Why you should care
Poland now has real heft in Europe … and against Russia. That makes its leader one to watch.
In September, incoming Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz promised to respond to Russian provocations “like a reasonable Polish woman.” Guffaws ensued. Domestic commentators found it an artless attempt to play the gender card; to foreign ears, it just sounded dated and vaguely sexist.
But three months later, the mockery has stopped. Poland’s self-styled mother-in-chief has demonstrated what most of us know well: Moms are no pushovers.
The 58-year-old pediatrician from small-town central Poland has had to move fast to assert herself in her new role, which opened up when outgoing PM Donald Tusk abruptly left the post after being named European Council president in August. Tusk, a powerful center-right figure who led the Civic Platform party, handpicked Kopacz, a loyal ally who was then speaker of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. What she stood for was hard to discern — and most Polish observers figured Kopacz would be a placeholder, a factotum who could hold the party together before next fall’s elections.
But Kopacz had other ideas. And after a few early stumbles, including that awkward September media appearance, she’s begun to shape her political identity, balancing a practical and, yes, motherly public persona with a deft political touch at home and a firm stance overseas. A setback for her party in local elections last month shows she has plenty of work to do. But the prime minister leaves little doubt that she’s the one in charge. “She definitely adopted a very hands-on approach right from the beginning, which took people by surprise,” says Pawel Swieboda, the president of DemosEuropa, a Warsaw-based think tank.
In public, the divorced mother of one looks and acts the part of no-nonsense matriarch: cropped, middle-aged mom haircut, wire-rim glasses, understated makeup, a calm delivery that is the opposite of fiery. “She’s not flamboyant, but she’s tough, you know?” says Judy Dempsey, a Berlin-based fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Eastern Europe. Her pro-family posture is also a smart rearguard action against the rival party Law and Justice, which trumped Kopacz’s Civic Platform in November. Law and Justice tends to paint the current government as liberal, anti-family and anti-church. “She’s been very clever about saying, ‘Well, I’m a mother and I’ve got children and values,’” Dempsey says.
Taking care of people is the duty of every politician.
— Ewa Kopacz
Poles first got a glimpse of that Ewa Kopacz (pronounced EH-va) on Oct. 1, when she delivered her inaugural speech to parliament. In it, Kopacz promised to “act pragmatically” in response to developments in Ukraine — no Tusk-ian saber rattling, though she emphasized firmness. She pledged to push for “energy solidarity” within the EU while defending Poland’s ever-important coal industry (and later that month, fended off deep mandatory emission cuts at a European Union summit on climate change).
She also gave a nod to her caregiver background, though without an overt emphasis on gender. “I am a doctor — it’s a profession that may be considered a special mission, a devotion,” Kopacz said. “It calls for involvement, respect and willingness to help all other people.” A few days later, she reiterated the point in an interview with a Polish newspaper: “Taking care of people is the duty of every politician.”
Despite the doubts, Kopacz has also put her stamp on Civic Platform, an unwieldy coalition of centrists who all have their own political ambitions. But then, she knows something about handling competing factions from her days as speaker of the Sejm, including by bringing opposition members into the fold. She’s done the same with her own cabinet. The party’s infighting seems to have stopped for now, experts say, and the moves cemented Kopacz’s unchallenged role as party leader going into elections next fall. The party’s second-place finish to Law and Justice for seats in 16 provincial assemblies last month underscores the tough political environment Kopacz is facing — the ruling party has grown more and more unpopular over the last year. But it also demonstrates how much Civic Platform needs her to help reinvent it.
Strains like long working hours and a high cost of living are growing. And Kopacz is showing that she feels their pain.
The Polish public, for its part, is responding to Kopacz’s personal, down-to-earth appeals — a contrast to Tusk’s more commanding but detached approach. The traditional family unit remains an anchor in this conservative Catholic country, which is watching its economy and society changing fast. Strains like long working hours and a high cost of living are growing. And Kopacz is showing that she feels their pain. A late October poll by the Warsaw-based Centre for Public Opinion Research pegged Kopacz’s approval rating at 44 percent, to 29 percent disapproval.
Still, a quarter of those polled had no opinion — a sign Poles are still getting to know their new prime minister. And to win them over, Kopacz will need to show what family-friendly really means. That could require difficult steps to ease the high unemployment rate. Yet if Kopacz has demonstrated anything so far, it’s that a reasonable Polish woman should not be underestimated.