Jerzy Buzek, a Polish phoenix


WARSAW — Second acts are supposed to be an American specialty, but the career of Jerzy Buzek, Poland’s former prime minister, is proof that the principle has wider application.

Buzek was recently chosen to be the head of the European Parliament — arguably the highest profile international job ever won by a Pole.

In his victory speech, Buzek said: “Today I take over the leadership of the European Parliament, something that I could not have even dreamt of in my country.” Neither could many of his compatriots when Buzek left office as head of a deeply unpopular government in 2001.

Buzek, a gray-haired professor from the western coal mining region of Silesia, had been an unexpected choice for government head when the Solidarity Electoral Action party, uniting the former anti-Communist opposition, won power in 1997. The party leader, Marian Krzaklewski, who had no particular electoral program, decided to be a political backseat driver and pushed forward the relatively little-known Buzek.

Buzek, then a rather bland and colorless politician, embarked on major reforms to four institutions: regional governments, and the pension, education and health care systems. The reforms were needed and ambitious, but often badly thought-out — they plunged the country into chaos. Coupled with the fissioning of his party and frequent corruption scandals that plagued his government, Buzek stumbled to the end of his four-year term but he seemed to be finished as a politician.

The center-right party he had led collapsed in the 2001 elections, paving the way for a triumphant return of the ex-Communist left to power, and a defeated Buzek retreated to academic life.

When the ex-Communist government of former Prime Minister Leszek Miller became extremely unpopular thanks to corruption scandals that dwarfed anything seen in Buzek’s time, the moderate Protestant began to be more fondly remembered. His ultimate salvation came through the unlikely avenue of European politics, often a haven for political has-beens and never-weres.

In 2004, when Buzek ran in Poland’s first-ever vote for the European Parliament, he barely campaigned and still won 170,000 votes — the highest total in the country.

Five years later, Buzek again was the highest vote winner in the country, effortlessly pulling in 393,000 votes. This time around he ran as part of the ruling Civic Platform party, which used the election to promote the idea that Buzek should become the head of the European parliament.

The idea of pushing a Pole to the largely symbolic but very visible post even achieved the seemingly impossible task of uniting Poland’s normally fractious political parties behind Buzek. From the ex-Communist left to the right-wing Law and Justice party, all of Poland’s European members of parliament voted for Buzek.

“It’s very good that a Pole became the head of the European Parliament,” Adam Lipinski, the deputy head of Law and Justice and normally a foe of Buzek’s Civic Platform, told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “It increases Poland prestige, and besides, Buzek’s heart beats on the side of Poland, and you have to take advantage of that.”

Buzek’s advance is part of a potential wider wave of Poles finding top jobs at international institutions as the country of 38 million takes its place in some of the world’s most prestigious clubs. Although Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, lost his long-shot bid to become the head of the NATO alliance, Marek Belka, a former prime minister, is one of the most senior officials at the International Monetary Fund.

Another former prime minister, the ex-Communist Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, is a serious candidate for becoming the secretary general of the Council of Europe, an organization integrating most of the countries of the continent.

Buzek has now become one of the most popular politicians in Poland, even rivaling the support received by Donald Tusk, the prime minister, in recent opinion polls. He is even being mentioned as a potential candidate in next year’s presidential elections, although that seems to be a bit of a long shot.

The man himself seems to have little interest in returning to the Polish politics that almost destroyed him. Using an analogy from his coal mining home region of Silesia, he recently told the Polish edition of Newsweek: “If we call politics a mine, then in Poland I’ve worked below, and in Belgium and France I’m working up on top. I prefer working up there than working at the mine face.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Polish politics:

Poland's anniversary of democracy

Walesa watches history pass him by

Poland's long road to better infrastructure