorz Napieralski announced his resignation Monday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote Tusk on Monday congratulating him "on his historic re-election" and saying he was looking forward to "strengthening the partnership between the UK and Poland", a Downing Street spokesperson said.

© 2011 AFP

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