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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 06:32 GMT 07:32 UK
The rise of Poland's new radicals
Andrzej Lepper
Andrzej Lepper: The EU impoverishes Polish farmers
By Ray Furlong in Warsaw

Approaching Warsaw by train, snapshots of the Polish countryside whizz by - diesel-fuelled tractors alongside horses and carts, church steeples, and small workshops.

This is the main recruiting ground for the anti-European Union radicals that have just achieved their best ever election result in Poland.

We must be the best ally of the United States between Russia and the Germans!

Antoni Macierowicz, League for Polish Families
The most notorious is Andrzej Lepper, a former labourer who rose to prominence with a series of road blockade protests, many of which led to violent clashes with the police.

His Self Defence movement won an unexpected 10.2% in the polls by seizing upon the resentment of the rural poor. It argues that the European Union has impoverished Polish farmers.

This kind of talk has struck a nerve in Poland's depressed countryside where people have heard that the EU is cagey about extending the kind of subsidies enjoyed by farmers in member states once Poland joins.

Farmers' rally 1999
Rural resentment is fertile ground for populists

In the west of the country, in areas which were once part of Germany, there are fears that EU membership will allow rich foreigners to buy up land and push out the locals.

The League of Polish Families, a hard-line Catholic group, has also received strong backing in rural areas and took 7.87% in the election.

It has decried what it sees as liberal abortion laws in the EU, and even suggested joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) instead.

"We must be the best ally of the United States between Russia and the Germans! That is Poland's raison d'état, because thanks to this neither Russia nor the Germans will be able to dominate Europe," wrote one of the party leaders, Antoni Macierowicz, in a recent newspaper article.

But these are not the only reasons for the rise of Poland's radicals.

Coming out of Sunday morning Mass in a central Warsaw church a week before the election, a well-dressed elderly couple told me: "We simply decided not to vote for anyone in these elections at all. We have no-one to vote for."

Nuns at the polls
The Catholic vote was also strong
Another lady said she would vote but she predicted: "The turnout will be significantly lower than it used to be, because the people have been impoverished by the politicians."

How right she was. Only 46% of Poles voted - the lowest turnout in the country's short democratic history.

Many Poles who were disenchanted by the infighting, corruption scandals, and the poor state of the economy during the incumbent Solidarity administration, simply ignored the elections.

[The eurosceptics'] presence in parliament will be for many like the sound of fingernails scraping on glass

Former dissident Adam Michnik

The leaders of the Democratic Left Party (SLD), which won with just over 41%, have looked less than triumphant in their victory TV appearances.

They know they will have great difficulty getting legislation through parliament which will be vital for EU membership - their main policy goal.

The centre-right Citizen's Platform, which came second, will provide some help but is wary of co-operating too closely with a party of former communists.

And many rank-and-file SLD deputies will also shirk from taking any of the unpopular decisions needed to fulfil the EU's membership criteria because they too were elected on populist promises of making things better.

The journalists will not get bored

Andrzej Lepper
Poland - which has already fallen behind in the EU accession process - now faces precarious new circumstances: a faltering economy, and a strong Eurosceptic faction.

"Their presence in parliament will be for many like the sound of fingernails scraping on glass, but others will prefer to see them on the benches of parliament than blockading the streets," says former dissident and leading Polish journalist Adam Michnik.

But Mr Lepper has warned that becoming a deputy has not made him any less fiery.

"If there's not agreement on our pro-Polish bills, we're prepared to blockade the sessions of parliament".

"The journalists will not get bored," he promised.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | Europe
Goodbye Solidarity
24 Sep 01 | Europe
Left victorious in Poland
08 Mar 01 | Europe
Prodi urges Polish reforms
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
12 Feb 01 | Europe
Timeline: Poland
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