The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

How will a Trump presidency affect Polish politics?

Donald Trump’s election has raised concerns in Warsaw that the USA may be less willing to engage in European security and try and strike a bargain with Russia over the heads of Poland and other post-communist states. But while there are clearly potential risks for Polish security policy, Warsaw is likely to remain one of the Washington’s closest European allies. Mr Trump’s victory also allows Poland’s right-wing ruling party to position itself as being in the vanguard of an anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist sweeping through the West.

Concerns over US security commitments

All recent Polish governments have pursued a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy with the USA viewed as the most important guarantor of the country’s military security. One of Poland’s main defence policy aims has been to increase the US military presence on NATO’s Eastern flank. Warsaw has also been at the forefront of efforts to develop a common, robust Euro-Atlantic response to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including the maintenance and extension of sanctions arising from Moscow’s intervention in the Ukrainian conflict. The current Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has, if anything, been an even stronger advocate of building closer ties with Washington than its predecessors.

However, given his transactional approach to politics and international relations, Donald Trump’s election as US President has raised concerns in Warsaw that the incoming American administration may be less willing than its predecessors to engage in European security. During the presidential election campaign, Mr Trump appeared to question Washington’s continued commitment to trans-Atlantic mutual defence implying that the USA would only protect NATO allies who were prepared to pay at least 2% of their GDP on military spending as required under the Alliance’s rules.

In particular, there are concerns in Poland as to whether a Trump administration will honour the July Warsaw NATO summit decision to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank to deter potential Russian aggression by deploying four 1000-strong rotating international battalions, including one in Poland, together with earlier US commitments to locate elements of its anti-missile defence shield on Polish territory. Indeed, some Polish commentators fear that Mr Trump may try and strike some kind of grand bargain with Mr Putin, about whom the incoming US President has spoken favourably on a number of occasions, that side-lines Poland and the other post-communist states of central and Eastern Europe, and revise Washington’s hitherto strong support for sanctions against Russia.

Building US relations though the EU?

As a consequence, Poland’s main opposition parties – the centrist Civic Platform (PO), which was the main governing party from 2007 until its defeat in last autumn’s election, and the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – have argued that the uncertainty created by Mr Trump’s election victory and possibility that the USA might reduce its commitments to Europe have re-inforced their claim that the most effective way for Poland to develop its relations with Washington was through being at the forefront of a stronger and more integrated EU. The opposition argues that under Law and Justice Poland has become marginalised within the EU and Warsaw’s relations with the major European powers have deteriorated. For example, they say that the government’s decision to end negotiations initiated by its predecessor on the purchase of helicopters from the French firm Airbus, due to its apparent failure to honour a promised offset deal, has led to concerns in Paris (and Berlin) that Poland is trying to sabotage European defence policy.

Moreover, the Law and Justice government has also become embroiled in a bitter political-legal dispute with the European Commission over the functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that determines the constitutionality of the country’s laws. It now risks a Commission recommendation to the European Council that sanctions be imposed on Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, in the worst-case scenario suspending the country’s voting rights; although this is extremely unlikely as such a decision requires unanimity and the Hungarian government has already indicated that it will vote against. The opposition has, therefore, called upon the government to both comply with the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ recommendations and re-build the country’s previously close alliance with France and Germany so that Poland is once again located within European mainstream politics.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argue the most way effective to represent Poland’s interests within Euro-Atlantic institutions and in its bi-lateral relations with the USA is for the country to be a strong and assertive independent foreign policy actor. Law and Justice came to office arguing that Poland needed be more robust in advancing its national interests and re-calibrate the country’s relationships with the major EU powers. This also involved Warsaw forming its ‘own stream’ within the EU by, for example, building an alliance with other East-Central European post-communist states to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis. Law and Justice has also rejected as biased (and questioned the legality of) the Commission’s claims that, on the basis of the constitutional tribunal crisis, there was a perceived ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law in Poland. The Polish government was, they argue, simply trying to lawfully restore pluralism and balance to a public institution that they say had been colonised by supporters of the previous governing party.

Poland likely to remain a close US ally

At the same time, many supporters of the ruling party appear to be more relaxed about the prospect of a Trump presidency. While they acknowledge that there are clearly potential risks for Polish security policy, it does not necessarily mean a radical change in the main US foreign policy vectors and Poland is, in any case, likely to remain one of Washington’s closest European allies. They point out that, in contrast to his Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump was the first US presidential candidate for many years to meet with representatives of the US Polish community. Here he stressed his support for a strong alliance between the two countries and praised Poland as one of the few NATO members that spent above the required 2% of its GDP on defence. Mr Trump also promised to remove travel visa requirements for Poles visiting the USA, a long-standing source of friction between the two countries, although the decision on this actually lies with the US Congress and at one point outgoing President Barack Obama also pledged to solve this problem by the end of his presidency.

It is clearly too early to say to what extent US policy towards Europe will change until Mr Trump make his key appointments and the shape of his new administration becomes clearer. However, there is a broad and deep consensus among all the main foreign and security policy actors in Washington that a strong NATO alliance is in the USA’s strategic interests as the key to holding together the trans-Atlantic relationship. This consensus includes the leadership of the Republican majority in Congress, with whom Mr Trump will have to co-operate in order to secure the passage of his legislative programme.

While Mr Trump will probably try and force European NATO countries to spend more on defence, his administration is very unlikely to roll back earlier commitments to station US troops and locate the missile shield on Polish territory, processes that will already be well underway by the time he is sworn into office next January. Moreover, while Mr Trump may encourage Warsaw to establish a closer dialogue with Russia, according to some commentators conflicting interests between Washington and Moscow mean that the US is destined to engage in geo-strategic rivalry with Poland’s Eastern neighbour. Whatever positive statements Mr Trump made about Mr Putin during the election campaign, he may feel obliged to change his approach, especially if the new US President senses that the Russian leader is trying to take advantage of any perceived American weakness.

Indeed, some commentators draw attention to the fact that Mr Obama pointedly snubbed Poland on a number of occasions during his presidency, at one point leading to serious doubts about the USA’s reliability as a security ally. This was particularly true during his administration’s first term when Mrs Clinton was US Secretary of State and the security interests of the post-communist countries appeared to be a casualty of Mr Obama’s attempts to ‘re-set’ relations with Russia. This only really started to change following the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine when Mr Obama began to take a greater interest in the region and adopted a rather more robust approach towards Moscow.

Less interest in Polish internal affairs

Moreover, some government supporters even see the Trump presidency as, in some respects at least, a source of potential opportunities to actually improve relations between the USA and the current Polish administration. Mr Obama exerted both public and private behind-the-scenes pressure on Law and Justice over the constitutional tribunal crisis. For example, during the July NATO summit in an implicit criticism of the Law and Justice government Mr Obama used a joint press conference with the ruling party-backed Polish President Andrzej Duda to express his concern that ‘more work needs to be done’ to end the constitutional impasse.

Moreover, there was every reason to expect that a Hillary Clinton administration would have been an equally harsh, if not harsher, critic of the Law and Justice government on this issue. For example, during the US election campaign former President Bill Clinton, Mrs Clinton’s husband and (for obvious reasons) one of her closest political allies, attacked the Polish (and Hungarian) government for democratic backsliding referring to it as a ‘Putin-like’ dictatorship. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is much less likely to become involved in Polish internal affairs. While Law and Justice’s US-based critics remain well-placed in the American foreign policy establishment and influential in the US opinion-forming media, they generally supported Mrs Clinton so will probably not exert such a great influence on Mr Trump.

An anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist?

More broadly, until recently Law and Justice appeared to stand outside the Western international mainstream in its rejection of the hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus on issues such as multi-culturalism and traditional family values, which it saw as potentially undermining Poland’s national identity. However, whatever misgivings many on the Polish conservative right may have about Mr Trump’s unpredictability on international affairs and questionable personal morality, there are clear parallels between the way that his electoral success appeared to symbolise a broader popular backlash against the liberal political, economic and cultural establishment and Law and Justice’s stunning election victories last year. The latter also reflected widespread disillusionment with what many Poles saw as the country’s out-of-touch and complacent liberal ruling elites, whom they felt were disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns, and a sense that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s recent economic success.

In this sense, Mr Trump’s victory allows Law and Justice leaders and supporters to present the party’s domestic political success and broader critique of liberal-left elites as not simply an anomalous and isolated local Polish phenomenon. Rather, in spite of the risks and concerns that a Trump presidency may create for Polish foreign and security policy, the ruling party can now position itself as being in the vanguard of a new anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist exemplified by the US presidential election result that appears to be sweeping through the West.

Is Poland’s Law and Justice government losing momentum

Although plunged immediately into a constitutional crisis that brought it into conflict with the European Commission, one year after its decisive parliamentary election victory Poland’s right-wing ruling party retains widespread support. It has come under fire recently over appointments to state-run companies and the abortion issue but the government’s fate depends upon its ability to deliver on the socio-economic policy promises that were the key to its electoral success.

No post-election honeymoon

Last October’s parliamentary election saw a stunning victory for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright parliamentary majority, and its deputy leader Beata Szydło became the country’s prime minister. This followed the party’s earlier success in the May 2015 presidential poll when its candidate Andrzej Duda defeated incumbent and odds-one favourite Bronisław Komorowski. However, the new government enjoyed no post-election honeymoon and was plunged immediately into a bitter conflict over the membership and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that determines the constitutionality of Polish laws. The opposition and legal establishment argued that the government’s actions represented a violation of judicial independence and bundled the issue up with a number of other measures to accuse Law and Justice of undermining democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles took part in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement.

The opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and many of who share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission initiated an unprecedented investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. Then, in July it moved to the next stage of the procedure, giving the government three months to comply with its ‘rule of law recommendation’ or risk a Commission proposal that the European Council impose sanctions on Poland; in the worst-case scenario suspending the country’s voting rights. The government’s constitutional tribunal reforms were also criticised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, and the European Parliament.

Retaining widespread support

However, while Law and Justice did not secure the post-election ‘bounce’ that newly elected governing parties often enjoy, it retained widespread support among a large segment of the electorate. As the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows, the party has a clear lead in the polls averaging around 37% support compared with 19% for the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party and 18% for the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party between 2007 and 2015 when it was defeated in the parliamentary election, and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping. Why is this the case?

Firstly, the government’s supporters have robustly denied allegations that it is undermining democracy and defended its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of the previous governing party. More broadly, they argue that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Many Poles, therefore, agree with Law and Justice on the constitutional tribunal issue: a March-April survey for the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that although most respondents (45%) supported the tribunal a substantial minority (29%) backed the government (26% did not know).

Secondly, even among those who have misgivings about the government’s approach to the constitutional crisis, these kind of issues are often too abstract compared with more pressing social and economic concerns where Law and Justice is in tune with public opinion. For example, in April the government introduced its extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families. This flagship programme has provided a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s recent economic growth.

Thirdly, although Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly they are more divided over whether the Union’s institutions should become involved in the country’s internal affairs. For example, a June CBOS poll found that only a small majority (41% to 39%) felt that the Commission’s criticisms of Poland were an acceptable form of pressure, but also (by 41% to 38%) that its actions were motivated by a dislike of Law and Justice rather than concerns about the rule of law.

Fourthly, with no single, popular leader and lacking an alternative programme on the socio-economic issues that are most important to ordinary Poles, the divided liberal and centrist opposition has struggled to mount an effective challenge. Law and Justice’s victory last year reflected a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, so most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

Allegations of cronyism

However, given the level of social transfers involved in the ‘500 plus’ programme arguably Law and Justice should be performing even better in the polls. Moreover, during the last couple of months a number of issues have put the party on the defensive. In September, the government faced one of its most serious public relations crises over the question of appointments to state-owned companies. The original focus of this was controversy surrounding 26-year-old Bartłomiej Misiewicz, a close advisor of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, following his appointment to the supervisory boards of two state-owned companies in spite of his lack of relevant qualifications. The opposition parties tried to make Mr Misiewicz a symbol of alleged Law and Justice cronyism publishing lists of apparently unqualified party nominees to state-owned company boards. Eventually Mr Misiewicz asked to be suspended following further allegations (which he denied vigorously) that he had offered a paid position in a state-owned company to an opposition councillor in exchange for them joining a local coalition with Law and Justice.

Then, treasury minister Dawid Jackiewicz lost his position, officially on the grounds that he had fulfilled his role of winding down a ministry that is due to be closed later this year. However, according to some commentators, the real reasons for his dismissal were: suspicions surrounding nominations to state-owned companies, and the awarding of lucrative marketing and consultancy services contracts to firms linked to Mr Jackiewicz’s one-time political allies.

Using state-owned companies and agencies as a source of patronage is a problem that all governing parties in post-communist Poland have encountered. However, the allegation that Law and Justice tolerated cronyism is particularly damaging, in many ways more so than the constitutional tribunal row, because it undermines the party’s claim to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state. An important element of Law and Justice’s appeal in last year’s elections was the fact that many voters saw the previous Civic Platform administration as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite tainted by scandals. Fortunately for Law and Justice, opinion survey evidence suggests that most Poles still feel that its predecessor undertook a more through-going purge of state-owned companies.

Retreating on abortion

The most embarrassing setback, however, came in October when Law and Justice was forced to back down on the issue of abortion. Poland already has a very restrictive abortion law with the procedure only permitted if: the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, puts the health of the mother at risk, or if the foetus is severely damaged. However, in September a draft law sponsored by a civic initiative was introduced in parliament to make abortion illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life is at risk. Although it was not government legislation and Law and Justice allowed its deputies a free vote, virtually all of them supported progressing the draft law to a parliamentary committee. However, as most Poles oppose both a liberalisation of the existing law and an outright ban on abortion, the party leadership was hoping that the draft bill would stall at this stage of the legislative process.

In fact, Law and Justice was taken aback by the scale of street protests in Polish cities against the anti-abortion bill. These were often organised by left-wing anti-Law and Justice activists who supported abortion on demand. However, by framing their opposition to the draft law in terms of ‘defending women’s rights’ and focusing on the fact that the draft law proposed prison sentences for pregnant women who ‘caused the death of a conceived child’, they attracted the support of a much broader group of young women who had not previously taken part in anti-government protests.

Sensing the groundswell of opposition, the vast majority of Law and Justice deputies then proceeded to vote down the civic anti-abortion initiative. However, although the abortion vote was Law and Justice’s biggest climb-down in the face of mass protests since taking office, and disappointed many of the party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’, this tactical retreat has, for the moment at least, defused an emotive and potentially combustible issue.

Delivering on its promises

Ultimately, however, the government’s fate will depend upon its ability to implement the high-profile socio-economic policy pledges which were the key to Law and Justice’s electoral success. In fact, an August 2016 CBOS survey found that (by 53% to 37%) most Poles still felt that it was delivering on these promises. As well as introducing its flagship ‘500 plus’ programme, the government has promised to progress legislation reversing the previous administration’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men), by the end of the year. However, Law and Justice’s pledge to increase income tax allowances appears to have been subsumed within a broader, more opaque tax reform package which some commentators argue will hit middle-income earners and small businesses.

The government’s ambitious social spending programmes are also very costly. Law and Justice is pinning its hopes on a wide-ranging economic growth plan aimed at boosting innovation and investment developed by deputy prime minister and development minister Mateusz Morawiecki to ensure that the government has the funds to enact and sustain these programmes in the longer-term. At the end of September, Mr Morawiecki was given control of all the economy-related government departments, including the finance ministry, and will head up a new cabinet economic committee which, it is hoped, will give him the instruments to overcome departmental inertia and finally start to implement his ambitious plan.

Will Mrs Szydło survive?

However, by creating a strong alternative centre of power over economic policy Mr Morawiecki’s promotion also means that he has emerged as a serious rival to Mrs Szydło within the government. At the same time, although he does not hold any formal state positions, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński clearly exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and is constantly being called upon to resolve personnel and policy disputes. Some commentators argue that the best way to resolve this lack of transparency in decision-making would be for Mr Kaczyński to take over the running of the government himself.

However, although he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters, the Law and Justice leader is a polarising figure and one of the least trusted politicians among more moderate votes. Moreover, not only has the more emollient Mrs Szydło made no attempt to challenge Mr Kaczyński’s authority, as Poland’s second most popular politician (after Mr Duda) she remains an asset for the party and has, on more than one occasion during the last year, used her formidable communication skills to rescue the government’s reputation and image. So Mrs Szydło appears secure for the moment at least, although whether she can survive the full parliamentary term, or even long enough to celebrate the government’s second anniversary, remains an open question.

How will the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal affect Polish politics?

Polish politics this summer was dominated by a scandal involving irregularities in the return of Warsaw properties confiscated under communist rule. The so-called reprivatisation scandal is the most serious in the capital’s recent history and, given that the Warsaw mayor is a leading figure in the country’s main opposition party, has the capacity to shake up the national political scene.

Warsaw mayor under fire

Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz – who is a member of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – came under intense scrutiny during the summer months for alleged irregularities over the settlement of compensation claims for properties and businesses expropriated during the period of communist rule. After the Second World War the so-called Bierut Decree legalised the confiscation of almost all private land in the centre of Warsaw; justified by the need to speed up reconstruction but often without compensation for the owners. This legacy of expropriations has troubled Polish governments since the end of communist rule in 1989 and while many of the claims for restitution have been legitimate the so-called ‘reprivatisation’ process also created a lucrative business with the potential for abuse.

The Warsaw scandal broke when the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper published revelations of property restitutions carried out by lawyer Robert Nowaczyk. Allegations of impropriety initially surrounded one of the most expensive plots of land in the centre of Warsaw, with an approximate value of 160 million złoties, located at the pre-war 70 Chmielna Street address which was turned over incorrectly to Mr Nowaczyk when he bought the claims to it in 2012. A few weeks after issuing a decision to return the plot to Mr Nowaczyk, deputy director of the Warsaw Bureau of Land Management Jakub Rudnicki, who co-owned a property with the lawyer in the Southern Polish town of Zakopane, resigned from his job as the city hall official in charge of returning confiscated land. Meanwhile, finance ministry documents showed that the original Danish owner of the property had already been compensated for it years earlier.

Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz admitted that the transfer of the Chmielna Street plot was premature and promised to set up an independent audit and commission of inquiry to clear up the scandal and look into all restitutions dating back to 1990. However, she refused to resign claiming that she was unaware of the irregularities and attempting to shift the blame onto the finance ministry for failing to provide sufficient information. Her initial response was limited to dismissing three city hall officials involved in the process saying that they had not performed proper due diligence. Arguing that the whole Polish political class was responsible for not sorting out the reprivatisation issue and that malpractice had been occurring under her predecessors, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz called for the passage of a wide-ranging law regulating the compensation process introduced in parliament by Civic Platform in September.

However, although they did not accuse her of outright corruption, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s critics argued that she was politically responsible for the scandal, ignoring warnings from local civic organisations and the right-wing media and failing to take sufficient control over a process where millions of złoties were at stake. They said that it will be difficult to find an independent audit firm that has no conflicts of interest in the reprivatisation process and that the proposed commission of inquiry was simply a way of buying time. The mayor’s critics also pointed out that Civic Platform failed to introduce a comprehensive law regulating reprivatisation during its eight years in office. More broadly, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party tried to link the scandal to the well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, mafia-like elite networks which they argue have poisoned the relationship between business and politics in post-communist Poland. Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s situation was further complicated by the fact that her husband’s family were also beneficiaries of a controversial reprivatisation transaction.

Struggling to recover

The Warsaw reprivatisation scandal intensified the crisis faced by Civic Platform which has been struggling to recover from its defeat by Law and Justice in last October’s parliamentary election. Civic Platform saw its vote share fall by 15.1 percentage points to 24.1% and number of seats held in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, decline from 207 to only 138. Earlier, in the May 2015 presidential election Civic Platform-backed incumbent and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski lost to Law and Justice challenger Andrzej Duda. Much of the widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and strong prevailing mood that it was time for change was directed against Civic Platform, which many voters saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals.

In January, the party elected a new leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who was foreign minister in the outgoing government. At the same time, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping formed in May 2015 by liberal economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote in last October‘s election to emerge as the fourth largest grouping in the Sejm, picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. Modern’s greatest asset, however, was the fact that, in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform, it did not have the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office. Although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years Mr Schetyna was still associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited administration and  Mr Petru’s party started pulling ahead of Civic Platform in opinion polls.

However, Mr Petru’s party lost its initial momentum as the effect of this ‘newness’ began to wear off. Moreover, Civic Platform retained a number of important political assets, including: a large number of experienced parliamentarians, substantial access to state party funding, a relatively well-developed grassroots organisational network, and a local government base that includes control of most of Poland’s large cities and 14 out of 16 regional authorities, which play a key role in distributing EU funds and are a major source of local patronage. Although Mr Schetyna lacks charisma and dynamism, he is a good organiser and an experienced (and ruthless) political operator who has tried to restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. As a consequence, the two opposition groupings are now fairly evenly matched: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows support for Civic Platform at 20% and Modern at 19%, although both lag well behind Law and Justice on 38%.

Implications beyond the capital

Nonetheless, the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal is a serious problem for Civic Platform with political implications that go well beyond the capital. Along with the other large Polish cities that have provided the bedrock of the party’s electoral support, Warsaw is one of the Civic Platform’s strongholds. As one of the party’s deputy leaders, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz is also among Civic Platform’s most prominent and high profile figures and her 2006 election victory was a key landmark in the party’s march to power. Although Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz had previously announced that she will not stand for re-election when her current term of office ends in autumn 2018, the Warsaw mayor clearly had her eye on other high profile positions, with some commentators even speculating that she might stand as Civic Platform candidate in the 2020 presidential election.

Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz was Mr Schetyna’s opponent in internal party power struggles, but the Civic Platform leader felt obliged to defend her (albeit without any great enthusiasm) partly because she holds such a powerful position within the party, but also to prevent Law and Justice from taking power in the capital. While her resignation might pave the way for a less compromised Civic Platform politician to take over as Warsaw mayor, finding a replacement would be difficult and there is no guarantee that the party would win the subsequent by-election. In the meantime, her resignation would allow the government to appoint a commissioner to run the city, possibly even until the next local elections in autumn 2018.

Instead, Mr Schetyna, who has spent much of the last nine months securing control of the party apparatus and marginalising his opponents, used the scandal to undermine Mrs Gronkiewicz-Watltz and strengthen his own position in the capital. He forced Mrs Gronkiewicz-Watltz to dismiss two of her deputy mayors – including right-hand man Jarosław Jóźwiak, who was responsible for overseeing the reprivatisation process – and replaced them with one of his own placemen: legal scholar and former parliamentary deputy Witold Pahl. The Civic Platform leader also persuaded Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz to stand down as head of the Warsaw party organisation and placed it under the direct control of one of his closest allies: regional party boss Andrzej Halicki.

At the same time, while it is clearly very tempting for Law and Justice to try and deprive Civic Platform of one of its most important power bases, replacing Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz with a government-appointed commissioner to run the city is, at this stage, very risky. Without a binding national administrative court verdict of malpractice against Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz there could, arguably, be no legal basis for such a move so it could be overturned judicially. Law and Justice will also be concerned that the liberal and centrist opposition could, as part of their ongoing critique of the ruling party that it is undermining democracy and the rule of law (a charge that the party denies vigorously), portray the appointment of a commissioner to run Warsaw until the next local elections as a centralising and authoritarian move.

There is a civic initiative underway for a recall referendum to oust Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz, although it could take time for this to gather the requisite number of signatures and even then it may not secure the turnout required to be valid (two-thirds of the number of who voted in the previous 2014 mayoral election). On the other hand, it could actually be in Law and Justice’s interests to keep a weakened Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz in office, for the moment at least. Although the ruling party secured a plurality of votes in Warsaw during last year’s parliamentary election, it currently lacks a local candidate able to appeal beyond its core electorate and secure the 50% support required to win a mayoral election, particularly in a city with a large number of better-off voters who are more likely to vote for liberal and centrist political groupings.

The stakes are high

No one can foresee the eventual legal and political consequences of the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal. The government is awaiting the outcome of investigations by the public prosecutor’s office and central anti-corruption bureau (CBA) before deciding on its next move, while Civic Platform is hoping that the issue will fade away or another scandal (preferably involving the ruling party) overshadows it. For sure, unless prominent Civic Platform politicians either have criminal charges brought against them or are linked more directly to the scandal it is unlikely to completely bury Mr Schetyna’s party. However, given that Warsaw is one of the party’s most high profile bastions of support, even if ongoing investigations simply confirm that Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz did not fulfill her oversight obligations it will be difficult for Civic Platform to convince voters that it does not bear any responsibility for the scandal. Similarly, a recall referendum would move the issue back to the top of the national political agenda, whatever its outcome. All of this could seriously damage Civic Platform’s attempts to re-build its support ahead of the 2018 local government and 2019 parliamentary elections. So the stakes are high and how Mr Schetyna deals with the issue could be one of the biggest tests of his leadership.

Does the Polish Peasant Party have a future?

Following its severe battering in last year’s elections, Poland’s agrarian party faces an existential struggle to hang on to what is left of its electorate. Although it retains considerable assets and is still the greatest potential electoral threat to the ruling party in rural areas, it cannot simply rely on possible voter disillusionment with the government to recover its support.

A victim of the anti-incumbent backlash

The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was formed in 1990 as the organisational successor to the former communist satellite United Peasant Party (ZSL), although it attempted to legitimise itself by claiming to have roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the Nineteenth Century. Peasant parties were prominent in inter-war Polish politics and the movement provided the main political opposition to the communist takeover in the late 1940s. In the 1990s it was estimated that 25% of Poles were employed in the farming sector, mostly in peasant smallholdings that survived as an independent economic sphere throughout the communist period. This provided the Peasant Party with a substantial segment of the electorate that it could appeal to on the basis of a clear socio-economic interest and collective identity. Consequently, the party was junior coalition partner in the governments led by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) between 1993-97, with its leader Waldemar Pawlak prime minister from 1993-95, and 2001-3. Its support peaked in the 1993 election when it secured 15.4% of the vote and 132 seats in the 460-member Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower chamber of parliament.

The party returned to office in 2007 when it became the junior governing partner of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), a coalition that lasted two terms until last October’s parliamentary election when it was ousted by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The Peasant Party was an unusually loyal governing partner and the coalition was much more cohesive and stable than any of its predecessors; helped by the fact that, given that Civic Platform was a primarily urban grouping, the two parties had complementary bases of support. The party tried to make a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously projected an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics.

A change of leadership at the end of 2012 – when, promising to broaden the party’s electoral base of support beyond its rural-agricultural core, challenger Janusz Piechociński narrowly defeated Mr Pawlak, and then took over from him as deputy prime minister and economy minister – did not really change the dynamics between the two governing parties. In November 2014, the Peasant Party achieved its best result in any post-1989 poll when it finished third in the regional elections with a stunning 23.7% of the vote and, in coalition with Civic Platform, retained control of 15 out of 16 regional assemblies; although this success was marred by accusations of electoral irregularities. However, the party performed disastrously in the May 2015 presidential election when its candidate, deputy leader Adam Jarubas, finished sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. It went on to struggle in the October parliamentary election and only just scraped over the 5% threshold for representation securing 5.1% of the vote and 16 seats in the Sejm, its worst result in any post-1989 poll.

The Peasant Party was a victim of the anti-incumbent backlash that was the main leitmotif of the election, and blamed specifically for failing to prevent the government’s perceived neglect of rural areas and the agricultural sector. Moreover, Mr Piechociński was felt to be less effective than his predecessor and never really established unquestioned authority within the party, facing opposition from activists loyal to Mr Pawlak. Although the party established bridgeheads in some urban areas, it failed to hold on to much of its previous core rural-agricultural electorate: securing support from only 18.6% of farmers and 9.4% of voters living in the countryside, compared with 52.3% and 45.4% respectively for Law and Justice. The Peasant Party only held on to 57% of its voters in the previous 2011 election while 20% switched to Law and Justice.

Struggling to recover

In the aftermath of the election, Law and Justice’s initial reaction was to try and scoop up the remainder of the Peasant Party’s rural-agricultural electorate by marginalising it within parliament and excluding its supporters from key positions in government-controlled agricultural agencies. However, at the same time the ruling party began to realise that there could be some advantages to co-operating with its agrarian rival. For example, Law and Justice has been trying to persuade the Peasant Party to break ranks with Civic Platform at the local level so that the ruling party can take a share of power in at least some of Poland’s 16 regional authorities. These are important bodies because they play a key role in disbursing EU funds and are a major source of local party patronage; and Law and Justice currently only controls one of them. Although the ruling grouping is a direct electoral threat to the Peasant Party because it is competing for the same rural-agricultural voters, the agrarians are also primarily an office-seeking grouping. Indeed, critics argue that the party has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level. This makes it a pragmatic and flexible negotiating partner that could, in theory at least, link up with Law and Justice if, for example, this could help it to regain some influence in government-run agricultural agencies.

Following its election defeat, the Peasant Party decided to make a radical break with its old guard and elected as its new leader 34-year-old Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, employment minister in the outgoing government and one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists. Under Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s leadership the party has tried to project itself as a constructive opposition by, for example, abstaining in the initial parliamentary vote of confidence in the new administration. However, this has proved a challenge because since the election the political scene has been polarised sharply by a bitter political dispute over the membership and competencies of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body which rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new anti-Law and Justice civic movement, has mobilised thousands of Poles in street demonstrations protesting against the government’s alleged violations of judicial independence and accused it of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. Law and Justice supporters, on the other hand, place the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the outgoing government and defend the new administration’s actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, arguing that opposition to the party is being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Although it supported the largest anti-government demonstrations, the Peasant Party has also tried to distance itself from the Committee and the other liberal and centrist opposition parties. For example, in May Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz attended a meeting organised by Law and Justice, but boycotted by other opposition leaders, to try (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) and find a compromise solution to the constitutional crisis. This distancing stemmed partly from the fact that the Peasant Party is concerned that the Committee has developed an increasingly liberal-leftist ideological profile on moral-cultural issues which is likely to be off-putting to its small-town traditionalist, socially conservative voters. Moreover, not only has the party found itself marginalised by other opposition groupings in a debate where it has few specialists, but the constitutional tribunal issue is simply not a particularly salient one for its core electorate.

The party is, therefore, much more comfortable talking about socio-economic issues, particularly those that affect rural-agricultural communities. It has, for example, criticised the government for: introducing a new law which the party says has made it difficult for farmers to purchase land; delays in EU agricultural subsidy payments and aid for rural areas; failing to offset the effects of falls in the price of agricultural products; and introducing measures which, it claims, will damage the interests of farmers such as a proposed new water tax. The government has responded by arguing that it was the outgoing coalition and the officials whom they appointed that were responsible for many of the problems that the new administration is now trying to tackle, and denies that its measures will have the negative effects that the Peasant Party claims. For example, the administration says that its new agricultural land trade law will protect Polish farmers from speculators now that Poland’s exemption from EU laws which allow the sale of land to foreigners has come to an end.

However, so far the party has made little impact with all of this. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz is competent and energetic but lacks gravitas and charisma, while the party’s parliamentary caucus contains many inexperienced deputies and few striking personalities or notable policy specialists, which means that it has almost completely disappeared from national media debates. Moreover, the majority of rural-agricultural voters still appear to be giving Law and Justice the benefit of the doubt. The ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows the Peasant Party’s support averaging at only 3.2%.

Some commentators argue that this is due to the influence of the clergy given the higher levels of religiosity in rural areas: 59% of Poles who live in the countryside attend Catholic Mass at least once a week compared with 31% of those in towns. For sure, most clergymen in rural areas are clearly sympathetic to Law and Justice, and the political right more generally, but this has always been the case. More significant is probably the fact that the government has delivered on its flagship election promise to pay a 500 złoties monthly subsidy for every second and subsequent child in all families as well as for the first children of poorer households. The so-called ‘500 plus’ programme, which came into effect in April, is simple and easy to grasp and has provided a direct, clearly identifiable and significant boost to low income families living beyond large urban centres who have felt frustrated that they have not shared sufficiently in the country’s recent economic growth.

Still a threat to Law and Justice?

The Peasant Party continues to face an existential struggle to hang on to what is left of its core rural-agricultural electorate against the challenge from Law and Justice. But it is still in the game and, in spite of this, also remains potentially the greatest electoral threat to the ruling party in rural areas. The party’s most important asset is its extensive local organisational base of 140,000 members, thousands of local councillors and a share of control in 15 out of 16 regional authorities. For a party previously wracked by internal divisions it is, for the moment at least, also displaying a surprising degree of unity around Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s leadership. The party is fortunate that its first major electoral test (but a crucial one) will be the autumn 2018 local government elections, a poll in which the agrarian grouping always performs better than in national opinion surveys. This is partly due to its strong grassroots organisation but also because there is generally a higher turnout in rural areas in local elections.

There is a chance that rural-agricultural voters will quickly take for granted the boost in incomes provided by ‘500 plus’ and eventually become disillusioned with Law and Justice if the party is not able to deliver in other areas for this electorate. But the Peasant Party does seem to be realising slowly that it still has a long way to go, cannot simply spend the next two-and-half years until the local elections hoping that something will turn up, and has to continue to be more pro-active and distinctive if it is to survive and recover its support.

Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of 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.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.

Is there an end in sight to Poland’s constitutional crisis?

Poland’s constitutional tribunal crisis escalated last month when the European Commission initiated the next stage of its rule of law procedure calling upon the country’s government to take action or face possible sanctions. But while the crisis is forcing the ruling party to expend political capital defending its position, it does not show any signs of backing down.

An escalating crisis

The row over the tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws, is the most serious constitutional crisis to affect the country since the collapse of communism in 1989. It began when, immediately following its victory in last October’s parliamentary election, the new government led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member tribunal. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda did not accept their oaths of office. The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment who accused the government of violating judicial independence. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents.

However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work, although he subsequently allowed two of them to do so.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse in December by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen; thereby hoping to oblige Mr Rzepliński to accept the judges appointed by the new parliament. The so-called ‘repair law’ also increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority, making the votes of these new appointees more significant, and stipulated that cases would be considered in the order they were received rather than at the tribunal’s discretion.

The government’s opponents claimed that that these changes would paralyse the tribunal and accused Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new anti-government civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, defended its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party. More broadly, they claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

In March, the crisis escalated when the tribunal decided that it was empowered by the Constitution to ignore the changes introduced in the ‘repair law’ and rule on its legality under the old procedural rules, and declared the December amendments unconstitutional. At the same time, the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, issued a critical report which said that the December amendments were a threat to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. For its part, the government played down the report’s significance, argued that the tribunal had no power to review the ‘repair law’ (as the Constitution stipulates that its rules are regulated by parliamentary statute), and refused to publish the judgement in the official gazette, a necessary step for tribunal rulings to become legally binding.

Compromise or cosmetic changes?

The opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission decided to undertake an unprecedented investigation of Poland under the EU’s rule of law monitoring mechanism. The Union adopted the instrument to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario suspending their voting rights. The Commission agreed to the first step under the framework: undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether there were clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

In response, the Law and Justice government strongly opposed Commission interference in what it insisted was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature. However, it also tried to de-escalate the dispute by saying that it was open to dialogue with the Commission and consultations with opposition leaders to find a compromise solution. As a consequence, another constitutional tribunal bill was introduced in June and signed into law at the end of July. This removed the two-thirds majority threshold and lowered the quorum for tribunal rulings in the most important cases from thirteen to eleven. It also allowed the tribunal president to determine the order in which cases were considered if this was necessary to defend civic rights and freedoms, state security or the constitutional order.

However, the main opposition parties argued that the government was simply buying time until Mr Rzepliński’s term of office expires in December, hoping that he will be replaced as tribunal president by someone more amenable. The new law, they said, made only cosmetic changes and in some ways actually restricted the tribunal even further. Although the government agreed to publish all of the tribunal’s recent rulings, the law failed to recognise its key March judgement that invalidated the December ‘repair law’. It also required the tribunal president to allow the three un-recognised Law and Justice-nominated judges to take part in its proceedings and introduced a new veto mechanism allowing four judges to postpone a case for up to six months. Mr Rzepliński made it clear that he considered the new law unconstitutional and the tribunal could well strike it down.

According to some commentators, the law was rushed through parliament in an attempt to re-assure the US administration ahead of the NATO summit held in Warsaw at the start of July. Law and Justice is much more sensitive to pressure from the USA, which it considers Poland’s most important foreign policy ally, than EU criticisms. Although some government critics suggested that that the constitutional crisis could lead to the summit being downgraded or ending in humiliation for Poland, it proved to be a success with an agreement to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. However, US President Barack Obama did express concerns about the constitutional impasse arguing that ‘more work needs to be done’. Government supporters responded by saying that he also praised the parliament’s efforts to end the dispute and that these comments were marginal to the summit discussions.

EU pressure is unlikely to resolve the crisis

Law and Justice hoped that EU institutions would be so absorbed by the fallout from the June UK referendum vote to leave the Union that they would not return to the Polish crisis until the autumn. However, at its July meeting the Commission decided that Warsaw’s efforts did not go far enough and moved to the next stage of the procedure, issuing an official ‘rule of law recommendation’ urging the Polish government to: swear in the judges elected by the previous parliament; publish and fully implement all tribunal rulings; screen the latest tribunal law for compliance with the Venice Commission; and report on progress within three months. Having started the procedure it is difficult for the Commission to back down and it may be using the Polish crisis to signal that it retains a sense of purpose in spite of the Brexit imbroglio. Law and Justice responded by questioning the Commission’s sincerity and arguing that it should concentrate on dealing with the more serious problems that the EU faced rather than interfering in Poland’s internal affairs.

The constitutional crisis is forcing Law and Justice to expend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its reputation. Its escalation could overshadow the government’s attempts to implement its flagship social spending pledges, notably the costly but extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme. A March-April survey for the CBOS polling agency found that 45% of respondents supported the tribunal compared with only 29% who backed the government (26% did not know). The crisis is also spilling over into other parts of the political and legal system as the tribunal rules on the basis of old procedures while the government refuses to recognise these judgements, forcing the courts and public bodies to decide whether or not to apply the challenged legislation.

However, with the stakes so high the government does not show any signs of backing down as a result of EU pressure, particularly as this would involve agreeing to actions that it had previously deemed illegal. Law and Justice is also clearly willing to pay a high political price for measures it feels are necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. At the same time, while many protesters and activists genuinely believe the government’s actions are undermining Polish democracy, it is clearly in the opposition’s interests not to reach a compromise and thereby keep public attention focused on a highly emotive touchstone issue around which it can mobilise both domestic and international support.

Moreover, for the moment at least the crisis and ongoing row with the Commission are too abstract for, and do not affect the day-to-day lives of, most ordinary Poles who are mainly concerned with socio-economic issues where the government is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opposition critics. While Law and Justice has a significant number of vocal and well-organised opponents, it also retains widespread support among a large segment of the population. A June-July CBOS survey found that 37% of respondents supported the government while 30% were opposed (29% were neutral). Other surveys show that the ruling party retains a clear opinion poll lead over the divided opposition, and this support could solidify when voters start to feel the full impact of social spending programmes such as ‘500 plus’.

Indeed, the Commission’s intervention is something of a double-edged sword: while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, they are more divided over whether the Union should become involved in Polish domestic affairs. While a June CBOS poll found that, by 42% to 34%, respondents felt that the Commission’s criticisms of the Polish government were justified, only a small majority (41% to 39%) agreed that its actions were an acceptable form of pressure. Moreover, only 38% felt that the Commission’s actions were motivated by concern about the rule of law while 41% said that dislike of the Law and Justice government was the more significant factor.

Will there be sanctions?

If the Commission considers that its recommendations have not been implemented then it can propose a motion for sanctions under Article 7. However, as the framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations, such penalties require unanimity in the EU Council in one of the three stages of voting. The Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures and could be joined by other countries concerned about possible Commission over-reach. Law and Justice has also questioned the legality of the Commission procedure, saying that it is based on non-treaty practices invented by officials, and could challenge it in the European Court of Justice dragging the process out even further. Poland’s constitutional crisis shows no sign of ending any time soon.

How will Brexit affect Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing government, for whom Brexit means the loss of its main EU ally, blames the crisis on over-reach by the Union’s political elites, while the liberal and centrist opposition argues that the country needs to re-join the European ‘mainstream’ and re-build its alliance with Germany. Although Poles appear to be taking an increasingly instrumental approach towards the EU, no mainstream political party questions continued Polish membership and a post-Brexit upsurge in Euroscepticism appears very unlikely.

Law and Justice loses its main EU ally

The prospect of British withdrawal from the EU means that Poland is losing a key ally on a number of important policy issues. As the largest non-Eurozone EU member, the UK government played a pivotal role in preventing the development of a two-speed Europe with the locus of Union decision making shifting to those states that were part of the single currency area. The prospect of Brexit, therefore, raises concerns that further European integration will hasten the process of building a hard core based on the Eurozone, potentially leaving Poland marginalised on the EU’s periphery. Warsaw also saw the UK as a close ally in developing a tough EU response to Russia, fearing that France and Germany were too inclined to strike up cosy bi-lateral deals with Moscow that side-lined post-communist states such as Poland.

Moreover, the current Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has particular reasons for being concerned about Brexit as it will be losing its main supporter among the large EU member states. The Law and Justice government moved away from the strategy pursued by its predecessor, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, of trying to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project and prioritising the development of close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland needs to be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests, re-calibrating its relationships with the major EU powers and forming its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence, identifying Britain’s Conservative government as its main strategic partner in this project.

Although Law and Justice supports EU membership, like the British Conservatives it is also an anti-federalist grouping committed to defending Polish sovereignty, and in recent years has articulated an increasingly fundamental and principled critique of further European integration. It is also a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping, the third largest in the European Parliament (EP), 21 of whose 73 members are British Conservatives. This will almost certainly cease to function after Brexit and if this occurs before the end of the current EP’s term in 2019 then its 18 Polish members, mostly from Law and Justice, will have to join another grouping or sit as independents.

British Conservative MEPs defended the Law and Justice government in EP debates on its dispute with the European Commission, which in January launched an investigation into whether Poland had breached the rule of law following domestic political and legal controversies over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal. It was also expected that the British government would oppose any attempts to introduce sanctions against Poland if the Commission referred the issue to the European Council. So Brexit will leave Law and Justice without its most significant ally in the EU institutions. On the other hand, the Brexit imbroglio will also relieve some of the pressure on Law and Justice as the Commission will now be completely absorbed in trying to deal with the crisis and the EP has already postponed a debate on the state of democracy and human rights in Poland scheduled for its next plenary session in July.

Who is to blame and how should Poland respond?

Law and Justice responded to the Brexit vote by arguing that it was a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite who they say have precipitated mounting Euroscepticm by over-centralising and trying to force their vision of deeper European integration against the popular will. They cited the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation into Poland and plan to impose migrant relocation quotas on member states as examples of such over-reach. Law and Justice called upon the leaders of the EU institutions – notably European Council President Donald Tusk, Law and Justice’s political nemesis who was Poland’s Civic Platform prime minister in 2007-14 – to take political responsibility for the Brexit crisis and resign.

Law and Justice also tried to take the political initiative by calling for a fundamental re-think of the trajectory of the European project, highlighting the necessity of the EU undertaking deep reforms if it is to survive. The party called for a new European treaty that returns the EU to its original role as a strong but loose international ‘confederation’ of economically co-operating nation-states based on a more consensual decision making process and clearly defined division of rights between the Union and its members. This would involve weakening the European Commission bureaucracy, whose role would be restricted to regulating the single market, shifting more EU decision-making power to the European Council and national governments who would be freer to pursue their own policies, and reducing the dominant role of the Franco-German axis. Interestingly, Law and Justice also called for the EU to become a powerful foreign and defence policy ‘superpower’ with the European Council President, selected for a lengthy term, standing at the head of an EU army this is closely integrated with NATO.

The main opposition parties, Civic Platform and the smaller liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) grouping, on the other hand, blamed Law and Justice for contributing to the growth of the Euroscepticism that led to the Brexit vote through its criticisms of the Commission and the Franco-German axis. They called for the government to return Poland to the ‘European mainstream’ by supporting deeper integration and re-building the country’s previously close alliance with Germany. They also proposed re-opening the debate on Polish adoption of the Euro, so that the country was not a second tier EU member but at the heart of a Union that they argue will inevitably integrate more closely around its Eurozone hard core. Although it has not ruled out Eurozone accession (which most Poles oppose) in principle, Law and Justice argues that, given the single currency’s huge problems, it cannot envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the Euro.

EU membership as a civilizational choice

The only calls for a ‘Polexit’ referendum on whether Poland should leave EU have so far come from fringe politicians on the radical Eurosceptic right. Law and Justice’s anti-federalism notwithstanding the dominant view in the ruling party remains that it is in Poland’s interests to remain in the EU and try to reform it from within. Moreover, although Poles are critical of attempts to deepen European integration in a number of areas, notably the migrant relocation scheme, the overwhelming majority of them remain committed to EU membership, unlike in countries like the UK where public Euroscepticism is a powerful political force. Opinion surveys held immediately after the Brexit referendum found support for the EU holding up at around 80% with only 15% against.

A key motivation for Poles voting overwhelmingly to join the EU in the country’s 2003 accession referendum was the idea it represented a historical and civilisational choice to re-unite with the West and the culmination of the post-communist democratisation process. One of the main reasons why levels of popular support for the country’s EU membership have remained so high is, therefore, that many Poles, especially among the older generations, still see the European integration process as part of a symbolic re-uniting of Poland with a Western international community of shared values that they had always considered themselves to be part of culturally and spiritually. This is linked to a feeling that Poland’s geo-political situation necessitates membership of Western international organisations such as the EU for security reasons. All of this makes it difficult for Polish Eurosceptics to construct a really convincing alternative narrative because EU membership appears to go with the grain of the country’s recent history. This is obviously very different from the context in countries such as Britain where it is perfectly possible to construct a historical narrative that does include the country’s membership of the EU.

This idea of EU membership as a natural and obvious civilisational choice has, however, come under strain in recent years due to an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This is particularly evident in the sphere of moralcultural values where Polish attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European cultural and political elites. This issue has surfaced recently in the contrasting reactions of Poles (and other Central Europeans) and West European political elites (although not necessarily their publics) to the European migration crisis. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

A more instrumental approach

Moreover, a post-accession younger generation of Poles – who, in contrast to the Brexit referendum trend, appear to be the most Eurosceptic demographic constituency – has developed a less abstract and more instrumental approach to EU membership, with support being driven increasingly by the tangible benefits that it is felt to deliver. Among these are the large fiscal transfers that the country receives, particularly EU regional aid of which Poland is currently the largest beneficiary and many Polish commentators see as crucial to its economic modernisation. The current EU budget, which runs until 2020, was always likely to be the last from which Poland would benefit so substantially and, given that the UK is one of the largest net contributors, Brexit will almost certainly limit the scale of these fiscal transfers further in the future.

Although it has led to skill shortages in some sectors of the Polish economy, the ability to be able to travel and work abroad has also been one of the main pillars of support for EU membership in Poland. The UK was one of the few states that gave immediate and relatively un-restricted access to its national labour market to workers from the post-communist states which, like Poland, joined the EU in 2004. As a consequence Britain has been one of the most popular destinations for Poles seeking work in Western Europe with an estimated 800,000 Polish migrant workers currently living there. Indeed, concern about un-controlled mass EU migration was an important driver of support for Brexit and there will almost certainly be restrictions on Poles hoping to access the British labour market in the future. Much of this Polish outward migration could, of course, simply be displaced to other EU countries, although Brexit may also lead to political pressures for these states to also try and limit access to their labour markets. This, together with a decline in EU fiscal transfers to Poland and the fact that younger Poles in particular appear to have a more instrumental approach towards EU membership, could create the potential for an increase in Polish Euroscepticism at some point in the future. However, these are very much possible long-term trends and in the foreseeable future the prospects of Brexit leading to an upsurge in support for ‘Polexit’ appear extremely unlikely.

Can Poland’s opposition mount an effective challenge?

Poland’s ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the right-wing government’s opponents. However, even if protests against the ruling party can sustain their momentum, the divided opposition will struggle to mount an effective challenge unless it can also address Poles’ broader concerns and recognise that they do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

The constitutional crisis is the catalyst

The Polish political scene has been deeply polarised since the government led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took office last autumn following its decisive victory in the October parliamentary election. The catalyst and main focus of this has been a bitter political and legal struggle over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws. The opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its narrative that the government’s actions represent an attempt to interfere in the independence of the judiciary. This has provided government opponents with a highly emotive touchstone issue which they have bundled up with a number of other measures, such as a new law that they claim politicises public broadcasting, to accuse Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law.

For their part, the government’s supporters deny these charges vigorously and defend its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argue that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Nonetheless, the opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission initiated an unprecedented preliminary investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. The government’s constitutional tribunal reforms were also criticised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog.

Mr Schetyna lacks an effective strategy

With 138 deputies in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, the main opposition grouping is the centrist Civic Platform (PO) which was the main governing party between 2007-15. Civic Platform has a large number of experienced parliamentarians, considerable financial resources, a relatively well developed grassroots organisational network, and controls 14 out Poland’s 16 regional authorities. In January, the party elected a new leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who was foreign minister in the outgoing Civic Platform government led by the then party leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz, having being previously marginalised by her predecessor Donald Tusk. However, although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years, Mr Schetyna is still associated with the previous, discredited government which many Poles see as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals.

Mr Schetyna also lacks charisma and, most importantly, does not, as yet, appear to have an effective strategy for re-building the party’s support. His approach, dubbed ‘total opposition’, seems to comprise: presenting himself as the most uncompromising opponent of the government; trying to outflank it on social spending pledges by, for example, arguing that the government’s flagship ‘500 plus’ subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families should be extended to include every child; and using Civic Platform’s international contacts to attack the ruling party in European forums. However, although experience suggests that Polish voters often prefer hard-line rather than more nuanced opposition parties, Mr Schetyna’s approach often comes across as opportunist and overly negative. Civic Platform is unlikely to win the backing of those voters favouring greater social welfare spending, for whom Law and Justice will always be more credible, and is in danger of simply damaging its hard-won fiscal credibility among the party’s one-time core liberal electorate. Moreover, while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, Civic Platform could appear to be weakening the country’s international standing by drawing European institutions into domestic political disputes.

In electing Mr Schetyna as leader Civic Platform members hoped that, as an experienced political operator, he would restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. However, Mr Schetyna often gives the impression that his main priority is shoring up his own leadership and exacting revenge on those who once helped to marginalise him within the party. This has started to produce a backlash, one consequence of which was that, following a purge of Mr Schetyna’s opponents which led to the defection of a number of Civic Platform councillors, the party lost control of the regional authority in Lower Silesia, once his local power base.

Mr Petru’s ‘newness’ begins to wear off

Meanwhile, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, formed last May by financial sector economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote in the October election to emerge as the fourth largest grouping in the Sejm, picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. However, it was the constitutional crisis that provided ‘Modern’ with an opportunity to broaden its image from being simply a technocratic pro-business liberal party. While Mr Petru is a reasonably effective parliamentary and media performer he is not a hugely charismatic figure and his party’s greatest asset was its ‘newness’, which stood in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. Without the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office, Mr Petru’s harsh criticisms of the Law and Justice government appeared more authentic and credible and, as a consequence, ‘Modern’ started pulling ahead of Civic Platform in opinion polls, and in some even ran neck-and-neck with Law and Justice.

However, as the effect of this ‘newness’ began to wear off Mr Petru’s party lost some of its initial momentum and the two main opposition groupings are now fairly evenly matched in the polls, and both are lagging well behind Law and Justice. For example, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows support for ‘Modern’ at 19% compared with 17% for Civic Platform and 38% for the ruling party. Part of the problem is that Mr Petru’s party lacks both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small 29-member parliamentary caucus. Moreover, none of its other leaders have the same public profile as Mr Petru, whose novelty value has declined as a series of gaffes have allowed the party’s opponents to portray him as an over-promoted political lightweight: most notoriously when he sent a Twitter message implying that he was defending Poland’s historical Constitution of May 3rd 1791, when it was only in force for a little over a year!

‘Modern’s’ biggest weakness, however, lies in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal. Experience suggests that the social base for a purely economically liberal party in Poland is relatively small, a problem exacerbated by Mr Petru’s links with the large banking corporations which, for many Poles, symbolise the hated political-business nexus (often referred to disparagingly as ‘banksters’) that motivated many of them to vote for anti-establishment parties like Law and Justice. Initially, the polarisation of the political scene helped Mr Petru’s party neutralise this weakness by presenting itself as the ‘defender of democracy’ rather than simply a narrowly focused liberal grouping. The party’s leap in support was, therefore, the product of a very specific political conjuncture and this began to change as voters started to once again evaluate ‘Modern’ through the prism of its relatively unpopular liberal socio-economic policies.

A coalition of opposition parties appears unlikely

In fact, the main focus for mobilising opposition to the government has been the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), formed last November to protest against the constitutional tribunal reforms but subsequently broadened out into a more general anti-Law and Justice civic movement. Government supporters argue that the Committee’s activities are orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. For sure, many of those who identify with the Committee represent the post-1989 business, cultural and political establishment, and its protest rallies have frequently been addressed by opposition party leaders. However, the Committee has been able to project itself successfully, both domestically and internationally, as a large, bottom-up movement of ordinary citizens genuinely concerned about the apparent risk to democracy, civic freedoms and the rule of law in Poland.

Thousands of Poles have participated in the Committee’s street demonstrations, the largest of which was held in Warsaw at the beginning of the May around the slogan ‘We are and will remain in Europe’, conflating the government’s apparent undermining of democracy with the danger that the country could leave the EU (although Law and Justice supporters argue that the government remains fully committed to Polish EU membership). This demonstration was, according to the (Civic Platform-controlled) Warsaw city council, attended by some 240,000 people (a figure picked up by the international media); although Law and Justice strongly contests this claim, citing police estimates (which opposition supporters, in turn, argue are biased in favour of the government) of the number present being only 45,000. In fact, even if one accepts the lower figure as more accurate, there is clearly a substantial number of Poles who feel (rightly or wrongly) sufficiently concerned that the government represents a threat to democracy to join the anti-Law and Justice protests.

In May, knowing that only a more formal political grouping is capable of ousting Law and Justice from office in an election, the Committee also launched a new coalition of opposition parties called ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ (Wolność, Równość, Demokracja) with the stated aim of ‘protecting European values and the constitutional order’. Interestingly, a survey conducted by the TNS polling agency found that 38% of respondents said that they would vote for a united opposition coalition compared with only 33% supporting Law and Justice. However, although Mr Petru appeared to endorse the idea of such an alliance, Mr Schetyna (while careful not to rule it out in principle) prevented Civic Platform from joining the ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ coalition. Even assuming that the anti-government protests can sustain their momentum beyond the summer break, with no single leader and lacking even a minimal common programme on the socio-economic issues that are likely to be most important to voters, the prospect of a coalition of opposition parties contesting the next election currently looks unlikely (although this could change as the next parliamentary poll is not due for three-and-a-half years).

Little prospect of an effective challenge

While the ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the government’s opponents and given them a sense of energy and purpose, it is questionable whether, as things stand, the divided opposition can mount an effective challenge to Law and Justice. The party’s victory last year reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, so most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo. The government’s opponents are, however, spending much of their time focusing on (arguably too abstract) constitutional issues and failing to address ordinary citizens’ more pressing social and economic concerns. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ruling party retains a clear opinion poll lead, which could solidify when voters start to feel the full impact of its generous (but costly) social spending programmes, such as ‘500 plus’.

What happened to Poland’s Paweł Kukiz?

A year ago rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz caused a sensation when he finished a surprise third in the first round of the Polish presidential election. He held on to enough support for his new Kukiz ‘15 grouping to secure representation in the legislature after the October parliamentary election. Kukiz ‘15 has retained a reasonably stable base of support but its lack of organisational and programmatic coherence casts doubt over the grouping’s long-term prospects which are closely linked to its leader’s personal credibility.

Election success in spite of blunders

Last May the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz caused a political sensation when he came from nowhere to finish third in the first round of the 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 Polish politics.

Opinion polls conducted immediately after the presidential poll showed Mr Kukiz to be Poland’s most trusted politician and his (as-yet-unnamed) grouping running in second place behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping, which went on to win a decisive victory in the parliamentary election – but ahead of the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO). Mr Kukiz squandered much of this political capital as his grouping, which eventually adopted the name Kukiz ‘15, descended into a series of bitter rows and splits with former colleagues which caused its electoral support to plummet. These political blunders overshadowed attempts to mobilise for the September referendum on replacing the country’s proportional electoral system with one based on single-member constituencies, which was called by the previous (subsequently defeated) Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski as a panic move to win over Mr Kukiz’s supporters. Although many commentators expected the referendum to provide Mr Kukiz with a major boost it ended in fiasco with a derisory 7.8% turnout.

In the event, Mr Kukiz turned out to have sufficient hard core supporters immune to the kind of gaffes that would have been fatal for more mainstream politicians, and in the October election Kukiz ’15 held on to enough of his support to cross the 5% threshold for securing parliamentary representation. Mr Kukiz’s grouping emerged as the third largest in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, securing 8.8% of the vote and 42 seats. According to exit polls, Kukiz ’15 polled particularly strongly among younger voters and students picking up 19.9% and 20.2% of their votes respectively. Widespread anti-establishment feeling, which was the dominant theme of the election, was particularly evident among these younger voters, many of whom were increasingly disillusioned by what they saw as an invidious choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fell well short of their abilities or remaining in a country which offered them few prospects for the future.

Surviving its first crisis

However, Mr Kukiz’s extremely eclectic candidates list produced a potentially unstable parliamentary caucus. Having fallen out with and publicly attacked many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his presidential campaign, he came to rely increasingly upon the organisational support of smaller nationalist and liberal-conservative parties and political associations, notably the radical right National Movement (RN) which enjoys close links with Hungary’s ‘Jobbik’ party. However, the largest group within the caucus still comprised non-aligned businessmen, local civic activists, trade unionists and single-member constituency campaigners. The only common denominator was 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 to predictions that Kukiz ’15 would implode as soon as it was forced to confront issues that brought its ideological incoherence to the fore.

In April, Kukiz ’15 faced its first major post-election crisis. The grouping came to an agreement with Civic Platform, now the main parliamentary opposition party, and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, which appears to have overtaken the former ruling party in opinion polls, that they would not participate in the election of a new member of the constitutional tribunal nominated by Law and Justice. By removing their voting cards the opposition parties hoped to reduce the number of deputies present to below the required quorum and thereby invalidate the vote. Kukiz ‘15’s tactics led to accusations from Law and Justice that it had struck a deal with establishment politicians, exemplified by a symbolic handshake between Mr Kukiz and ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru. Such accusations are extremely dangerous for Kukiz ‘15 given Mr Petru’s links to the large banking corporations which, for many Poles, symbolise the hated political-business nexus (often referred to disparagingly as ‘banksters’) that motivated them to vote for Mr Kukiz in the first place. Mr Kukiz’s supporters responded that the abstention tactic was determined spontaneously as a response to Law and Justice’s decision to bring forward the timing of the vote.

As it turned out, the plan failed when seven members of the Kukiz ’15 caucus broke ranks and cast an abstention or voted with the ruling party. One of these, Małgorzata Zwiercan, cast a vote for both herself and another (momentarily absent) colleague, the legendary former anti-communist activist Kornel Morawiecki. Mr Kukiz suggested that the deputies who broke ranks were encouraged to do so by Mr Morawiecki’s son, Mateusz, who is deputy prime minister and development minister in the Law and Justice government. Ms Zwiercan was expelled from the caucus while Mr Morawiecki, who said that she acted in line with his intentions, also decided to leave Kukiz ‘15.

In the same week, the National Movement’s political council called upon the five Kukiz ’15 deputies who are party members to resign and form their own parliamentary circle. The proximate cause of this was the publication of a tape recording where Mr Kukiz referred to one of the Movement’s leaders in vulgar language. However, there was a broader crisis in relations between Mr Kukiz and the Movement with the latter criticising the caucus leadership’s attempts to introduce a more unitary programmatic line in areas where the nationalists were at odds with its official stance, specifically: in their support for Polish withdrawal from the EU and strengthening Poland’s abortion law, and opposition to Kukiz ‘15’s tactical co-operation with liberal and centrist parties.

However, although these events exposed the underlying divisions within Kukiz ’15 and fuelled speculation about its imminent implosion, the grouping’s parliamentary caucus emerged relatively unscathed. Although Mr Morawiecki gave Kukiz ‘15 gravitas and rooted it in the anti-communist tradition, apart from Ms Zwiercan none of his other allies joined him in forming a new parliamentary circle. Plans to form a separate Nationalist Movement parliamentary caucus were also scuppered by a conflict between party leader Robert Winnicki, who resigned from Kukiz ’15, and other nationalist deputies who decided to stay. An important reason why the Kukiz ’15 parliamentary caucus has held together in spite of its ideological heterogeneity has been its relative lack of discipline in parliamentary divisions, with many deputies often voting differently from the majority.

Mr Kukiz’s charisma is still the key

Mr Kukiz’s grouping has also tried to develop a more distinctive political identity. Although it has become increasingly critical of the Law and Justice-led government, especially over the issue of party-linked appointments to state bodies, Kukiz ’15 has attempted to position itself as a ‘constructive’ opposition. It has, for example, tried not to become directly involved in the bitter and ongoing conflict over the membership and functions of Poland’s constitutional tribunal which has dominated political debate since the election. While criticising the government’s handling of the dispute, Kukiz ’15 has refused to join other opposition groupings in street protests organised by the anti-government Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), and tried to propose a compromise solution based on re-constituting the tribunal with new judges elected by a qualified two-thirds parliamentary majority.

At the same time, Mr Kukiz’s grouping has tried to outflank Law and Justice by promoting constitutional reforms and legislative initiatives that position it as a genuinely reformist ‘anti-system’ movement. For example, in addition to its signature issue of electoral reform, Kukiz ’15 has promoted: measures which they argue empower ordinary citizens, such as more direct democracy and referendums triggered by civic initiatives; shifting from a parliamentary to presidential system of government; and ending state party funding and political appointments to ministerial cabinets. It has also tried to tap into popular concerns about the potential security and societal cohesion risks posed by mass Muslim immigration by collecting signatures for a referendum on whether or not Poland should accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa under the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.

However, as part of its appeal of not belonging to the so-called ‘partocracy’, Kukiz ’15 did not register as a formal political party thereby depriving itself of access to ongoing state funding (given its share of the vote Mr Kukiz’s grouping was eligible for around 7 million złoties per annum). Nor has it yet developed a network of local grassroots organisational structures that could act as a counter-weight to centrifugal tendencies within the parliamentary caucus. This lack of organsitionisational consolidation makes Kukiz ’15 vulnerable to hostile approaches from better resourced competitors such as the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic–Liberty and Hope (KORWiN) grouping led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Economically libertarian, socially conservative and radically Eurosceptic, Mr Korwin-Mikke is one of the most controversial figures in Polish politics. However, while his party failed to cross the 5% threshold in the parliamentary election its 4.8% share of the vote was enough for it to secure an annual state subsidy of 4.17 million złoties, and a number of Kukiz ’15 deputies who are ideologically close to Mr Korwin-Mikke may end up defecting and forming a new parliamentary caucus linked to the grouping.

In fact, the key to Kukiz 15’s future prospects remains its leader’s personal popularity. Although he can be gaffe-prone and emotional under pressure, for many of his supporters Mr Kukiz’s impulsive behaviour outside established political norms is evidence of his authenticity. Although no longer enjoying the very broad appeal that he achieved last May, Mr Kukiz has held on to much of the support that he was able to garner in the parliamentary election: a March-April survey by the CBOS agency found him to be Poland’s third most popular politician with a 51% approval rating (22% disapproval, 21% neutral). As a consequence, Kukiz ’15 has retained a reasonably stable base of popular support: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows it averaging around 11%.

An uncertain future

In spite of its ideological incoherence Kukiz ‘15 emerged relatively unscathed from its most serious crisis and its core electorate appear willing to support the grouping as long as they perceive its leader to be the embodiment of opposition to the establishment. However, Kukiz ’15 remains an unstable construct and serious question marks hang over its longer-term prospects. In the current, highly polarised political climate it will be increasingly problematic for it to find a niche between the Law and Justice government and the ‘establishment’ opposition parties. Lack of discipline in parliamentary voting also makes it difficult for the grouping to develop a more coherent programmatic identity and means that Mr Kukiz cannot be sure of delivering his deputies in crucial votes. The grouping’s continued success, and even survival, therefore, depends very much on his personal credibility, so could erode very quickly if his supporters cease to see him as the most credible fighter against ‘the system’.

Will Poland’s Law and Justice government respond to international pressure?

Poland’s right-wing government has come under growing international pressure to resolve the country’s on-going constitutional crisis. Although the ruling party’s supporters robustly deny that its actions are endangering democracy, and there is little indication that the government will back down, the crisis is forcing it to expend valuable time and political capital defending its position in international forums.

Constitutional crisis is the catalyst

As a political grouping committed to carving out a more independent and assertive foreign policy and re-calibrating the country’s relationship with the major EU powers, especially Germany, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party was expecting to clash with the EU political establishment following its decisive victory in last October’s parliamentary election. However, it did not foresee that the cause of such a sharp conflict with EU institutions would be a bitter domestic dispute over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws.

The crisis began last November almost immediately after Law and Justice took office when the new government decided to annul the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member tribunal, to replace those whose terms of office were due to expire that month and in December. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. The government argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work, although he subsequently allowed two of them to assume their duties.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse in December by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen, thereby hoping to oblige Mr Rzepliński to accept the five judges appointed by the new parliament. The so-called ‘repair law’ also increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority and stipulated that cases would be considered in the order they were received rather than at the tribunal’s discretion. However, in March, ignoring the December amendments and ruling on the basis of the old procedural rules, the tribunal declared the ‘repair law’ unconstitutional. The government, in turn, said that the tribunal had no constitutional power to review the law, which had come into effect as soon as it was passed, and refused to publish the judgement in the official journal, a necessary step for tribunal rulings to become legally binding.

Most of the opposition and legal establishment claim that Law and Justice’s actions violate judicial independence and would paralyse the tribunal, making it more difficult to challenge the government’s legislation. They have bundled up the dispute over the tribunal’s membership and competencies with a number of other government measures – notably new laws which they claim politicise the civil service and public broadcasting – to accuse Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles have participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new anti-government civic movement.

The government’s supporters, however, argue that the previous administration, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the October election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. They point out that had these appointments not been challenged all but one of tribunal’s fifteen members would have been elected by Civic Platform-dominated parliaments, and argue that the ‘repair law’ increases the legitimacy of tribunal judgements and prevents the timing of cases being manipulated. More broadly, they claim that opposition to the government is being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites and vested interests hostile to its plans to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions.

International pressure intensifies

In April, international pressure on the Law and Justice government intensified when the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution by 513 votes to 142 (with 30 abstentions) saying that the ‘effective paralysis’ of the tribunal posed a threat to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Poland. The EP called upon the government to publish the tribunal’s March ruling and fully implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog. The Law and Justice government actually invited the Commission to Poland earlier this year hoping that it could help end the controversy, but it raised similar concerns to those expressed by the EP and also supported the appointment of the three judges elected by the previous parliament.

The EP vote was prompted by a decision by Civic Platform – now the main opposition grouping and a member of the European People’s Party, the EP’s largest political grouping which prepared the resolution – to attack the ruling party more openly in European forums. The government’s opponents enjoy close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. The vote came in the wake of the European Commission’s January decision to initiate a preliminary investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. So far the Commission has taken the first step which involves discussions with the member state concerned, but the EP resolution said that it should move to the next stage and issue a ‘rule of law recommendation’ giving Poland a specific time period to address the problems that it has identified.

Some commentators have also argued that the constitutional crisis is having a negative impact on Polish-US relations, suggesting that it could lead to the July NATO summit in Warsaw being downgraded or ending in humiliation for Poland. Law and Justice has made the summit a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and is hoping that it will agree to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank to deter Russian aggression, ideally stationing permanent NATO forces on Polish territory. A number of articles extremely critical of Law and Justice have appeared in the US opinion-forming media and American officials have expressed concerns about how the constitutional crisis is developing. Law and Justice supporters argue that many US commentators and officials are either ideologically un-sympathetic to the party or have been misinformed by well-placed individuals in American foreign policy-making circles who are hostile to the government. The government’s opponents, for example, made much of the fact that, during his March visit to Washington for a three-day nuclear summit, Mr Duda did not have any formal discussions with US administration officials. Law and Justice supporters responded that only three of the 60 world leaders attending the summit secured bi-lateral meetings with US President Barack Obama, and that Mr Duda held ‘brief but substantive’ informal discussions with him on the side-lines.

Law and Justice stands its ground

At the moment, Law and Justice is clearly willing to pay a high political price for actions which it says are both constitutional – arguing that swearing in the three judges elected by the previous parliament and publishing the tribunal’s March verdict would be illegal – and necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. The government’s supporters say that the constitutional crisis is a political rather than legal dispute and, therefore, a matter to be resolved internally. With the stakes so high, agreeing to the tribunal’s demands would also represent a huge political climb-down and the government currently shows no sign of bowing to what it considers to be opposition-initiated European and international pressure. At the same time, the ruling party is also signalling that it is trying to engage in dialogue with the opposition and find a compromise solution. For example, the Law and Justice-dominated Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, has convened a group of legal experts to consider the Venice Commission report and work on recommendations to resolve the crisis, if necessary by changing the law; although most opposition parties argue that the government is simply playing for time to appease the international community.

Moreover, the EP resolution has no legal consequences and the Commission, which is currently awaiting a report on Poland from its Vice-President Frans Timmermans, cannot impose sanctions such as suspending a country’s voting rights. The ‘rule of law’ framework constitutes a political dialogue and sanctions can only arise if the Commission invokes Article 7 of the EU treaties and recommends them to the European Council. Here sanctions require unanimity in one of the three stages of voting, and at least one country, Hungary, has made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce them against Poland.

The Commission also needs to be wary about escalating the dispute. For sure, opinion surveys suggest that most Poles agree with the constitutional tribunal rather than Law and Justice. A March-April poll conducted by the CBOS agency, for example, found that 45% of respondents supported the tribunal while only 29% agreed with the government (29% were undecided). However, while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, they are much more divided about the idea of European institutions becoming involved in Polish domestic political disputes. The same CBOS survey found respondents evenly split on whether EU politicians and institutions were motived by genuine concern for the state of democracy in Poland (47%) or instinctively hostile to Law and Justice and biased towards to the opposition (45%). Moreover, while Law and Justice has a significant number of vocal and well-organised opponents, it also retains widespread support among a large segment of the electorate, and other polls show that the ruling party has a clear lead over the divided opposition.

Law and Justice is more sensitive to influence from the USA, which it considers Poland’s most important foreign policy ally. However, Polish-US relations are strongly rooted and the ruling party is hoping that Washington will be pragmatic and de-couple whatever concerns it has about the constitutional crisis from security issues. In fact, the Warsaw summit appears likely to confirm an ongoing process of strengthening NATO’s Eastern flank, while there is a lack of political will for permanent US military bases in Poland anyway, regardless of the constitutional crisis. It also seems very unlikely that Washington will escalate its concerns about the Polish political situation into a public conflict by, for example, using the summit as an occasion to show its disapproval of the Law and Justice government.

Will playing for time work?

In spite of the involvement of international actors, Poland’s constitutional crisis is no nearer to being resolved and, if anything, becoming more intractable. As the tribunal starts to issue rulings in other cases on the basis of the old procedural rules, while the government continues to refuse to recognise these judgements by not publishing them, this could lead to legal paralysis with courts forced to decide whether or not to apply the challenged legislation. Moreover, the longer that the crisis continues the harder it will be for the ruling party to back down without losing face and it is certainly unlikely to take any action that appears to be giving in to opposition-initiated international pressure. Law and Justice is hoping that sooner or later the international community will grow tired of Poland’s complicated political-legal dispute and move on to other issues. However, in the meantime it is being forced to devote valuable time and political capital defending its position in the European and international arena.