Poland's leftist ruling coalition collapsed Saturday, leaving Prime Minister Leszek Miller to try to run a minority government just a few months before a referendum on joining the European Union.
The split between Miller's Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasant Party threatens to weaken rural support for EU entry, because the outgoing coalition member has long shown ambivalence on the issue. If the Peasant Party turns against EU membership on the grounds that it would be bad for Polish farmers, some observers believe that could threaten Poland's ability to join the union next year as planned.
In a televised address to the nation Saturday evening, Miller -- a former Communist who is now a strong advocate of closer ties with Western Europe -- stressed that he decided only reluctantly to eject the farm-oriented party from his government.
"By refusing in recent days to support government draft laws, the Polish Peasant Party has put itself outside the coalition," Miller said. "One cannot be in the government and in opposition to it at the same time.
"As prime minister," he said, "I do not accept it and can no longer tolerate it.... I'm sorry that this has happened. Earlier, I did everything possible not to let it happen."
The trigger for the split was a vote Thursday in which the Peasant Party joined forces with the opposition to vote down a new tax on cars that would have funded road construction. The tax had been a pillar of a government plan to upgrade infrastructure.
Looking solemn in a black suit, with a Polish flag and red tulips in the background, Miller told the television audience that his government would continue to press hard for Polish voters to approve EU entry. Poland is the largest of 10 mainly Central and Eastern European states invited to join the 15-nation bloc in May 2004.
The break with the Peasant Party "does not mean a change in policy toward Polish farmers," Miller said, stressing that in EU entry negotiations, his government fought hard for rural interests.
Polls show about 70% support in Poland for joining the European Union. But Polish law requires at least a 50% voter turnout for a referendum to be valid, and backers of EU entry fear that might not be achieved in balloting planned for June 8.
"The collapse of the coalition took place at an unfortunate moment
Miller said he expected to run a minority government rather than seek a new coalition partner. In the Polish system, such a government can be reasonably stable if the opposition does not unite against it.
Still, Saturday's development raised the possibility of moving up elections otherwise not due until 2005. Miller's party holds 212 seats in the key lower house of Parliament, or 19 short of a majority.
"There are many reasonable MPs in this Parliament from many small parties, independent MPs who don't belong to any party, and with their support, this government can function," Pastusiak said.
"The problem with the Peasant Party is that they are a party representing one social group. It has its supporters in the countryside and takes great care in fighting for their interests," Pastusiak added. "We took responsibility for the entire country, and that's why often, there were clashes about priorities in economic policy."
Kasprzycka reported from Warsaw and Holley from Moscow.