The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Why do Poland’s local elections matter?

The autumn local elections will be an important test of popularity for Poland’s government and opposition parties. Although it is riding high in the polls, they could be problematic for the right-wing ruling party because of high expectations, its low coalition potential, and the fact that the media focus is on mayoral contests in urban areas where it is relatively weak.

Difficult elections for the ruling party

On October 21st Poles will vote for thousands of councillors and local mayors in regional, county and parish elections; with second round run-offs two weeks later between the two most popular candidates in those mayoral contests where the winning candidate fails to secure more than 50%. The local elections are the first of a series over the next year-and-a-half that will include: European Parliament elections in summer 2019, parliamentary in autumn 2019, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll. Given Poland’s 16 regional authorities play a major role in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage, these are the most politically significant of the local government polls. As the only tier where elections are contested on national party lines, the aggregated share of the vote in the regional polls is also the best indicator of party support.

For the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since the autumn 2015 parliamentary election, they will be seen as a plebiscite on the government’s transformative but highly controversial programme of socio-economic and systemic reforms. In particular, they will be a key test of popularity for prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who took over the premiership last December and has been the main focus of the party’s national campaign. Although he previously held the post of deputy prime minister and finance minister, Mr Morawiecki is relatively new to front-line politics, having worked in the banking sector before he joined the government. After a shaky start, Mr Morawiecki grew quickly into his new role and is now one of Poland’s most popular politicians; widely touted as a potential successor to Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

In fact, these could be problematic elections for the ruling party. The fact that Law and Justice is registering impressive levels of opinion poll support (averaging over 40%) means that it has to manage extremely high expectations. Pundits are likely to view as a disappointment: anything significantly less than the 38% share of the vote that the party secured in the 2015 election; and a lead of less than ten percentage points over the largest opposition grouping. But many Poles who vote in local elections do not do so in national ones (and vice versa) making it difficult to read off party support from opinion polls, while the main parties’ overall share of the vote could be diluted by support for local civic committees in some regions.

At the same time, Law and Justice has weak coalition potential so if it does not win outright majorities then it will struggle to secure control of many regional authorities, even where it wins the largest number of seats. In the previous 2014 local elections, Law and Justice won the most seats in six regional assemblies but only ended up controlling one of them, while the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – secured control of the remainder either on its own or in coalition with other parties. This time, Law and Justice is hoping to take control of at least half of the regional councils, although 3-5 is probably a more realistic target. Moreover, much of the media focus will be on the results of the high-profile mayoral contests in Poland’s large towns and cities, where Law and Justice is relatively weak. Victory in any of these would be a major success for the ruling party.

Kukiz’15’s performance could be key

A key factor determining whether Law and Justice’s high share of the vote translates into control of regional authorities could be the performance of the anti-establishment Kukiz’15 grouping, currently the ruling party’s only realistic potential coalition partner. After its leader, rock star Paweł Kukiz, caused a political sensation in the 2015 presidential election – when, standing as an independent right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, he finished third picking up one-fifth of the vote – the newly-formed Kukiz’15 grouping emerged as the third largest in the subsequent parliamentary poll securing 9%. Since then, Kukiz‘15 has maintained a reasonably stable electoral base (especially among younger voters), averaging around 7-8% in opinion polls.

However, the local elections will be exceptionally difficult for Kukiz’15 because they favour established parties with well-developed grassroots organisation. After Mr Kukiz fell out with many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his 2015 presidential campaign, his grouping has failed to build up such networks. This is exacerbated by the fact that Kukiz’15 has not registered as a formal political party, thereby making it ineligible for ongoing state funding. Even securing 5% in the regional elections would, therefore, be a substantial achievement for Kukiz’15.

An important test for Mr Schetyna

Civic Platform is contesting the elections as part of the so-called ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) in alliance with the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party. In September they were joined by the left-wing Polish Initiative (IP), a marginal grouping but led by high-profile feminist activist Barbara Nowacka who earlier this year spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to liberalise Poland’s abortion law. Civic Platform hopes that by bringing Ms Nowacka on board the Coalition can strengthen its appeal to socially liberal voters in urban areas, although the move risks alienating moderate conservative voters that the party also needs to win over.

The local elections are a key test for Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna who lacks dynamism and charisma (opinion polls show him to be Poland’s least trusted politician) but is an effective political operator who has restored a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. Mr Schetyna has been subject to constant criticism from the liberal-left media for his alleged ineffectiveness, and for many voters is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform-led government. Nonetheless, the party retains much greater political assets than any other opposition grouping – including substantial financial resources and a relatively well-developed grassroots base – and better-than-expected local election results would provide it with a major boost in the run-up to next year’s decisive parliamentary poll. A good outcome for the ‘Civic Coalition’ in the regional polls would be to secure at least the combined vote share that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ won in 2015 (32%), and limit the Law and Justice lead to single figures. On the other hand, losing control of a significant number of regional authorities, or symbolic defeats in large towns or cities currently run by prominent Civic Platform politicians, would severely undermine Mr Schetyna’s leadership and raise questions about the effectiveness of the ‘Civic Coalition’ formula.

The most prestigious and high profile contest is the Warsaw mayoral election which has developed into a major strategic battleground between the government and opposition setting the tone for the local election campaign more generally. As is the case with most Polish cities, Warsaw is a liberal heartland and extremely difficult territory for Law and Justice but the party’s candidate, deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki, has run an extremely energetic campaign. Mr Jaki has benefited from his high profile role as chair of a special government-appointed commission investigating irregularities in the return of Warsaw properties confiscated under communist rule. Even many of the government’s critics have praised his efforts in seeking redress for ordinary citizens who lost out as a result of the so-called ‘reprivatisation’ process. At the same time, although he was once touted as a future party leader, Civic Platform candidate Rafał Trzaskowski has been uninspiring and found himself on the defensive as Law and Justice has reminded voters of his links to the party-backed incumbent Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz whose reputation has been severely damaged by the ‘reprivatisation’ scandal. However, although the opinion poll gap has narrowed, Mr Trzaskowski remains favourite to win and a Law and Justice victory in Warsaw, one of Civic Platform’s electoral bastions, would be a political sensation.

Rural areas are a key battleground

One of the key local election battlegrounds has been the bitter competition for rural votes between Law and Justice and the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL). Although it was Civic Platforms’s junior governing partner and is in coalition with Mr Schetyna’s party in most regional councils, the Peasant Party decided not to join the ‘Civic Coalition’. The party had its worst result in any post-1989 election in 2015, only just scraping over the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, and is currently hovering around this level of support in national polls. However, it has tried to refresh its image by electing Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz – one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists – as leader, and some commentators argue that the party is slowly re-building its support among rural voters. Law and Justice strategists are concerned that there is a segment of this electorate that may vote for the ruling party in national elections but support the Peasant Party in local polls, and has taken a number of high-profile initiatives aimed at boosting its support in the countryside, including replacing the unpopular agriculture minister.

In fact, the Peasant Party always performs much better in local than national elections due to its strong grassroots organisational base and the fact that turnout in rural areas, that form the bedrock of its support, is always higher in these polls. Indeed, in 2014 the party won a stunning 24% of the regional assembly vote; although Law and Justice supporters questioned the reliability of these results. The fact that the Peasant Party is primarily an office-seeking grouping – which, critics argue, has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level – means that the stakes are extremely high and securing anything less than 10% in the regional elections will be interpreted as a sign that it is in serious, possibly terminal decline.

A comeback for the ex-communists?

The local elections are also an important test for the once-powerful communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which failed to secure representation in the last parliamentary election but has made something of a comeback and is now third in most opinion polls, averaging around 8-9%. Notwithstanding the Alliance’s extensive local organisation and access to substantial state party funding, this was driven largely by the revival of debates about the country’s communist past prompted by Law and Justice legislation affecting the interests of its core electorate: those who, due to their personal biographies, have positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime. The Alliance will be looking to match, or even improve on, the 9% that it secured in the 2014 regional elections.

In fact, no political current is more divided in these elections than the left. The Polish Initiative split over Ms Nowacka’s decision to throw her lot in with the ‘Civic Coalition’, with critics pointing out that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ parliamentary deputies have failed to take a decisive stance on the abortion issue. The radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which unexpectedly emerged from nowhere to win 4% of the vote in the 2015 election (enough to obtain state funding but not parliamentary representation), is running separately from the Alliance but has failed to build on its earlier momentum. Meanwhile, Robert Biedroń, another political hopeful often touted as the left’s potential saviour, has decided not to stand for re-election as mayor of the provincial town of Słupsk and is waiting until next year to launch a new political initiative.

 

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What are the prospects for Poland’s President Andrzej Duda?

Poland’s right-wing President remains the country’s most popular politician largely because Poles approve of his style rather than any substantive policy achievements. But his presidency lacks a clear defining concept and is driven by the, sometimes conflicting, aims of trying to provide balance to the political scene while remaining loyal to the ruling party’s governing programme.

Independent actor or ineffective ‘notary’?

Although Polish President Andrzej Duda – who was elected in May 2015 as candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, currently Poland’s ruling party – has political ambitions that transcend his constitutional position, he has struggled to carve out an independent role for himself. Poland has a predominantly parliamentary system but the presidency is not purely ceremonial and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers; most significantly a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to overturn, which the current government lacks.

However, Mr Duda got off to a problematic start when, almost immediately after Law and Justice took office in November 2015, he was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising dispute over the membership of the country’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five tribunal judges elected to the 15-member body by the previous parliament who, it argued, were not nominated legally; a view strongly contested by the main opposition parties and most of Poland’s legal establishment. Mr Duda did not accept the judges’ oaths of office and subsequently swore in another five nominated by the new parliament. For many of his critics, these initial actions defined the nature of Mr Duda’s presidency as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ who uncritically approved all of the government’s key decisions, however controversial.

The closest that Mr Duda has come to emerging as a fully autonomous political actor was in July 2017 when, in a dramatic and surprising move, he vetoed two flagship government laws overhauling the country’s supreme court and National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, which the opposition claimed were unconstitutional. However, the revised versions of the laws that Mr Duda proposed, and were approved by parliament last December, were actually very close to the government’s original proposals. The Judicial Council would still be dissolved and a majority of its new members nominated by parliament rather than judges’ organisations, but there was now a stronger guarantee that the election would be by a three-fifths rather than simple majority, forcing the ruling party to negotiate appointments with opposition deputies. Moreover, instead of all of the current supreme court judges having to stand down (except those re-instated by the President from a list approved by the justice minister) only those over the age of 65 would be obliged to retire with Mr Duda deciding if their term could be extended.

Even if one does not accept the argument that these amendments were purely cosmetic and simply aimed at expanding Mr Duda’s own powers, as the judicial reform debate wore on perceptions of the President’s role shifted so that he came across increasingly as taking the government’s side in the dispute rather than as an independent arbiter. Indeed, Mr Duda always backed the fundamental objectives of the government’s reforms, but simply felt that its original proposals went too far in expanding the powers of the justice minister in his capacity as chief prosecutor.

The judicial reform vetoes did not, therefore, blunt opposition criticisms of Mr Duda for failing to block controversial government initiatives, such as when, rather than vetoing the ‘anti-defamation law’ passed at the end of January, he referred it to the constitutional tribunal (in fact, virtually all opposition deputies either abstained or voted in favour of the law when it was debated in parliament). This law imposed fines and criminal penalties of up to three years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of falsely ascribing responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. It led to a huge diplomatic row with Israel and the USA, Poland’s key international ally, who claimed that the law could restrict public testimony by Holocaust survivors.

The President’s critics also argue that Mr Duda has been ineffective in carrying forward any independent political initiatives. This was exemplified by his proposal to hold a consultative referendum in November, to coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after 123 years of foreign rule, on possible amendments to the country’s Constitution. Mr Duda proposed 10 questions including: whether Poles wanted the retirement age, state benefits for families, and Poland’s place in the EU and NATO enshrined in the Constitution; and if the President should have greater powers, and the Constitution refer to the country’s Christian values and heritage. In the event, at the end of July the Law and Justice-dominated Senate – Poland’s second chamber, whose consent is required to hold referendums – rejected the President’s proposal by 30 votes to 10 with 52 abstentions. Most Law and Justice Senators abstained, criticising the proposed timing and fearing very low turnout could damage both the ruling party and President’s prestige.

Autonomous, loyal to the ruling party or both?

Mr Duda’s supporters point to the fact that the President has blocked high profile legislation that is important to the ruling party. In July 2007, in addition to the two judicial reform bills he vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers, which would have given the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are currently controlled by opposition parties. Then, last March he refused to sign a government-sponsored ‘degradation law’ which provided a legal means to demote army officers who had ‘put Poland’s national interests in jeopardy’ when the country was under communist rule, on the grounds that there were no legal means for challenging these demotions

Only last month, Mr Duda refused to sign a Law and Justice bill simplifying Poland’s complex system of voting for European Parliament (EP) members. Under the new rules, voters would have elected at least three MEPs in each of the country’s 13 electoral districts; previous regulations did not allocate a fixed number which varied according to local turnout. Mr Duda argued that these amendments would further depress EP election turnout (already the second lowest level in the EU) and severely damage the principle of proportionality, marginalising political groupings such as the right-wing anti-establishment Kukiz’15 which is often seen as a presidential ally. Estimates suggested that the changes would have raised the effective threshold for representation from the current 5% to between 8-21% depending on the size of the electoral district and distribution of votes, which could have resulted in Poland’s 52 EP seats being shared out between the two largest parties: Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.

Mr Duda’s supporters also point to his apparent foreign and defence policy successes. Although foreign affairs lie within the government’s domain, the Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role, and he can exert influence through international visits and high-profile speeches. The President is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Mr Duda’s supporters claim that he played a key role in the July 2006 Warsaw NATO summit’s decision to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by deploying an international battalion on the country’s territory. Mr Duda also helped to secure the replacement of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, with whom he had clashed repeatedly, in January’s government reshuffle.

His supporters also argue that the government has implemented two of Mr Duda’s most important domestic policy pledges: the introduction of the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families; and reversal of the previous Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which had increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men). However, the political credit for these reforms has gone mainly to the government while Mr Duda’s critics point out that he has failed to deliver on two of his other flagship promises: substantial increases in tax allowances, and help for foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish złoty.

In fact, Mr Duda is torn between two, sometimes conflicting, logics. On the one hand, he wants to be taken seriously as an important member of the governing camp’s leadership and consulted fully on its key strategic, programmatic and personnel decisions. At the same time, he feels instinctively uncomfortable about the idea of one political formation dominating the public sphere and sees his role as a pluralising and stabilising influence on Poland’s polarised political scene. More pragmatically, Mr Duda knows that to secure re-election in summer 2020 he cannot simply rely on the votes of the Law and Justice hard core and needs to reach out to the political centre.

On the other hand, Mr Duda broadly shares Law and Justice’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and agrees with much of its critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions. His disagreements are over how radical the reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. The President has also not shown any interest in sponsoring his own independent political formation and knows that he needs both Law and Justice’s organisational support base and its core, right-wing voters if he is to secure re-election. Moreover, it is also in the ruling party’s interests to re-assure more moderate, centrist voters that Mr Duda is using the presidency to check the government’s more radical measures, providing this does not impact negatively upon the core of its governing programme; which is why the opposition is so keen to portray him as simply a Law and Justice ‘notary’.

Popular but lacking a defining concept

Mr Duda’s initiatives can, therefore, often come across a series of confusing and contradictory short-term tactical manoeuvres rather than being part of a thought-through longer-term plan, and sometimes risk alienating core supporters while leaving doubters unconvinced. However, Mr Duda can clearly connect with ordinary Poles and makes great efforts to reach out to the often-forgotten parts of provincial Poland which constitute the Polish right’s core electoral base. He also has an ability to come across as ‘Presidential’, particularly when making set-piece speeches on major state occasions. Moreover, many Poles understand instinctively that the Constitution leaves the President with limited room for independent political manoeuvre and, therefore, judge him on his style rather than any specific policy achievements.

Consequently, Mr Duda remains extremely popular: an August survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that he enjoyed a 66% approval rating, the highest of any Polish politician, while 58% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his duties. Most polls also suggest that he would win re-election against hypothetical challengers, the most serious of which appears to be European Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

However, these ‘headline’ polls can be misleading, hiding more subtle, underlying negative trends; Mr Duda’s Civic Platform-backed predecessor Bronisław Komorowski enjoyed even higher approval ratings but still failed to secure re-election in 2015. Moreover, if (as currently appears unlikely, but still quite possible) the opposition wins the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019, Mr Duda will find himself under relentless attack from a new government seeking to de-legitimise his presidency by accusing him of complicity in Law and Justice’s alleged violations of the Constitution. At that point, it could become more of a problem if Mr Duda still appears to lack a clear concept of what defines his presidency, especially if a serious challenger emerges around whom all the (still very substantial) anti-Law and Justice opposition can coalesce.

How is Poland’s judicial reform conflict affecting its political scene?

Controversy surrounding the right-wing government’s judicial reform programme has undermined its strategy of pivoting to the centre in the run-up to Poland’s forthcoming electoral marathon. But in spite of misgivings about the reforms the ruling party is in tune with Poles on the social and economic issues they care most about, and the opposition offers little alternative beyond defence of an unpopular judicial status quo.

Threatening the rule of law or reforming a closed elite?

There are three key elements to the judicial reform programme introduced by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015. Firstly, ending the terms of office of the majority of the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, and selecting their successors by a qualified three-fifths parliamentary supermajority rather than the legal profession as had previously been the case. Secondly, giving the justice minister broad powers to replace the heads of lower courts. Thirdly, lowering the retirement age for supreme court judges from 70 to 65, except for those re-instated by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda based on recommendations from the National Judicial Council.

Most of the opposition – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 – and legal establishment strongly criticised the reforms arguing that they undermined the independence of the courts and infringed the key democratic principle of constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents said that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees; pointing out that the supreme court rules on the validity of national election and referendum results.

The judicial reforms were also heavily criticised by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the opposition enjoys close links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. The European Commission has been involved in an ongoing ‘rule of law’ dispute with the Law and Justice government since January 2016, initially over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal. At the end of last year, in a major escalation of the conflict, in response to the judicial reforms the Commission initiated an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law; threatening Warsaw with sanctions, including possibly suspending its European Council voting rights.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the reforms were in line with the Constitution and sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. Overhauling the courts is one of the most important elements of Law and Justice’s programme because the party believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, viewed itself as a superior ‘special caste’ out of touch with ordinary citizens, and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they argued, making judges and their supervisory bodies more accountable to elected bodies was justifiable and in line with practices in other established democracies.

Conflict over supreme court retirements

The new supreme court early retirement provisions, which came into effect at midnight on July 4th and affected 27 of its 73 members, have proved particular contentious. Nine of these justices requested an extension to their terms of office and submitted the required formal documentation to the President, four did so by simply stating that they could not be dismissed, and a further three cited the provisions of the Constitution. 11 supreme court justices did not seek an extension, including first president Małgorzata Gersdorf who argued that her six-year term of office, which ends in 2020, could not be shortened because it was constitutionally guaranteed.

The government and Mr Duda responded that the Constitution also says that parliament determines the retirement age of supreme court judges and, as she did not submit a request to prolong her term, Mrs Gersdorf officially retired and could not continue as first president. They also said that that one of her deputies, Józef Iwulski, was acting president until the post could be filled permanently. Mrs Gersdorf, on the other hand, argued that Mr Iwulski was merely deputising for her as a temporary replacement in cases of her absence; she went on vacation shortly after the new provisions came into effect (Mr Iwulski shared this interpretation of his role).

At the same time, the European Commission launched the first stage of a legal action against Poland, arguing that the new early retirement provisions threatened the principle of judicial independence enshrined in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, giving Warsaw one month to respond. The case could end up in an infringement procedure against Poland before the European Court of Justice; which could, in turn, issue an injunction ordering Warsaw to suspend the supreme court judge replacement process until it has determined its verdict.

Law and Justice responded by introducing legislation to accelerate the process of appointing a new, permanent supreme court head. The amendments, approved swiftly by parliament (without proper debate, according to the opposition), make it easier to appoint new supreme court judges and reduced (from 110 to 80) the number required in the court’s general assembly to nominate candidates from which Mr Duda will choose the new first president. The government said that the amendments were needed to end the state of uncertainty in the supreme court and prevent the threat of obstruction of new appointments. However, some commentators argued that Law and Justice wants the new supreme court judges and leadership to be in place as soon as possible to make the judicial reforms irreversible by the time that the European Court of Justice comes to examine the case.

Undermining Law and Justice’s pivot to the centre

Law and Justice argues that it was elected to office with a mandate to overhaul the judiciary. For sure, an August 2017 survey conducted by the CBOS agency found that 81% of respondents (including 74% of Civic Platform voters) felt that judicial reform was necessary while only 10% were against. However, while Poles certainly have many misgivings about the functioning of their country’s judicial system they are also wary of the government’s specific reforms. For example, a July survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that 54% of respondents evaluated them negatively and only 39% positively. Only 18% said they would increase trust in Polish courts (25% reduce trust, 15% make no difference); 25% that they would increase the independence of the courts (48% reduce independence, 14% no difference); and 28% said they would make them more efficient (43% reduce efficiency, 14% no difference).

Moreover, some commentators argue that, by polarising the political scene around such a sharp conflict, the judicial reform controversy has undermined Law and Justice’s strategic objective of calming social protests and shifting the focus of debate in the second half of the government’s parliamentary term away from more controversial issues in order to broaden the ruling party’s appeal to more centrist voters. With the passage of the judicial reform laws at the end of last year, many of the key of elements of the government’s radical state re-construction programme were felt to be in place. One of the main objectives of the change of prime minister last December and government reshuffle in January was, therefore, to stabilise and consolidate Law and Justice’s position ahead of a series of key elections: local government in the autumn, European Parliament in summer 2019, parliamentary in autumn 2019, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll.

Why no backlash?

Nonetheless, opinion poll support for Law and Justice is holding up well, averaging around 40%, roughly the level that the party achieved in the 2015 parliamentary election and at least 10 percentage points ahead of Civic Platform. At the same time, protests against the government’s judicial reforms – which last year were held in dozens of towns and cities and attracted thousands of Poles – were much smaller this time around and appeared to mobilise a less diverse cross-section of the public, with notably fewer young people involved.

So why has there not been more of a political backlash against the government’s reforms? Although many Poles have misgivings about Law and Justice’s approach to constitutional questions, they also find these kinds of issues rather abstract. For sure, the July IBRiS/’Rzeczpospolita’ survey found that 70% of respondents said that they were interested in the supreme court reforms (33% very interested) and 63% that they ‘affected them directly’ (31% to a significant extent). However, it is questionable whether they have detailed knowledge of the dispute, and often tend to view it as a political conflict rather than through a legal-constitutional lens. Indeed, the opposition have not been able to convince ordinary Poles that anything really extraordinary is happening in the country as far as the state of democracy is concerned because their rhetoric often does not to accord with the latter’s everyday experiences. For many Poles, for example, the anti-Law and Justice privately-owned media still appears to provide a powerful counter-weight to pro-government public broadcasting. At the same time, Law and Justice is more in tune with public opinion, and appears to have delivered, on the social and economic issues which Poles most about.

Moreover, although they are not necessarily convinced by the government’s reforms, most Poles are very critical of the way that the courts currently function so the judicial establishment does not have a bank of goodwill that the opposition can draw on to mobilise support. For example, a February 2017 CBOS survey found that 51% of respondents said that they evaluated the Polish judicial system negatively compared with 36% who viewed it positively (only 2% very positively). Among the most commonly cited problems were: the protracted nature of trials (48%), court proceedings being too complicated (33%), and judicial corruption (30%). Moreover, while focusing on Mrs Gersdorf as the visible symbol of resistance to the reforms gave the opposition an opportunity to ‘personalise’ the dispute in a way that could make it intelligible for Poles unfamiliar with the intricacies of how the supreme court works, she does not have the personality of a ‘political fighter’. Indeed, Mrs Gersdorf’s often-inconsistent behaviour – declaring that she would not comply with the new law but then going on holiday at a crucial moment during the anti-reform protests – confused and demobilised the government’s opponents. At the same time, Law and Justice’s argument that the reforms were aimed at freeing the court system from the country’s non-democratic past were re-inforced when it emerged that Mr Iwulski had participated in seven political trials involving sixteen anti-regime oppositionists and was a reserve officer of the military counter-intelligence service (WSW) during the communist period.

Flawed reforms better than the status quo?

Perhaps most importantly, the opposition has not really offered any credible alternative to the government’s judicial reforms other than defending a status quo that most Poles feel is deeply flawed. An August 2017 CBOS survey, for example, found that while only 23% of respondents trusted Law and Justice on this issue (64% distrusted) only 6% trusted Civic Platform (79% distrusted). Even if Poles are dubious as to whether the government’s reforms will significantly improve the functioning of the judicial system, Law and Justice has been effective at convincing many of them that, for all its faults, it is at least trying to tackle a problem which previous administrations appeared content to ignore.

How will Poland’s ‘rule of law’ dispute with Brussels play out in national politics?

Poland’s ‘rule of law’ dispute with the European Commission is becoming increasingly entangled in the country’s domestic politics. How this plays out will depend on whether Poles hold the government responsible for the threat of EU sanctions and reduced fiscal transfers, or believe the opposition is putting the national interest at risk in order to gain political advantage.

Linking the ‘rule of law’ and EU funds

Last month, Grzegorz Schetyna – leader of liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – claimed that the Commission would ‘freeze’ EU funds due Poland in the Union’s 2021-27 budget because of the failure of the current government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – to respect the ‘rule of law’. These funds would be ‘unfrozen’ if Civic Platform won the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019. Poland is currently the largest beneficiary of EU fiscal transfers, which many commentators see as crucial to the country’s economic modernisation.

Mr Schetyna was referring to the fact that, in its May proposal for the next EU budget, the Commission outlined plans to link the distribution of so-called ‘cohesion spending’, used predominantly to fund public investment in less well-off states like Poland, to ‘rule of law’ adherence. Under the new instrument, the Commission could suspend, reduce or restrict access to EU funding if it felt that there were ‘generalised deficiencies’ in the investigation and prosecution of fraud or corruption, or an individual member state’s judicial system undermined the determination of court cases, relating to the management of EU funds. The decision to suspend funds could only be over-turned by a qualified majority in the EU Council, giving the Commission much greater leeway in determining whether there should be sanctions against member states.

The Commission proposed this new regulation in part because of its ‘rule of law’ dispute with the Law and Justice government which has been ongoing since January 2016. At the end of last year, in a major escalation of the conflict the Commission initiated an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties for what it considered ‘systemic threats’ to the independence of the country’s courts, threatening Warsaw with sanctions, including possibly suspending its European Council voting rights. The Commission’s original concerns stemmed from a dispute over appointments to, and the functioning of, Poland’s constitutional tribunal, but in July 2017 were widened to include the Law and Justice government’s controversial judicial reform programme. The Commission agreed with criticisms articulated by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that the reforms allowed the ruling party to pack the courts and judicial bodies with its own nominees, which meant that the constitutionality of legislation could no longer be guaranteed.

The government’s supporters argued that the reforms were in in line with the Constitution and sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. They also accused the Commission of bias and double standards, arguing that the reforms were in line with practices that existed in other established Western democracies, and said that Law and Justice had been singled out because it is out of favour with the socially liberal and multi-cultural policies supported by the EU political establishment, and has been robust and assertive in advancing the country’s national interests.

Seeking reconciliation with Brussels

However, earlier this year Law and Justice tried to seek reconciliation with Brussels. Last December, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – installed finance minister and respected former international banker Mateusz Morawiecki as the country’s new prime minister. Mr Morawiecki struck a more emollient tone than his combative predecessor Beata Szydło, who had a fraught relationship with the Commission, and it was hoped that he could ‘re-set’ Warsaw’s relations with the EU political establishment. Law and Justice was concerned that a lengthy and debilitating dispute with Brussels could alienate more moderate Poles, the vast majority of whom remain supportive of their country’s EU membership, and overshadow Polish-EU relations.

In addition to the new ‘rule of law’ regulation, the Commission has proposed both a sharp reduction in traditional EU spending areas such as cohesion funds and changing the criteria for their allocation so that, in addition to a region’s GDP per capita, they would include new indicators less advantageous to Poland. As a consequence, Poland is expected to lose 23% of its cohesion fund monies in the next EU budget. The Polish government argues that the current 2014-20 budget was always likely to be the last from which the country benefited so substantially given that British withdrawal from the Union would reduce the overall level of the funding available, and Poland’s GDP has been increasing steadily while new EU spending priorities have emerged. The government’s critics, on the other hand, say that the cuts reflect the fact that Law and Justice has found itself marginalised within the EU’s decision making structures and alienated the major European powers. Either way, Warsaw was hoping to defuse the ‘rule of law’ row so that it could focus on building an effective ‘friends of cohesion’ coalition in the forthcoming budget negotiations.

Consequently, the government tried to open up a dialogue with Brussels and amended some aspects of its judicial reforms. These modifications included: removing the justice minister’s ability to fire the heads of lower district and appeal courts without consultations with local judicial bodies and the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body which selects judges and decides how Polish courts are run; equalising the retirement ages for male and female judges; the President, rather than justice minister, determining which supreme court judges could continue in office when they reached retirement age; allowing the publication of three disputed 2016 constitutional tribunal rulings that had previously been blocked by the government; and restricting the number of bodies that could initiate the new ‘extraordinary appeals’ procedure that allows for the re-opening of ‘wrongly passed’ verdicts from the last 20 years.

No change to the core of the reforms

However, the government’s critics argued that these changes were largely cosmetic pointing out that, for example: the justice minister had already dismissed 150 of the 730 local chief judges; the majority of the National Judicial Council was still selected by parliament rather than the legal profession (albeit by a qualified three-fifths supermajority); and the three disputed constitutional tribunal rulings had been superseded by later legislation and were published with the caveat that the decisions had been taken unlawfully. Indeed, even though government supporters argued that the concessions represented a significant demonstration of Warsaw’s willingness to compromise, they left the core of the reforms – allowing elected bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts and appointments of judges and their supervisory bodies to make the judiciary more accountable – intact.

Consequently, although the renewed dialogue initially improved relations between Warsaw and Brussels, the Commission felt that the Polish government’s concessions did not address its main concerns. The fate of the 27 (out of 72) supreme court justices who were obliged to stand down on July 3rd as a result of the reduction in their retirement age from 70 to 65 – including the court’s first president Małgorzata Gersdorf whose six-year term of office was, the government’s critics argued, stipulated in the Polish Constitution and is refusing to resign – still depended upon Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda. Moreover, the ‘extraordinary review’ procedure could still be initiated by the justice minister (in his capacity as chief prosecutor) and, the Commission felt, threatened the stability of Poland’s legal system. For its part, Warsaw expressed doubts as to whether the Commission was acting in good faith and insisted that it could make no further concessions.

As a result, the Commission decided to push ahead with the Article 7 procedure and an initial formal hearing was held at the June EU General Affairs Council. However, to move to the next stage of the procedure, 22 of the Council’s remaining 27 members (Poland is excluded) will have to vote that the Polish reforms constitute a ‘clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law’. Even then, a subsequent vote to trigger sanctions requires unanimity and the Hungarian government for one has made it clear that it will oppose any such moves. At the beginning of July, the Commission also decided to launch an infringement procedure against Poland before the European Court of Justice, arguing that the new early retirement provisions for supreme court judges threatened the judicial independence enshrined in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, which could also carry heavy financial penalties for Warsaw. Frustration with the limits of the Article 7 process also helps to explain why Brussels is proposing the new regulation linking the disbursal of EU funds to ‘rule of law’ compliance.

A risky strategy?

While many Poles have misgivings about aspects of the government’s judicial reforms, they are also very dissatisfied with the way that Polish courts function and also find constitutional issues such as this rather abstract. Nonetheless, the liberal-centrist opposition sense that the proposed ‘rule of law’ regulation provides an opportunity to link these questions to the more salient issue of Polish access to EU funds. Last month, Civic Platform appeared to be testing this strategy in the run-up to the autumn local elections, suggesting that Law and Justice’s ‘rule of law’ dispute with Brussels could damage investments and modernisation projects in every locality. If this works then the link between the ‘rule of law’ and EU funds could become a major issue in both the summer 2019 European Parliament and autumn 2019 national elections. However, even those EU member states taking the Commission’s side against Poland in the ‘rule of law’ dispute may be reluctant to give Brussels such sweeping powers, and while the regulation could be approved by a simple majority Warsaw has suggested that it is prepared to veto the whole EU budget (which requires unanimous support) to block it if necessary.

Moreover, for Civic Platform’s strategy to work Poles need to perceive a very clear link between the ‘rule of law’ dispute and possible suspension or reduction of EU funds. But the new budget will not come into effect (and may not even have been agreed) before the 2019 elections. At the same time, although Poles are overwhelmingly pro-EU they are also wary about the Union’s institutions becoming involved in the country’s internal affairs and there is a risk that the opposition will become too associated with (and, therefore, end up getting the blame for) possible EU sanctions. A good example of this risk was a statement last month by Civic Platform’s Warsaw mayoral candidate Rafał Trzaskowski who went further than Mr Schetyna and suggested that his party had actually persuaded Brussels to freeze Poland’s EU funds rather than withdraw them altogether. Mr Trzaskowski thus implied (even if that was not necessarily his intention) that Civic Platform was exploiting its links with EU political elites, who share their dislike of Law and Justice, to conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations on how Poland’s EU funds should be withheld unless Mr Schetyna’s party wins the elections. By doing so, he left Civic Platform open to the charge that it was jeopardising the national interest to gain political advantage. How Poland’s ‘rule of law’ dispute with the EU political establishment plays out in domestic politics, therefore, depends critically on who frames the terms of the debate most successfully, and whom Poles blame for the threat of EU sanctions or reduced fiscal transfers.

What are the prospects for Poland’s rock star-politician Paweł Kukiz?

Although Polish rock star-politician Paweł Kukiz’s political grouping is an unstable construct, lacking organisational and programmatic coherence, it remains the right-wing ruling party’s only potential coalition partner and could still emerge as king-maker after the next parliamentary election. The key to its survival and future success is still Mr Kukiz’s continued credibility as an ‘anti-system’ fighter against the political establishment.

Struggling to carve out a niche

Three years ago, rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz caused a political sensation when he finished third in the first round of the May 2015 Polish presidential election, picking up more than one fifth of the vote. Standing as an independent right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, Mr Kukiz’s signature issue, and main focus of his earlier social activism, was strong support for the replacement of Poland’s current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), which he saw as the key to renewing politics. Then, in spite of running a poor campaign, his newly-formed Kukiz ’15 grouping emerged as the third largest following the October 2015 parliamentary election, securing 8.8% of the vote and 42 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament.

However, Mr Kukiz’s eclectic candidates list produced an ideologically diverse, and potentially extremely unstable, parliamentary caucus comprising: liberal-conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, trade unionists, local civic activists, businessmen and campaigners for single-member constituencies. Attempts to develop a series of satellite associations or platforms representing different ideological and programmatic strands (trade union-agrarian, libertarian, nationalist and electoral reformers) proved unsuccessful. The most high profile of these – the so-called ‘Endecja’ association, which tried to draw on the traditions of the pre-war ‘National Democracy’ movement inspired by Polish nationalist politician Roman Dmowski – fizzled out after its leaders left the Kukiz ’15 parliamentary caucus.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Mr Kukiz’s grouping has struggled to develop a distinctive political identity, particularly given that the Polish political scene has become highly polarised since the 2015 elections between supporters of the government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, and the liberal-centrist (so-called ‘total’) opposition. While its supporters appear divided in their attitudes towards the Law and Justice government, Kukiz ’15 has tried to position itself as a ‘constructive’ opposition. Consequently, for a long time Mr Kukiz was the only opposition politician to maintain regular contacts with Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

Mr Kukiz’s grouping also tried not to become directly involved in the bitter, ongoing conflicts between Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist opposition over constitutional issues. While often criticising the government’s handling of these disputes, Kukiz ‘15 refused to join other opposition groupings in street protests organised by the anti-government Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), leading to accusations that it was Law and Justice’s informal coalition partner. Kukiz ’15 also strongly opposed moves by the European Commission to invoke the so-called Article 7 ‘rule of law’ procedure against the Polish government, and, tapping into widespread popular concerns about the potential security and societal cohesion risks posed by mass Muslim migration, backed Law and Justice in its vehement opposition to Poland being obliged to accept migrants from the Middle East and North Africa under the EU’s compulsory relocation scheme.

Strained relations with the ruling party

However, over time Kukiz ’15 has become increasingly critical of the Law and Justice government. It has continued to try and position itself as the most genuinely reformist ‘anti-system’ political grouping by, for example, promoting more direct democracy and referendums triggered by civic initiatives. In some respects, Kukiz ’15 has also developed into one of the most pro-free market groupings currently represented in parliament, criticising what it sees as excessive business and economic regulation by state officials. At the end of last year, it clashed bitterly with Law and Justice when the government proposed an amendment to the local election law abolishing single-member constituencies (Kukiz ‘15’s signature issue) in councils covering more than 20,000 residents. Kukiz ‘15’s harshest criticisms, however, have been of party-linked appointments to state bodies and what it argues are the continued privileges enjoyed by state officials and political elites under the Law and Justice administration, as part of a broader critique of the phenomenon that it refers to as ‘partocracy’.

Last summer, Mr Kukiz also attempted to develop a political alliance with Poland’s Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda after the latter vetoed two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws in July. Mr Kukiz tried to present these vetoes as a major political success for his grouping. However, the judicial reform bills were eventually passed in a modified form with Mr Duda’s support, and nothing materialised from speculation that Mr Kukiz could play a key role in attempts to build a new ‘presidential’ political party, other than a further deterioration of the rock star-politician’s relations with the ruling party.

Maintaining a stable base of support

The only common denominator uniting Kukiz ’15’s disparate ideological tendencies appeared to be their opposition to the constitutional foundations of the post-1989 Polish state and its dominant elites, together with a vague ‘anti-systemness’ that Mr Kukiz was felt to embody. This led many commentators to predict that the grouping would implode as soon as it was forced to confront issues that brought its ideological incoherence to the fore. For sure, 14 deputies have left the Kukiz ‘15 parliamentary caucus since the election, six of whom formed the ‘Free and Solidaristic’ (WiS) parliamentary circle led by legendary former anti-communist activist Kornel Morawiecki. Mr Morawiecki was elected on the Kukiz ’15 ticket but is now a strong supporter of the government; not surprisingly, given that his son Mariusz has been Law and Justice prime minister since last December and was previously deputy prime minister responsible for economic affairs. However, partly because it has been prepared to tolerate a relative lack of parliamentary voting discipline, the Kukiz ’15 caucus has not disintegrated and is still the third largest with 29 members.

Moreover, opinion polls suggest that Kukiz ‘15 has actually maintained a reasonably stable electoral base: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows the grouping averaging around 8% support. In spite of the fact that Mr Kukiz has not really come up with any new ideas or initiatives, and his grouping can point to very few substantive political achievements since the election (apart from securing a few nominees on public broadcasting and judicial supervisory bodies), a substantial bloc of voters clearly still feels that Mr Kukiz has remained true to his ‘anti-system’ principles and is the most credible opponent of the political establishment. This widespread anti-establishment feeling is particularly (although not exclusively) evident among younger voters: an August-September 2017 survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that 56% of Kukiz ‘15 voters were in the 18-35 age category (which comprises only 25% of the electorate as a whole) and 20% of them were under 25 (7% of the electorate). Many of these younger voters originally supported Mr Kukiz because they became increasingly disillusioned with a status quo that appeared to offer them an invidious choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fell well short of their abilities or remaining in a country which they felt offered them few prospects for the future. Three years later, many of them still do not identify with either Law and Justice or the liberal-centrist opposition.

A pivotal role in the future?

Indeed, Kukiz ’15 could still play a pivotal role in Polish politics because it is currently Law and Justice’s only realistic potential coalition partner if the ruling party should fail to secure an outright majority at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019. This is quite likely: had the United Left (ZL) electoral coalition won only 0.4% more of the votes at the 2015 election then it would have crossed the parliamentary representation threshold and thereby deprived Law and Justice of its majority. The same scenario could also play out after this autumn’s local elections in many of Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, the only local government tier contested on national party lines. Although in the previous 2014 local polls Law and Justice won the largest share of the vote in half of these regional authorities, because of its weak coalition potential it was only able to secure control of one of them: Podkarpackie province, where the party won an outright majority of council seats. Without the backing of Kukiz ’15, therefore, Law and Justice could once again fail to take a control of regional authorities even where it wins the largest number of seats.

The problem for Kukiz ’15 is that council elections, because they require political groupings to stand thousands of local candidates, favour established parties with well-developed grassroots organisational structures. Kukiz ’15 has failed to build up such networks and its leader fell out with many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his 2015 presidential election campaign, so it has had to advertise for candidates on the Internet. This is exacerbated by the fact that Kukiz ’15 did not register as a formal political party, thereby making it ineligible for ongoing state funding; a decision which, given its vote share at the last election, has cost the grouping around 7 million złoties per annum. Kukiz ’15’s objectives for these local elections are, therefore, fairly modest: crossing the 5% threshold (which political groupings require to secure parliamentary representation nationally) in the aggregated nationwide share of the regional council vote; and achieving at least some minor, symbolic victories in local mayoral elections.

Mr Kukiz’s popularity remains the key

Kukiz ’15 remains an unstable political construct and the grouping’s lack of organisational and programmatic coherence, together with its socially and ideologically heterogeneous electoral base, casts serious doubts over its future prospects. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has seen a series of ‘anti-system’ parties emerge, some winning as much as 10% of the vote, only to then fizzle out and disappear. Kukiz ’15 could easily end up as simply the latest, transitory repository of such protest votes. At the same time, however, there is also a good chance that Mr Kukiz’s grouping will survive to contest the next parliamentary election and possibly even emerge as the king-maker in the new parliament. Although Mr Kukiz’s apparent unpredictability and shifting political allegiances may have put Law and Justice off the idea of working with him as a coalition partner, Mr Kaczyński’s party may not have any choice if it wants to secure control of a significant number of regional authorities after the autumn local elections, or remain in government after the next parliamentary poll.

In fact, the key to Kukiz ‘15’s continued political success, and even survival, remains its leader’s personal credibility and popularity. Surveys conducted by CBOS have consistently found Mr Kukiz to be among Poland’s top three or four most popular politicians: in May he secured a 50% approval rating (20% disapproval), way ahead of any other opposition leaders. Although he can be gaffe-prone and react emotionally under pressure, Mr Kukiz’s impulsive behaviour outside of established political norms – which would be fatal for more mainstream politicians – is viewed by many of his supporters as evidence of his authenticity. This support could erode very quickly if they cease to see him as the most credible fighter against ‘the system’ but, for the moment, his supporters seem to be willing to give Kukiz ’15 the benefit of the doubt, and back the grouping as long as they continue to view its leader as the embodiment of opposition to the Polish political establishment.

Is Poland’s Law and Justice government in crisis?

Controversy over ministerial bonuses and a parliamentary occupation by carers of the disabled have exposed Poland’s right-wing government’s areas of greatest potential weakness: not being seen to live up to its claimed higher ethical standards, and demands for ever-greater social welfare spending. But the ruling party still appears to remain more credible than its liberal-centrist opponents on the key socio-economic issues that Poles care most about.

Undermining the ruling party’s core appeal

After a successful launch of his premiership last December and well-received government re-shuffle in January – which led to an increase in support for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015 – prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s found himself on the defensive following an accumulation of political controversies. Almost immediately, Mr Morawiecki was plunged into a major crisis of international relations with Israel – and, as a consequence, the USA, the administration’s key foreign policy ally. This was prompted by the passage at the end of January of a controversial anti-defamation law which makes it a criminal offence to falsely ascribe responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, but which Israeli critics argued could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation. Although international rows such as these attract huge media attention they often tend to leave most Poles unmoved. Nonetheless, Mr Morawiecki was forced to expend valuable time and political capital on fire-fighting the anti-defamation law crisis rather than promoting a positive agenda.

The sense of crisis was compounded when it emerged that former Law and Justice prime minister Beata Szydło, Mr Morawiecki’s predecessor and currently deputy prime minister responsible for social affairs, had awarded herself and other ministers generous bonuses of as much as 82,000 złoties, one-and-a-half times the country’s average annual wage, just before the government reshuffle in which half of the cabinet was replaced. The government’s position was further weakened when Mrs Szydło defended the bonuses aggressively in parliament, arguing that she had done nothing illegal in awarding them and that ministers were ‘simply due’ the money for their hard work. All of this provided the government’s opponents with an opportunity to launch their first really effective political offensive since the 2015 elections. The liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, sent a so-called ‘convoy of shame’ (‘konwój wstydu’) of mobile billboards across the country showing various ministers’ faces and how much money they had received.

The problem for Law and Justice was that the ministerial bonuses issue undermined a core element of its ethical legitimation and political appeal. Law and Justice’s 2015 electoral success was based in large part on promising clean and honest government and portraying itself, in apparent contrast to its Civic-Platform-led predecessor, as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than the country’s venal and self-serving political elites. One of the greatest threats to Law and Justice, therefore, comes from the danger of it being seen to succumb to the kind of arrogance and complacency that led to the downfall of its predecessor. While most Poles do not appear to be particularly concerned about what they consider rather abstract constitutional and ‘rule of laws’ issues, which so vex the government’s liberal-left critics, they are extremely sensitive about whether Law and Justice is felt to be operating to higher ethical standards than its opponents. Up until now they have tended to view episodes such as the ministerial bonus controversy as the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, and they have not damaged Law and Justice to any great extent. However, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ blog which aggregates voting intention surveys showed a sharp drop in average opinion poll support for Law and Justice from 48% in January, before the bonuses issue emerged, to 40% in April.

Law and Justice counter-attacks

Mr Morawiecki failed to defuse the bonus controversy when, at the beginning of March, he promised to create a leaner, more efficient administration by dismissing a quarter of the 126 deputy ministers, and pledging to curb the use of credit cards by and scrap rewards for top government officials in the future. Consequently, with the public backlash showing little sign of abating, at the start of April Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – decided on a change of tactics. In what was probably the government’s most spectacular climb down to date, Mr Kaczyński announced that ministers had decided to donate their bonuses to the Catholic Caritas charity. However, he also tried to regain the political initiative by announcing that Law and Justice would introduce legislation to cut the pay of all parliamentarians (by 20%) and managers of state-owned companies, as well as placing new financial limits on the salaries of senior local government leaders, many of whom are, of course, opposition party members.

This was followed by a Law and Justice party convention where Mr Morawiecki and other ministers announced a raft of new policies, including infrastructure projects, tax breaks and social spending pledges. The so-called ‘Morawiecki Five’ (‘Piątka Morawieckego’) package included plans to: cut corporate income tax (CIT) rates for small and medium-sized companies from 15% to 9% (which would be the lowest rate in the EU); lower social insurance (ZUS) contributions for the self-employed; spend 23 billion złoties over the next eight years on the ‘Accessibility Plus’ plan to improve the quality of life of the elderly and disabled; allocate 1.5 billion złoties in 2018 and (in the autumn) set up a 5 billion fund for  building and renovating local roads; and provide parents with a 300 złoties handout to help cover essential expenses for every child before the start of the school year. Other measures in the new, so-called ‘Mama plus’ programme included: expanded pension benefits for mothers of four or more children, including those who have never worked; bonuses for families that have a second child shortly after their first; and free medicines for pregnant women.

Law and Justice tried to use the convention to draw clear lines of division between the government – which, it argued, was focusing on practical policy measures to make life easier for businesses, families and the elderly – and the opposition whose approach, it claimed, was negative and inward-looking. Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party also held a joint convention on the same day as Law and Justice but their main message was the fact that they had concluded the ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) alliance to contest the autumn local elections. This electoral coalition, government’s supporters argued, was united primarily by a dislike of the ruling party rather than any credible and attractive programmatic alternative to Law and Justice.

Entrapped by its own rhetoric?

However, the government’s political counter-offensive was almost immediately overshadowed when a group of carers for disabled adults and children began a protest for higher welfare payments, occupying a hallway in the parliament building. Some government supporters argued that the protest had become politicised, pointing out that the carers were admitted to parliament by an opposition deputy, and accused them of an unwillingness to compromise. However, notwithstanding the fact that the carers denied this vigorously, given the huge public sympathy for their plight and the location of their protest – which meant that it attracted intense, ongoing media coverage – Law and Justice had to proceed extremely cautiously in its dealings with them to avoid another public relations disaster. Moreover, the bigger problem for Law and Justice is that this dispute exemplifies how the government has become entrapped by its own rhetoric of success: that a growing economy and healthy public finances allow ever-more expensive spending on government social welfare programmes. This generates an appetite among more social groups to lobby for increased state support for their cause, which will be increasingly difficult to satisfy and become exacerbated every time that the government accedes to a particular group’s demands, however worthy.

So far the government has agreed to one of the protesters’ two key demands: that disability benefits be raised to the same level as the monthly unemployment benefit paid to those unable to work for health reasons, which currently stands at around 1,000 złoties per month. However, it is extremely reluctant to agree to the second demand: an extra cash handout of 500 złoties per month paid directly to disabled adults, which the government argues could cost the state budget 9-10 billion złoties per annum. Instead it has offered additional support for specific forms of assistance for the disabled – which, the government argues, actually adds up to the same amount per person but is targeted more effectively – but the protesters are continuing to hold out for direct cash payments. Mr Morawiecki also failed to appease the protesters with a pledge to introduce a new ‘solidarity tax’ whereby the 50,000 richest Poles would pay more to support the most needy, including people with disabilities.

Crisis or midterm blues?

After largely dictating the terms of political debate in Poland for the last couple years, in recent months Law and Justice has found itself on the defensive. An accumulation of problems have highlighted the ruling party’s two biggest areas of potential weakness: not being seen to live up to the ethical standards of a party that claims to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state; and generating demand for ever-greater social welfare spending though its rhetoric of economic success. The controversy over ministerial bonuses was the first time in the current parliament that the opposition forced the government to retreat in an atmosphere of weakness and indecision. At the same time, the fact that Law and Justice found itself on the political back foot in its dispute with the disabled carers augurs badly for what would happen if the economy were to slow down and the government was struggling to deliver on its generous social spending programmes. All of this will have given the opposition hope that Law and Justice is not, as some commentators at one point appeared to suggest, an unstoppable political machine marching effortlessly to victory in the country’s next parliamentary election, due in autumn 2019.

However, although this year’s autumn local elections have now taken on an even greater significance as a test of government popularity, it is too early to talk of Law and Justice being in crisis. Midterm blues, the tendency of voters to grow disillusioned with a government midway through its term of office, is a normal political phenomenon in all democracies as memories of its predecessor’s failings fade, internal conflicts emerge and the challenges of office accumulate. In spite of recent political turbulence, in April ‘Pooling the Poles’ showed Civic Platform averaging only 27%, still thirteen points behind Law and Justice, and all the other opposition parties on single figures. While Civic Platform was able to exploit the ministerial bonuses issues effectively and the disabled carers dispute is an extremely uncomfortable one for the government, the liberal-centrist opposition’s leadership is still too associated with Law and Justice’s discredited predecessor and appears to lack the political skills to turn short-term tactical victories into a longer-term strategic advantage. Although Poles will not vote for Law and Justice solely out of gratitude the next time around, the fact that it has implemented most of the high profile social spending pledges that were the key to its 2015 election victories gives Mr Kaczyński’s party much greater credibility on these issues than the liberal-centrist opposition. Crucially, therefore, Law and Justice still appears to be more in tune with the majority of Poles than its opponents on the key socio-economic issues that they care most about.

What are the prospects for the Polish left?

Poland’s communist successor party has seen its opinion poll ratings increase following the revival of debates about the country’s communist past prompted by government legislation affecting the interests of its core electorate. But the party’s unambitious leadership has failed to develop any new ideas or initiatives that can attract broader support beyond this declining group of former communist regime beneficiaries and functionaries. Without a political game-changer the left will remain a marginal actor in Polish politics.

No left-wing parties in parliament

For most of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the Polish left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed the country from 1993-97 and 2001-5. However the Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. It contested the most recent October 2015 election – won decisively by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the first political grouping in post-communist Poland to secure an outright parliamentary majority – as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition in alliance with the ‘Your Movement’ (TR) grouping. The latter was an anti-clerical social liberal party led by controversial businessman Janusz Palikot, which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the votes in the 2011 election but failed to capitalise on this success and saw its support decline steadily.

However, the ‘United Left’ only won 7.6% of the vote, failing to cross the 8% threshold for electoral alliances to secure parliamentary representation (it is 5% for individual parties). This meant that, for the first time since 1989, there were no left-wing parties represented in the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament. Following its election defeat, the Alliance elected ex-communist and one-time high ranking media policy-maker Włodzimierz Czarzasty as its new leader. Mr Czarzasty is a controversial figure linked to the so-called ‘Rywin affair’, the first of the high-profile corruption scandals that engulfed the Alliance during the 2001-5 parliament. At this stage, many commentators wrote the party off as a cynical and corrupt political grouping whose ageing, communist-nostalgic electorate was literally dying off.

‘Together’ fails to achieve lift-off

Instead, the future appeared to lie with the new radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, formed in May 2015, which refused to join the ‘United Left’. It accused the Democratic Left Alliance of being a ‘phoney’ left, pursuing orthodox liberal economic and Atlanticist foreign policies when in office. In the event, ‘Together’ won 3.6% of the vote in the 2015 election which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that the party secured state funding and peeled away sufficient votes from the ‘United Left’ to prevent the latter from crossing the 8% threshold.

The success of ‘Together’ and other anti-establishment groupings in the 2015 election reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elites and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for a change. The party also gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism, ‘newness’ and programmatic clarity. However, ‘Together’ has failed to build on this promise and achieve political lift-off. It was wary about joining anti-government street protests on constitutional and ‘rule of law’ issues organised by the liberal-centrist opposition parties and Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) civic movement. But it has proved very difficult for the party to cut through with its distinctive left-wing socio-economic message at a time when the Polish political scene is so sharply polarised around attitudes towards the Law and Justice administration. In April, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ blog that aggregates voting intention surveys showed support for ‘Together’ averaging at 1%.

The party’s biggest problem is that it represents a rather niche political offering attractive mainly to well-educated urban ‘hipsters’. Unfortunately for ‘Together’ the  kind of younger, better-off socially liberal voters who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, are in Poland often quite economically liberal as well and wary of some of the party’s more radical economic policies, such as very high tax rates for top earners. The less well-off, economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older, more socially conservative and often inclines towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy.

The Democratic Left Alliance’s mini-revival

At the same time, in the last few months the Democratic Left Alliance has had something of a mini-revival. In April, ‘Pooling the Poles’ showed the Alliance averaging 8% making it the fourth most popular political grouping after Law and Justice on 40%, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main opposition grouping – on 27%, and the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz ‘15’ on 9%. This has surprised many commentators given the Alliance’s uninspiring leadership and lack of any new ideas since the 2015 election.

For sure, the Alliance still has an estimated 23,000 members and maintains extensive local organisational structures covering 320 out of Poland’s 380 administrative counties. Moreover, although it failed to cross the parliamentary representation threshold, the party did secure state funding and will receive around 17 million złoties in subventions over the course of the four-year parliamentary term.

However, the Alliance‘s mini-comeback was driven largely by the revival of debates about the country’s communist past prompted by some of the Law and Justice government’s legislation and policies. Earlier this year, for example, parliament passed a so-called ‘degradation law’ which provided a legal means to demote army officers who had ‘put Poland’s national interests in jeopardy’ when the country was under communist rule. Among those expected to be affected was the late General Wojciech Jaruzelski whose December 1981 martial law crackdown against the anti-communist opposition claimed more than 90 lives. (Although the law was unexpectedly vetoed at the end of March by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda on the grounds that there were no legal means for challenging these demotions.) Previously, the government had lowered the pensions and disability benefits received by thousands of communist-era security service functionaries so that their maximum would be no higher than average state pay-outs. More symbolically, Law and Justice also sponsored legislation requiring local authorities to re-name streets and other public places commemorating individuals and organisations linked to the communist regime.

The Democratic Left Alliance has always had deep social roots in those sections of the electorate that, due to their personal biographies, have positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime; especially those whose families were connected to the military and former security services. This is a relatively small, and steadily declining, segment of the electorate but one that clearly does not currently appear to see the liberal-centrist opposition parties as credible and effective enough defenders of its interests. If mobilised, this group of voters is sizeable enough to allow the Alliance to retain its hegemony on the Polish left.

Is Mr Biedroń the left’s saviour?

However, some commentators argue that, in the longer-term, the Democratic Left Alliance’s demise is both inevitable and desirable, and that the left needs to develop a completely new political formula and set of leaders if it is to renew itself. Indeed, the last couple of years have seen the emergence of a number of new social movements and local initiatives identifying with left-wing causes. Among the most prominent have been feminist groups involved in the so-called ‘black protests’, opposing moves by anti-abortion civic organisations to tighten Poland’s abortion law, already one of the most restrictive in Europe. A key figure in this movement was Barbara Nowacka, who spearheaded the ‘Save the Women’ (Ratujmy Kobiety) civic committee which promoted (unsuccessful) draft legislation aimed at liberalising the abortion law. Ms Nowacka is leader of the small Polish Initiative (IP) party, formed after the 2015 election by former leaders of ‘Your Movement’ (of which she was the co-chair) and the Democratic Left Alliance following the break-up of the ‘United Left’. However, Ms Nowacka was unconvincing as the ‘United Left’s’ public face during the last election campaign (she was overshadowed by ‘Together’’s charismatic leader Adrian Zandberg in a televised leaders debate), and the pro-abortion protests have not translated into electoral support for her party. Indeed, the Polish Initiative barely registers in opinion polls and, beyond the abortion issue, Ms Nowacka’s political activism has been rather sporadic.

Another political hopeful often touted as the left’s saviour is Robert Biedroń, a media-friendly one-time ‘Your Movement’ parliamentary deputy who in 2014 was elected mayor of Słupsk, a provincial city in the northern Pomeranian region. Mr Biedroń has tried to use this as a platform to develop a national media profile and project himself as a both a charismatic left-wing leader and effective common-sense manager and political moderate. His supporters argue that Mr Biedroń is currently the only politician with the potential to transform the left’s electoral fortunes; some commentators have dubbed him the ‘Polish Macron’. Indeed, an April survey conducted by the Pollster Institute for the ‘Super Express’ newspaper found 19% of respondents saying that they would vote for Mr Biedroń in a presidential election (the next one is scheduled in summer 2020) compared with 36% supporting Mr Duda and 26% backing European Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

However, his critics argue that Mr Biedroń is a ‘political celebrity’ who has built his reputation primarily as a popular local government leader and campaigner focusing  on moral-cultural issues – he was the founder of the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) in the early 2000s – but has not yet been seriously tested on the national political stage. It remains to be seen whether his Mr Biedroń’s personal popularity can translate into a more high-profile role and if he is really prepared to undertake the difficult and painstaking task of building a new political movement from the bottom-up.

The left matters, but is weak and divided

The future of the left matters for Polish politics. It is well represented among the country’s intellectual and cultural elites, and enjoys considerable sympathy in Western academic and opinion-forming media circles. This gives it an influence in public debate well beyond its very limited electoral appeal. Moreover, in the last parliamentary election Law and Justice only won an overall majority because the various fragmented left-wing parties and groupings failed to secure representation in spite of obtaining over 10% of the votes. Whether or not the left presents a united front and can mobilise and channel its supporters effectively, could, therefore, be decisive in determining the outcome of the next parliamentary poll, scheduled for autumn 2019.

However, although the Democratic Left Alliance has made a minor comeback on the back of a revival of debates around the communist past, it is difficult to see a long-term future for the party. Its pragmatic and intelligent but, critics argue, cynical and unambitious leadership has failed to develop any significant political initiatives that could attract support beyond its steadily declining core electorate of former communist regime beneficiaries and functionaries. At the same time, by fragmenting the opposition, the Alliance’s mini-revival complicates the process of developing a broad, anti-Law and Justice front which some commentators argue is necessary to defeat the ruling party. Indeed, while left-wing political groupings have sometimes worked together on single issues, such as abortion, they are likely to contest this autumn’s local elections, the next major test for Poland’s parties, in several competing electoral alliances. The left is, therefore, likely to remain a marginal actor on the Polish political scene unless someone like Mr Biedroń really does turn out to be a political game-changer.

Are the Polish opposition’s prospects really so hopeless?

Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition lacks convincing leadership and has failed to offer a credible and attractive alternative to Poles on the issues that they care most about. But the right-wing ruling party will go into the autumn local elections with very high expectations and the most high profile contests will be fought in areas where the opposition is relatively strong.

Failing to mount an effective challenge

Poland’s weak and divided liberal-centrist opposition has failed to mount an effective challenge to the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s ruling party since its decisive autumn 2015 election victory. In March, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys showed Law and Justice averaging 42% support compared with only 26% for the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, 9% for the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz ‘15’ grouping, 7% for the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), and 5% for the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL).

Since the election, Civic Platform, and the liberal-centrist opposition more generally, have been constantly on the back-foot. They have focused on constitutional and ‘rule of law’ issues that are too distant and abstract for most ordinary Poles and failed to offer a credible and attractive programmatic alternative on the more pressing social and economic concerns that they care most about. Here Law and Justice is clearly more in tune with public opinion as a result of its generous, high profile social spending programmes which were the key to the party’s 2015 election victory and on which it appears to have delivered in office while maintaining strong economic growth. At the same time, Law and Justice has outmanoeuvred the opposition by highlighting issues such as the European migration crisis where the overwhelmingly majority of Poles share its vehement opposition to the EU’s compulsory migrant relocation quota scheme, while Civic Platform’s stance on this issue has been equivocal and inconsistent.

The opposition’s strategy of trying to exert pressure on the government by invoking the disapproval of, and presenting the Law and Justice government as isolated within, international institutions such as the EU has proved ineffective; indeed, arguably counter-productive. Although Poles are overwhelmingly pro-EU they also do not like what they see as external interference in the country’s domestic political affairs and are critical of the opposition’s attempts to use the Union’s institutions and forums such as the European Parliament (EP) in ways that they feel could weaken Poland’s international standing and harm the national interest.

No return to the status quo ante

On numerous occasions, the opposition has shown itself to be tactically inept, confusing and alienating even many of its core supporters. For example, in January forty Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ deputies abstained in, or absented themselves from, a vote on whether to refer a draft bill aimed at liberalising Poland’s abortion law promoted by the feminist ‘Save the Women’ (Ratujmy Kobiety) civic committee to the parliamentary committee stage (three Civic Platform deputies also voted to reject the bill outright and were then expelled from the party’s parliamentary caucus). This meant that the draft law could not proceed beyond its first reading in spite of the fact that sixty Law and Justice deputies, including party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, actually voted against rejecting it at this stage. (These deputies strongly opposed the draft law’s provisions but argued that all civic-sponsored bills that collected the requisite number of supporting signatures should, as a matter of principle, be allowed to proceed to the committee stage.) The failure of Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ to take a decisive stance on this issue provoked a wave of criticism in the liberal-left media and even anti-opposition street demonstrations by feminist and non-parliamentary left-wing groupings.

The liberal-centrist opposition also lacks a strong and convincing leader around whom government opponents can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna lacks dynamism and charisma but when he was elected in January 2016 was nonetheless seen as an effective political operator who could restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. However, his failure to land any blows on the Law and Justice government, exemplified by the fiasco surrounding the abortion law vote which severely damaged Mr Schetyna’s reputation as an effective party manager, has led to constant criticism of him in the liberal-left media. He now has to spend far too much time in internal party battles with competing coteries to shore up his leadership. It is not surprising that a March survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 21% of respondents declared confidence in Mr Schetyna compared with 51% who did not, making him Poland’s least trusted politician.

More fundamentally, the liberal-centrist opposition has failed to grasp the nature of the social changes that have occurred in Poland in recent years, particularly the increased insecurity and frustration among those Poles who felt that they had not shared fully in the country’s increasing prosperity. Law and Justice’s 2015 election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the perceived arrogance of the country’s ruling elite in general and the outgoing Civic Platform-led government in particular; with a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. Most Poles do not want to see a return to the status quo ante which they still associate with the liberal-centrist parties that they rejected so decisively in 2015. While many have misgivings about some of Law and Justice’s policies and actions, particularly its programme of radical state reconstruction, they also feel that the government is at least trying to tackle many of the pathologies which previous administrations appeared content to ignore.

A potential opening

In fact, the opposition retains considerable political assets. These include: a sizeable potential base of popular support, especially in the larger towns and cities; substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media; significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites; and close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice.

Moreover, in recent weeks the Law and Justice government has increasingly found itself on the defensive. After a successful launch of his premiership last December and well-received government re-shuffle in January, which led to an increase in support for the ruling party, new Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki faced a major crisis of international relations with Israel – and, as a consequence, the USA, the administration’s key foreign policy ally. This was prompted by the passage at the end of January of a controversial anti-defamation law which makes it a criminal offence to falsely ascribe responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, but which Israeli critics argued could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation. This was followed by controversy over the generous bonuses paid to Mr Morawiecki’s predecessor Beata Szydło and other ministers. All of this has provided the opposition with potential openings that it can exploit.

Difficult elections for the ruling party

Moreover, the next major test for the Polish parties will be the autumn 2018 local elections and these could be very problematic for Law and Justice. For a start, the ruling party is likely to enter the local election campaign with extremely high expectations: anything significantly less than the 38% national share of the vote that it secured in 2015 is likely to be viewed as a disappointment. At the same time, much attention will be focused on the results of the mayoral elections in Poland’s large towns and cities, where Law and Justice is relatively weak and should be favourable for the liberal-centrist opposition. Winning a mayoral race in any of these areas will be huge achievement for Law and Justice, particularly given that victorious candidates have to secure more than 50% of the vote, if necessary in a second round run-off. Indeed, the most prestigious and high profile contest will be the Warsaw mayoral election which will be an extremely difficult one for Law and Justice but the ruling party appears to have manoeuvred itself into a position where this could become a key symbolic test and main prism through which the local election results will be evaluated.

In fact, mayoral contests are often heavily localised and personalised, and in most towns the favourites will be non-party independents. Moreover, given that Poland’s 16 regional authorities play a major rule in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage, the most politically significant of the local polls will actually be the regional assembly elections. These are also the best indicators of party support as they are the only local government tier where elections are fought on national party lines. However, given its weak coalition potential, if Law and Justice does not win outright majorities in these assemblies (it is hoping to do so in at least half of them) then it will struggle to secure control of many regional authorities, even if it emerges as the largest single party. In the previous 2014 local elections, for example, although Law and Justice narrowly won the largest share of the vote nationally and in half of the assembly elections, it was only able to secure a majority in one regional authority while Civic Platform took control of the remainder either on its own or as part of a coalition. One major problem here is that it is not clear how well ‘Kukiz ‘15’ – which is Law and Justice’s most viable coalition partner, but only has a very weak local organisational base – will perform in these elections.

Moreover, at the end of January, in order to consolidate their support, and as an attempt to regain the political initiative following the abortion law vote fiasco, Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ agreed to stand joint lists in the regional assembly elections. (The two parties also announced that they hoped to stand joint candidates for mayoral contests in the large towns and cities, but so far have only been able to reach agreement in Warsaw and Szczecin.) At the same time, Law and Justice could be squeezed in smaller towns by the Peasant Party, Civic Platform junior governing coalition partner between 2007-15, which is hovering around the 5% in national opinion polls but always performs much better in local elections due to its strong grassroots organisational base and the fact that there is always a higher turnout in these polls in rural areas that form the bedrock of its support. In 2014 the party won nearly 24% of the regional assembly vote; although Law and Justice supporters questioned the reliability of these results.

Changing opposition fortunes?

For sure, while the local elections will be very difficult for Law and Justice, disappointing results for Civic Platform will not only threaten Mr Schetyna’s leadership but also raise fresh doubts about the future of a party which many voters continue to support out of habit and lack of alternatives. This could happen if, for example, the party loses control of a majority of regional assemblies, or suffers a symbolic defeat in Warsaw or another large town or city currently run by a prominent Civic Platform politician. Nonetheless, some commentators argue that, however weak and divided the opposition may appear to be now, it will present a united front at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019, and point to the agreement of joint Civic Platform-‘Modern’ regional election lists as the start of this process of (at least partial) consolidation. Although the opposition is currently at a very low ebb, better-than-expected local election results would provide it with a major boost and could play a major role in helping to change its fortunes in the run-up to next year’s decisive parliamentary poll.

How will the anti-defamation law dispute affect Poland’s political scene?

Poland’s anti-defamation law has caused a huge diplomatic row with Israel and the USA but most Poles do not yet appear to see it as a clear and tangible threat to the national interest. A review of the law by the country’s constitutional tribunal could provide its right-wing government with a way to defuse the crisis without appearing to back down to international pressure.

Sacrificing diplomacy for domestic politics?

Since the end of January the Polish political scene has been dominated by controversy surrounding an attempt by the government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, to amend the 1998 law establishing the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a body charged with investigating Nazi and communist-era crimes and informing and educating the public about the country’s recent past. The new anti-defamation law imposes fines and criminal penalties of up to three years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of falsely ascribing responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, whether the statements are made in Poland or abroad. The legislation was prompted by a long-running campaign to curb the use of defamatory phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ by public figures (notoriously in 2012 by the then-US President Barack Obama, although the White House later apologised for this) which suggest that the Polish state was at least partly responsible for the extermination camps that were built and operated by the Germans to kill millions of Jews and others after they invaded Poland in 1939. During 2017 alone, Polish Embassies had to respond 260 times to the use of this term.

However, the new law caused a serious deterioration in Polish-Jewish relations and a huge diplomatic row with Israel, normally a close Polish ally. This began when the Israeli Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari attacked the law in a speech during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, on the day after the legislation was passed by the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament. Israeli critics were concerned that the new law was so loosely worded that it could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation.

The law also met with fierce criticism from the strongly pro-Israel US Trump administration which warned that it could adversely affect freedom of speech and academic inquiry (a concern shared by some Polish government supporters who argued that open debate was the best means of countering misleading statements about Poland’s role in the Holocaust) and have repercussions for the country’s strategic interests and relationships. All Polish governments have pursued a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy with the USA viewed as the main guarantor of the country’s military security. But given its strained relations with the major European powers and EU political establishment, the Law and Justice government has been particularly keen to develop close relations with the Trump administration and considers Washington to be its most important international ally.

At the same time, the liberal centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s largest opposition grouping and, between 2007-15, the country’s main governing party – called upon Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda to veto the bill, and proposed amendments to: delete the imprecise term ‘Polish nation’, and clarify that the law was aimed specifically at tackling the phrase ‘Polish death camps’. Civic Platform and other government critics accused Law and Justice of politicising history and manoeuvring Poland into an international crisis in order to advance its domestic political agenda, arguing that the row exemplified the incompetence and amateurishness of its diplomacy. They claimed that the same objectives could have been achieved without alienating the country’s allies and that the law was counter-productive with media references to ‘Polish death camps’ going viral as soon as the row with Israel broke out. The government’s critics also argued that the crisis encouraged those Poles who held xenophobic views to speak out and, although they acknowledged that Law and Justice is not an anti-Semitic grouping, claimed that the party was reluctant to distance itself from radical nationalist elements of its core electorate. However, all but five opposition deputies (and every one from Civic Platform) either abstained or voted in favour of the law in the original Sejm parliamentary vote, leaving themselves open to criticism that they only changed their stance in response to international pressure.

Protecting Poland’s good name?

For its part, the government argued that the new law was necessary to send a clear signal to the world that it would not allow the country to be slandered, saying that Holocaust denial also involved ascribing responsibility for German wartime atrocities to other national victim groups such as Poles. Although it acknowledged that a tiny minority of individual Poles aided the Nazi forces, thousands of others sheltered Jews in spite of the fact that (uniquely in German-occupied Europe) they and their entire families faced execution if they were caught; the Israeli Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial Centre has honoured more Poles for helping Jews than any other national group. There was no systematic complicity with the Holocaust by the Polish nation or state and, unlike other countries, its government did not surrender to, or collaborate with, Nazi Germany.

The government’s supporters argued that the row only surfaced because of internal Israeli political disputes and claimed that Jerusalem was fully consulted on the contents of the law and its concerns taken on board; pointing out that the legislation makes exceptions for academic historical research and artistic expression, and is targeted precisely at proclamations about Poland and not specific Poles who betrayed Jews. They said that the Law and Justice leadership had strongly condemned anti-Semitism on numerous occasions, while the current government was one of the most pro-Israeli and philo-Semitic in, and Jews were safe in Poland compared with other parts of, Europe. Some commentators also claimed criticisms of the law were linked to attempts by Jewish organisations to persuade the Polish government to compensate them for property confiscated from citizens of Jewish origin during World War Two even when there are no living ancestors of the former owners.

In the end, Mr Duda signed the bill into law in February but, in an effort to defuse tensions and create space for dialogue, also referred it to the constitutional tribunal to check whether its most controversial clauses clashed with Poland’s fundamental rights. However, just as the diplomatic row with Israel appeared to be quietening down, tensions once again emerged following remarks by Poland’s Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the annual Munich security conference when, in response to a question from an Israeli journalist, he listed Jews among those who were ‘perpetrators’ of Nazi-era atrocities alongside Germans, Poles and other nationalities. The government later insisted that Mr Morawiecki’s words were taken out of context and it was never his intention to blame Jewish Holocaust victims for the German-perpetrated genocide.

The row has left most Poles unmoved

The irony is that one of the main justifications for Mr Morawiecki’s appointment as prime minister last December was that his fluent English, understanding of the mentality of Western elites and familiarity with diplomatic niceties would help to boost the Law and Justice government’s international standing. To be fair, the crisis was Mr Morawiecki’s first major political test since he took over the premiership and revealed his relative lack of experience in dealing with sensitive issues such as historical truth and memory. Mr Morawiecki only entered active politics when he joined the government as deputy prime minister for economic affairs in November 2015, having previously worked as a senior executive in the banking sector, and until he became prime minister only had to deal with economic matters. Moreover, Mr Morawiecki has also been very pro-active in taking the lead in international public diplomacy on this issue and, his Munich conference gaffe notwithstanding, worked hard to de-escalate the conflict and present Poland’s case.

Indeed, the fact that Mr Morawiecki appeared to be unflinching in defending Poland’s national honour and historical truth about the country’s role in the Holocaust in the face of fierce international criticism probably strengthened his position among Law and Justice’s provincial and less well-off but extremely patriotic core supporters. Up until now they may have been wary of Mr Morawiecki as a wealthy technocrat with a background in international high finance. Indeed, even if they had misgivings about the specific solutions proposed in the anti-defamation law, many Poles feel that the immense suffering that the country endured under German wartime occupation was too often ignored or deliberately pushed aside by those wanting to focus on Polish anti-Semitism. For example, a February poll conducted by the CBOS agency found that although 52% of respondents said that they understood Israel’s concerns about the law, only 24% felt that it would limit discussion of how Poles had treated Jews during the war. By a margin of 53% to 29% they agreed with Mr Duda’s decision to sign into law, and by 45% to 40% felt that introducing criminal sanctions would be an effective means of tackling misinformation about Poland’s wartime role (although they preferred to pursue this goal through education and diplomacy rather than legal measures).

Moreover, although international rows attract huge media attention they tend to leave most Poles unmoved unless they represent a clear and tangible threat to the national interest. While Poles are aware of the damage that the row over the anti-defamation law has inflicted upon the country’s relations with Israel, a key US ally, they do not necessarily believe that this will lead to a weakening of Washington’s NATO commitment to Poland’s military security. So far the row does not appear to have harmed the prime minister’s approval ratings and the ruling party retains a commanding poll lead over opposition groupings, although we need to await the publication of more opinion surveys conducted after Mr Morawiecki’s Munich remarks to get a clearer picture.

Waiting for the constitutional tribunal’s judgement

Although there is no obvious end in sight to the crisis – and the law will remain a bone of contention between the Polish and Israeli (and, therefore, US) governments, at least until the constitutional tribunal completes its review – Warsaw is hoping that the row will now at least quieten down. Israel also has an interest in de-escalating the conflict: Poland is currently its most important EU ally, has used its seat on the UN Security Council to support Jerusalem in its dispute with the Palestinians, and Israeli firms benefit from Polish defence contracts. At the same time, even many Law and Justice sympathisers are highly critical of the law and it may have been amended by now anyway had the international row not made it impossible for the government to back down without losing face.

The government’s strategy over the next few weeks appears to be to hold tight, avoid provocations that could sharpen the conflict, and wait until the constitutional tribunal completes its review. Moreover, although the law came into force at the beginning of March, some Law and Justice leaders have suggested that the public prosecutor’s office may not launch any actions to enforce it until the legislation has been vetted by the tribunal. Indeed, the tribunal – whose composition has been a matter of bitter legal and political dispute over the last couple of years, and which the opposition argues is now effectively subservient to the ruling party (something Law and Justice denies vehemently) – appears to offer the best hope of resolving the conflict. If it were to find the law’s most controversial elements unconstitutional then this would provide the government with a comfortable pretext to defuse the crisis by amending the law without appearing to be backing down as a result of international pressure.

What is the political significance of Poland’s government reshuffle?

A sweeping reshuffle by Poland’s new prime minister has changed the shape and direction of its right-wing government with a greater emphasis on economic modernisation, political stabilisation and improving EU relations. But this pivot to the technocratic centre risks alienating the ruling party’s core electorate, and is more about packaging the government’s reforms attractively than abandoning its radical state re-construction programme.

Dismissing controversial ministers, promoting technocrats

In January, Mateusz Morawiecki – who, in a surprise move, replaced Beata Szydło as Poland’s prime minister last month – ended months of speculation by announcing a sweeping reshuffle of the Polish government which, since autumn 2015, has been led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The most symptomatic change involved the replacement of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, a powerful figure who enjoys the backing of the ruling party’s radical wing, by interior minister Mariusz Błaszczak. Before he took on the defence portfolio Mr Macierewicz headed up a party commission investigating the causes of the 2010 Smolensk tragedy in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and dozens of other senior officials died in a plane crash in Western Russia. The Smolensk issue was a touchstone for the party’s core supporters and viewed as part of a broader pattern betrayal of the country’s interests by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007 and 2015 and currently the main opposition grouping.

However, Mr Macierewicz’s commission caused controversy by appearing to countenance sabotage as a possible cause, but failed to find conclusive evidence of this even when it became an official state body after Law and Justice’s 2015 election victory. As defence minister he also clashed repeatedly with Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who, according to the Polish Constitution, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Moreover, Jarosław Kaczyński – who does not hold any formal state positions but exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and is always sensitive to potential challengers – became concerned that Mr Macierewicz was using the ministry to develop an independent political power base. Some commentators also suggested that pressure from the US State Department played a decisive role in Mr Macierewicz’s sacking.

Other high profile dismissals included foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, who was often embroiled in disputes with the EU political establishment and replaced by his less controversial deputy Jacek Czaputowicz. Council of Ministers standing committee chairman Henryk Kowalczyk replaced environment minister Jan Szyszko, who had attracted widespread criticism over his moves to allow logging in the Białowieża primeval forest. Cardiologist and deputy higher education minister Łukasz Szumowski took over as health minister from Konstanty Radziwiłł, who failed to resolve a high profile dispute involving resident doctors. At the same time, Mr Morawiecki appointed his former deputies to lead the key ministries that he had headed up before becoming prime minister: Teresa Czerwińska as finance minister, Jerzy Kwieciński as investment and development minister, and Jadwiga Emilewicz in the entrepreneurship and technology brief. All of these were centrist, technocratic figures not associated with front line party politics; although Mr Morawiecki also re-appointed justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who oversaw the government’s controversial judicial reforms.

Strengthening the prime minister and President

Mr Morawiecki only became a Law and Justice member in March 2016 and lacked a power base in the ruling party’s factional politics, raising doubts as to whether he would be able to resolve the government’s main structural weakness: infighting between ministers entrenched in their departmental power bases. However, the fact he appeared to be given a free-hand to stamp his authority on the government and dismiss such powerful figures as Mr Macierewicz suggests that the new prime minister has much greater room manoeuvre then his predecessor. Mr Morawiecki clearly enjoys Mr Kaczyński’s trust and there is even speculation that the Law and Justice leader is grooming him as his long-term successor. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński remains a key figure in settling personnel and policy disagreements within the governing camp and ensured that two of his most trusted allies, Mr Błaszczak and party organisation supremo Joachim Brudziński, were appointed to head up the key defence and interior ministries.

Another important consequence of the reshuffle, especially Mr Macierewicz‘s dismissal, was to strengthen Mr Duda’s position and defuse the row between the President and the ruling party which, at one time, appeared to threaten the unity of the governing camp. Relations between Mr Duda and the Law and Justice leadership became very tense after the President’s dramatic and surprising decision last July to veto two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws, as part of an effort to assert his independence and autonomy. However, rather than embarking upon a confrontational course, Mr Kaczyński decided to try and mend relations with the President and conceded a certain amount of influence to him over policy and appointments. Improving relations with Mr Duda would have been impossible beyond a certain point if Mr Macierewicz had remained in office and Mr Kaczyński was clearly willing to risk alienating certain elements of Law and Justice’s political base in order to strengthen the governing camp’s internal cohesion.

Political stabilisation and improving EU relations

One of the reshuffle’s main objectives was to stabilise and consolidate Law and Justice’s position ahead of a series of key elections: local government in autumn 2018, European Parliament in summer 2019, parliamentary in autumn 2019, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll. Since it was elected in 2015, the government has undertaken a series of controversial reforms, notably of the judiciary, civil service and public broadcasting. These have laid the groundwork for a radical reconstruction of the Polish state but also precipitated large-scale anti-government protests and led to opposition accusations of creeping authoritarianism (which the government vigorously denies), as well as bringing the ruling party into conflict with the country’s legal establishment and cultural elites.

Mrs Szydło’s administration took the political flak for introducing these reforms but, with the passage of the judicial reform laws at the end of last year, many of the key of elements of the government’s state re-construction programme are now in place. Mr Morawiecki is, therefore, hoping to shift the focus of debate in the second half of the government’s parliamentary term away from these controversial issues by portraying his administration as a team of technocratic experts governing efficiently, modernising an increasingly prosperous and secure country, and ensuring that ordinary Poles share in the benefits of economic growth. The reshuffle is thus an attempt to broaden Law and Justice’s appeal to more centrist, less politically committed Poles who do not reject the ruling party outright but mistrust figures such as Mr Macierewicz; as well as encouraging the country’s elites to come to terms with the government. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the reshuffle may be part of a more ambitious, long-term project of transforming Law and Justice into a pragmatic conservative grouping; although others dismiss it as simply a tactical pivot similar to the one that the party performed so successfully in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

Part of the motivation for the reshuffle was also to improve relations with the EU political establishment. Law and Justice has found itself in conflict with the EU institutions and major European powers on several fronts. It refuses to implement an EU plan for the compulsory relocation of Middle Eastern and North African migrants, which it argues would force multi-culturalism upon Poland and threaten its national security. It disputed a European Court of Justice order to stop logging in the Białowieża Forest, arguing that it was only removing trees on public safety grounds. In December, Poland also became the first EU state to have a so-called Article 7 procedure launched against it following criticisms from the European Commission that a dispute over appointments to and the functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal, and the government’s judicial reform programme, posed a threat to the rule of law; a charge that Law and Justice vigorously denies. For many commentators, Mr Waszczykowski and Mr Szyszko symbolised the government’s poor relations with the Commission and their dismissal was prompted by a desire to give the government a more EU-friendly image.

Pivoting to the centre carries risks

Opinion polls suggest that the reshuffle has proved very popular and Mr Morawiecki is enjoying a political honeymoon. A January survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 61% of respondents evaluated the reshuffle positively compared with only 9% who viewed it negatively (30% were undecided), and 54% were pleased that Mr Morawiecki had taken over as prime minister while only 20% were dissatisfied (26% undecided). The ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice averaging 48% support (in the autumn 2015 election it secured 37.6%) compared with only 24% for Civic Platform, and other opposition parties on single figures.

However, Law and Justice’s change of strategy also carries risks. While the government has enjoyed the fruits of strong growth and low unemployment it also needs to deliver on its ambitious investment and modernisation agenda, while an economic downturn would make it difficult to finance the very costly social spending programmes that have been crucial to its continued popularity. It may also prove impossible to avoid divisive political conflicts. For example, the Polish parliament is currently debating a civic initiative to further tighten the abortion law. Most Law and Justice deputies support this but in autumn 2016 large protests forced the ruling party to vote down a previous attempt to introduce greater restrictions. Moreover, while Mr Morawiecki indicated that Warsaw is open to negotiations with the Commission, he has also made it clear that his government will not abandon, or even significantly modify, its judicial reforms, nor its opposition to compulsory migrant relocation. Two important tests for the Morawiecki administration will be: whether Poland can find six countries prepared to block the Article 7 procedure at the first stage of voting in the Council of Ministers (probably at the end of February); and if the new EU budget, negotiations on which begin later this year, will link disbursal of funds to the functioning of a member state’s judiciary.

More broadly, there is a risk that Law and Justice’s pivot to the centre could alienate a section of its core electorate and supporting media, notably the milieu clustered around the Catholic ‘Radio Maryja’ broadcaster which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’. Many of the party grassroots were already disorientated by the fact that the popular and folksy Mrs Szydło was replaced by Mr Morawiecki, a technocratic former bank chief executive. However, with its support at record levels, Law and Justice is counting on the fact that Mr Macierewicz and the Radio Maryja milieu will reject the idea of a right-wing breakaway party as politically suicidal. Moreover, even if they do not always understand the rationale underpinning his political manoeuvres, the great bulk of the party’s core supporters still trust Mr Kaczyński’s instincts and see his continued leadership of the governing camp as the best guarantee of its right-wing bona fides.

Softening the government’s image, but not changing policy

Mr Morawiecki’s radical reshuffle has significantly changed the shape and direction of the Law and Justice government, with a much greater emphasis on economic modernisation and political stabilisation both domestically and internationally. The party’s apparent pivot to the moderate technocratic centre has also made it more difficult for the weak and divided opposition to develop an effective strategic response and sustain its narrative that a divisive and illiberal government is isolating Poland. At the same time, while Mr Morawiecki clearly has a different governing style from his predecessor, the new administration appears just as committed to pursuing the core elements of Law and Justice’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana). The adjustment has so far been more about softening the government’s image and presenting its reforms more attractively rather than any substantive policy change.