The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Is Poland’s Civic Platform a serious threat to the ruling party?

Poland’s main opposition grouping appears to have seen off its challengers and be drawing level with the ruling party in the polls. Although underestimating the opposition would be a serious mistake for the governing party, for many Poles it remains associated the previous, discredited administration and does not yet offer a credible alternative.

Challengers for the opposition leadership

The centrist Civic Platform (PO), which was Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and is currently the main opposition grouping, suffered a crushing defeat in the most recent October 2015 parliamentary election at the hands of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The former governing party 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 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 whom many voters saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. When Grzegorz Schetyna took over as leader in January 2016 the party faced a major, possibly even existential, crisis.

Meanwhile, a significant challenger for the opposition leadership emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping led by liberal financial sector economist Ryszard Petru. ‘Modern’ was elected to the Sejm for the first time in 2015 securing 7.6% by picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. The party’s greatest asset, however, was the fact that it was able to contrast its ‘newnesss’ with the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. Without the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office, Mr Petru’s criticisms of the Law and Justice government appeared more authentic and credible and, as a consequence, ‘Modern’ pulled ahead of Mr Schetyna’s party in the polls.

At the same time, the main focus for mobilising extra-parliamentary opposition to Law and Justice came from the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), which was formed in November 2015 days after the new government took office. Although the initial impetus for its protests was controversy over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, the Committee subsequently broadened out into a more general anti-Law and Justice civic movement. Government supporters argued that its activities were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to Law and Justice’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. Nonetheless, the Committee was able to project itself, 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, and mobilised thousands in anti-government street protests.

Mr Schetyna restores discipline and purpose

However, Civic Platform retained a number of important advantages over its rivals. These included: a large caucus of experienced parliamentarians; considerable financial resources and access to state party funding; a relatively well-developed grassroots organisational network; and a local government base that included 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. Mr Schetyna is also a good organiser who has restored a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. At the same time, although he is a deeply pragmatic politician, Mr Schetyna tried to position himself as the government’s most uncompromising opponent by adopting an approach dubbed ‘total opposition’ and, in contrast to Mr Petru, boycotted negotiations with the ruling party.

‘Modern’, on the other hand, lacked both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small parliamentary caucus. Unlike Mr Schetyna, who spent the first phase of his leadership attempting to consolidate the party’s local structures, Mr Petru chose a more centralised and media-orientated organisational strategy. This will pose problems for the party when it has to find thousands of candidates to contest the autumn 2018 local elections, the next major electoral test. Embarrassingly for a grouping that prided itself on its managerial competence, ‘Modern’ was also hit by a court ruling that it had broken campaign funding rules and, as a consequence, stripped of it election refund and three-quarters of its 6 million złoty annual state subvention.

However, Modern’s biggest underlying weakness lay in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal, given that experience suggests that the social base for a technocratic, pro-business liberal party in Poland is relatively small. Civic Platform’s weak ideological underpinnings, on the other hand, always gave it much greater reach across the political spectrum and the potential to garner the support of a very broad coalition of voters united by their dislike of Law and Justice. Particularly after it took office in 2007, Civic Platform adopted a deliberate strategy of diluting its ideological profile and projecting itself as a somewhat amorphous centrist ‘catch-all’ party, albeit with an increasingly socially liberal tilt. Mr Schetyna also appears to believe that only an ideologically eclectic, rather than overtly liberal, appeal can peel away enough centre-right voters to make Civic Platform an effective challenger to Law and Justice. He has talked about restoring the party’s ‘conservative anchor’ (rhetorically, if not in terms of any actual policy shifts) arguing that in recent years it had been too identified with social liberalism.

Moreover, not only did ‘Modern’ lose momentum as the effect of its ‘newness’ wore off but a series of gaffes by Mr Petru allowed the party’s opponents to portray him as an over-promoted political lightweight. Most spectacularly, in an appalling error of judgement Mr Petru went to Portugal for a New Year’s Eve holiday with one of his deputies, the recently divorced Joanna Schmidt, while their party colleagues were involved in a parliamentary sit-in protest as part of an apparently urgent struggle to save Polish democracy. ‘Modern’ has not really recovered from this public relations disaster and last month its internal divisions were exposed further when the party suffered its first parliamentary defections as four of its deputies joined Civic Platform.

The Committee for the Defence of Democracy was also hit by a leadership crisis when in January documents leaked to the press revealed that more than 120,000 złoties from its public collections had been channelled in regular payments to an IT company owned by its leader Mateusz Kijowski, a computer programmer who quickly rose from obscurity to head up the organisation, and his wife. Not only was the Committee’s leadership unaware of these payments, they appeared to contradict a claim by Mr Kijowski (who had previously come under attack from government supporters for his inability to pay alimony from an earlier marriage) that he did not receive any official income from the movement. In fact, the Committee had been losing momentum even before the IT contract scandal and appeared to have little idea of how to reach out to Poles who were not already committed government opponents, especially to younger people who were notably under-represented on its protests.

Mr Schetyna’s party also received a major boost when the Law and Justice government was isolated at a March EU summit in its attempt to prevent the re-election of Donald Tusk, Civic Platform’s co-founder and former leader who served as Polish prime minister from 2007-14, as European Council President. Although he is Mr Schetyna’s bitter political enemy, most Poles still identify Mr Tusk with Civic Platform and the party was able to portray his re-election as an important symbolic victory and major political turning point. Indeed, the latest data produced by the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice losing its one-time double digit lead and now on 34% support compared with 32% for Civic Platform; with ‘Modern’ down to only 5%. In fact, the ruling party has only seen a relatively small 3-4% dip in its ratings and the narrowing lead was due largely due to the consolidation of the opposition around Civic Platform; although some commentators suggest that Mr Schetyna’s party also received a boost in support from previously undecided voters when it became clear that it was the main challenger to Law and Justice.

Still not a credible alternative?

It would be a mistake for Law and Justice to think that Civic Platform does not represent a potentially extremely serious electoral threat. The political scene remains very polarised and, with Civic Platform having seen off the challenge for the opposition leadership from both ‘Modern’ and the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, the two-party duopoly that has dominated Polish politics since 2005 appears to be re-asserting itself. While the government retains widespread support, many Poles are also uneasy about its alleged centralising tendencies, and there are increasing concerns about some of it actions and policies even among voters who are broadly sympathetic to Law and Justice. The opposition also enjoys the support of most of Poland’s business and media elites, and has strong links with the EU political establishment and much of the Western opinion-forming media which share its dislike of Law and Justice.

Mr Schetyna is clearly a very effective and ruthless behind-the-scenes political operator who has consolidated his grip on the Civic Platform apparatus and marginalised his internal party opponents. However, he lacks dynamism and charisma and, although it is keeping a low profile at the moment, there is still a sizeable internal opposition to his leadership especially among those younger Civic Platform deputies who were close to Mr Tusk and his successor as Civic Platform leader and prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, but have been marginalised by Mr Schetyna. Moreover, although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years before becoming leader, for many voters Mr Schetyna is still associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform government. Law and Justice’s 2015 victories reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

For sure, the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until autumn 2019, plenty of time of time for memories of the previous government to fade, and Mr Schetyna has lifted his party’s morale by landing some effective blows on the current administration. Having spent too much time over the last year focusing on constitutional matters that ordinary Poles find too abstract, Civic Platform has finally started to address the social and economic issues that are of more pressing concern to most voters. However, now that it is the unquestioned main opposition to Law and Justice, Civic Platform will start to come under much greater scrutiny. It still comes across as opportunistic and failing to offer a credible alternative that goes beyond simply criticising the current government. For example, Mr Schetyna has tried to outflank Law and Justice on social spending pledges by arguing that the government’s extremely popular 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. However, in doing so he risks both damaging the party’s fiscal credibility while failing to convince voters who favour greater social welfare spending but remember that Civic Platform had previously argued that ‘500 plus’ would place an unaffordable strain on the public finances, particularly given that the party has also suggested that it will limit entitlements to the programme in other ways. Mr Schetyna’s party, therefore, still needs to develop a more attractive and convincing political alternative if it is to mount an effective electoral challenge to Law and Justice.

How will Donald Tusk’s re-appointment as European Council President affect Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing government suffered its most high profile defeat to date when it failed to prevent the re-appointment of Donald Tusk, whom it accused of interfering in Polish domestic politics, as European Council President, raising concerns that the country was becoming isolated on the EU’s periphery. Opinion polls show a slump in the ruling party’s lead and boost for the main opposition grouping but it is unclear whether this is a political turning point or short-term blip.

Concerns over Mr Tusk’s impartiality

Mr Tusk was co-founder and one time leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main governing party between 2007-15 and currently the largest opposition grouping, and served as prime minister until November 2014. His first term as European Council President ends in May and, shortly before the March EU summit that voted on his re-appointment, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party put forward Civic Platform MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski as an alternative candidate for the post. Mr Saryusz-Wolski is a highly competent politician who helped to negotiate Poland’s EU accession and since 2004 held senior positions in the European Parliament (EP) but has been in conflict with the Civic Platform leadership for a number of years and tried to build links with Law and Justice after it came to office in autumn 2015.

Law and Justice accused Mr Tusk of violating the principle that EU officials should refrain from becoming involved in the political affairs of member states and using his position to undermine the government by unconstitutional means. Last December, he appeared to support opposition attempts to block the work of the Polish parliament during a tense stand-off over proposed parliamentary media access reforms and a disputed vote on the budget. It argued that it would be difficult for Mr Tusk to secure consensus among EU leaders without a minimum of trust from all member states, and that extending the mandate of a senior EU official despite strong objections from their home country’s government set a dangerous precedent.

Law and Justice also warned that Mr Tusk faces several investigations relating to actions taken when he was prime minister. These include his alleged responsibility for the 2010 Smolensk air crash that killed 96 people – including the then-President Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – and subsequent mis-handling of the crash investigation. A special parliamentary commission investigating the 2012 Amber Gold pyramid scheme scandal, as a result of which thousands of Poles lost their savings, is also trying to establish whether Mr Tusk had prior knowledge of the company’s problems which he shared with this son, who was employed by one of its subsidiaries, and then tried to cover up.

Mr Tusk could be the most serious challenger to Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda in Poland’s next presidential election which is scheduled for summer 2020 (Mr Tusk’s second term as Council President ends in November 2019). For sure, Mr Tusk saw his popularity slump during the last two years of his premiership and it is unclear if he is even interested in returning to the front-line Polish politics. Nonetheless, he remains a charismatic political figure and – as the case of Jerzy Buzek, who was one of Poland’s most unpopular prime ministers in 1997-2001 but re-invented himself as a high profile Civic Platform MEP and EP President, shows – it is possible for a Polish politician to re-establish themselves on the national political scene through a high profile EU position. Law and Justice is trying to chip away at Mr Tusk’s credibility by reminding voters of the shortcomings and pathologies of the previous Civic Platform administration. It also hopes that by opposing his re-appointment as Council President the government can distance itself from any perceived shortcomings in the way that he handles the difficult issues that the EU faces over the next couple of years.

In the event, in spite of its intense, last-minute diplomatic efforts Law and Justice could not even secure the backing of Hungary and the UK, its closest European allies, and only the Polish government opposed Mr Tusk’s re-appointment. Prime minister Beata Szydło refused to sign the summit’s final communique in protest against how the election was handled – rather than putting the matter to a vote, the Maltese chair simply asked member state governments to register their opposition – although this turned out not to have any legal significance as its decisions were adopted anyway.

Isolated or empowered?

Poland’s main opposition parties, Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, argued that even if Mr Tusk was not personally sympathetic to the Law and Justice government it should not undermine the first Pole to reach the pinnacle of the EU institutions. They accused Law and Justice of bringing Polish internal political conflicts into the EU arena, claiming that Mr Tusk had simply called upon the government to respect the country’s Constitution, and said that Mr Kaczyński (who holds no state offices but many commentators consider Poland’s most powerful politician) was pursuing a personal vendetta against him.

They also argued that Law and Justice’s isolation exemplified the broader failure of its EU diplomacy. The current government has moved away from the strategy pursued by its Civic Platform-led predecessor of trying to locate Poland within the so-called ‘mainstream’ and prioritising the development of close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argues that Poland needs to be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests and form its ‘own stream’ within the EU by, for example, building alliances with central and East European post-communist states to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis. However, the opposition point out that the major EU powers have signalled that they favour the development of a ‘multi-speed’ Europe and there is a real danger that Poland will end up marginalised on the Union’s periphery unless it re-joins European mainstream politics. They also warn that the failed attempt to unseat Mr Tusk could be a precursor to eventual ‘Polexit’: Law and Justice taking Poland out of the EU.

The government’s supporters respond that Law and Justice remains strongly committed to EU membership but wants a fundamental re-think of the trajectory of the European project. They argue that last June’s Brexit vote in the UK was a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite who precipitated mounting Euroscepticm by over-centralising and trying to force their vision of deeper European integration against the popular will. Law and Justice wants to bring the EU back to its original role as a looser alliance of economically co-operating sovereign nation-states with a more consensual decision making process that reduces the dominant role of the Franco-German axis.

By opposing the re-appointment of Mr Tusk, whom Law and Justice dubbed the ‘German candidate’, Poland, they argue, exposed the lack of transparency in the EU’s procedures and that far-reaching reforms were required to re-connect the Union with ordinary citizens. Mr Tusk was only re-elected due to pressure from Berlin who wanted a Council President who would have no qualms about implementing policies favoured by the main EU powers. The fact that Poland was prepared to defend its position on a matter of principle even when it was in a minority of one showed that the country had asserted itself as a sovereign state, regaining the empowerment (‘podmiotowość’, literally ‘subjectivity’) that it had lost under the previous Civic Platform-led administration.

Opposition on the offensive

The idea of Polish EU membership as a natural and obvious historical-civilisational choice has come under strain in recent years and public support is driven increasingly by the tangible material benefits that the Union is felt to deliver. Moreover, survey evidence shows many Poles share Law and Justice’s concerns about the trajectory of the European project and are critical of attempts to deepen integration. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority still support EU membership; a March survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that they did so by a margin of 78% to 12%. The government’s opponents may have raised genuine concerns among a section of Poles that Law and Justice was becoming increasingly anti-EU and statements by some party spokesmen in the wake of the EU summit, whatever their actual intentions, appeared to confirm the opposition’s narrative. However, most Poles accepted the government’s argument that it had no intention of promoting ‘Polexit’.

The greater concern was that the government’s actions may have weakened Poland’s position within the EU’s decision-making structures. Polish-EU relations and foreign affairs more generally are rather abstract questions for most Poles that rarely determine their political preferences. But they start to become salient if Poles feel that the country’s potential isolation threatens their tangible, day-to-day concerns. Poland is currently the largest beneficiary of EU regional aid, which many commentators see as crucial to the country’s economic modernisation but the opposition argue could be placed in jeopardy; during the March EU summit French President Francois Holland remarked menacingly that Poland ‘may have principles, but we have the structural funds’.

Moreover, because the dispute over Mr Tusk’s re-appointment focused on a very well-known individual, Poles were able to identify with it much more easily than most foreign policy debates. Most were unconvinced by Law and Justice’s argument that he represented the interests of foreign powers and felt it was in the national interest to have a Pole holding a senior EU post, however symbolic. A poll conducted by the Kantar Millward Brown agency for the ‘300polityka’ website, found that, by margin of 60% to 25%, Poles were pleased that Mr Tusk had been re-elected, and only 12% felt that he was a ‘German candidate’ while 49% said that he represented the interests of the EU as a whole.

The government’s failed attempt to block Mr Tusk’s re-appointment gave the opposition its best opportunity in the current parliament to go on the political offensive. Four opinion polls conducted since the summit showed Law and Justice’s lead reduced from double figures to less than 5%, while Civic Platform saw a substantial increase in its support. However, this was due largely to the consolidation of the opposition as a result of the ongoing decline of ‘Modern’ and the fact that many Poles still identify Civic Platform with Mr Tusk, with only a relatively small drop in support for the ruling party.

Turning point or blip?

Law and Justice has tried to challenge the notion that the government is ineffectual and isolated within the EU. It attempted to present itself as an effective defender of a united and solidarisitc EU through its (the opposition argues, rather theatrical) opposition to any references to a ‘multi-speed’ EU in the declaration mapping out a post-Brexit vision of the Union’s future issued at the end of March by the Rome summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the European communities.

At the same time, Civic Platform has a real sense that it has finally put Law and Justice on the defensive, and filed a motion of no-confidence in the government which is likely to be debated in April. Although it has no chance of passing, given that the ruling party has an outright parliamentary majority, the accompanying debate will keep the topic of Mr Tusk’s re-appointment, which will form the core of Civic Platform’s case against the government, high up on the political agenda. Law and Justice, in turn, will be keen to re-focus debate back on to domestic socio-economic issues where it is more in tune with public opinion than the opposition parties. The key question now is: will the government’s EU summit defeat mark a political turning point or will any ‘Tusk effect’ fade and the balance of forces snap back quickly to where it was before the re-appointment row?

How will Poland approach the Brexit negotiations?

Brexit means that Poland’s right-wing government is losing its most important EU ally and the opposition warns that the country could end up marginalised on the European periphery. But the ruling party argues that Warsaw is a leader in debates on the EU’s future and is calling for a re-think of the trajectory of the European project. The future status of Poles living in the UK could, however, complicate its plans to ensure an amicable Brexit settlement.

Losing a key EU ally

Brexit means that Poland is losing a key EU ally. Both countries shared a similar vision of an expanded single market combined with a reluctance to allow the EU more economic policy powers, especially on taxation. They are strongly Atlanticist and viewed the development of EU security and defence policies as complementary, rather than an alternative, to the NATO alliance. Poland also saw the UK as a strong supporter of an assertive EU approach towards Russia, fearing that France and Germany are too inclined to strike up cosy bi-lateral deals with Moscow that side-line the post-communist states.

Indeed, the current Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, viewed Britain as its most important strategic partner within the EU. Law and Justice came to office arguing that Poland needed to move away from the EU strategy pursued by its predecessor, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party. This involved trying to locate Poland within the so-called ‘mainstream’ by presenting the country as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of integration and prioritising the development of close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Poland needed to be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests and form its ‘own stream’ within the EU by, for example, building alliances with central and East European post-communist states to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis. It identified Britain’s Conservative government, which had a similar anti-federalist approach towards EU integration, as its most significant ally in advancing this project.

The British Conservatives also defended Law and Justice in its bitter dispute with the European Commission over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal. The Commission claims that there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law in Poland and is considering making a recommendation to the European Council that sanctions be imposed under Article 7 of the European treaties; in the worst-case scenario suspending Warsaw’s voting rights. However, Law and Justice both questions the legality of the Commission’s actions and rejects its claims as biased, arguing that the government has simply been trying to restore pluralism and balance to a public institution that was packed illegally with supporters of the previous governing party. It is expected that Britain will join Hungary, and possibly other states, in opposing any attempts to introduce sanctions on Poland, which require unanimity in the Council.

Repairing not dismantling

However, in spite of its anti-federalism and commitment to defending Polish sovereignty, the dominant view within Law and Justice is that it is in Poland’s interests to remain in the EU and try to reform it from within. As Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski put it in last month’s parliamentary foreign policy debate, the government’s ‘priority is to repair the European Union, not to dismantle it’. Only fringe political groupings on the radical Eurosceptic right have called for ‘Polexit’ and although most Poles are critical of attempts to deepen European integration in a number of areas the overwhelmingly majority of them support continued EU membership.

Rather, Law and Justice sees the debate about the future of the EU precipitated by Brexit as an opportunity for a fundamental re-think of the trajectory of the European project. The party argues that the Brexit vote was a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite who precipitated mounting Euroscepticm by over-centralising and trying to force their vision of deeper European integration against the popular will. Law and Justice is calling for a new European treaty that brings the EU back to its original role as a looser alliance of economically co-operating sovereign nation-states, with a more clearly defined division of rights between the Union and its members and a consensual decision making process that makes it more difficult for any country to gain hegemony. This would involve: weakening the Commission bureaucracy, whose role would be restricted to regulating the single market, restoring more decision-making power to national governments and parliaments, and reducing the dominant role of the Franco-German axis.

Marginalised on the EU’s periphery?

However, Poland’s main opposition parties, Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, have argued that, not only is there little appetite for amending the EU treaties, but – with the departure of the UK, the largest non-Eurozone economy – the locus of Union decision making is likely to shift to those states that are part of the single currency area. They say that alliances with post-communist states are not an effective counterweight to the Franco-German axis because these encompass too many conflicting interests. They have also criticised Law and Justice for suggesting that Poland will not support extending former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk’s mandate when his first term as EU Council President expires in May, in spite of the fact that he enjoys widespread backing from European leaders. Law and Justice argue that instead of protecting Polish national interests Mr Tusk has used his position as a platform to criticise the government. The ruling party warns that he could face several investigations relating to his actions as prime minister and, according to some sources, appears to be promoting semi-detached Civic Platform MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski as an alternative Polish candidate for the post.

Given Poland’s isolation from the major EU powers under Law and Justice there is, the opposition argue, a real danger that the country will end up marginalised on the EU’s periphery. They have, therefore, called upon the government to once again locate Poland within European mainstream politics by both complying with the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ recommendations and re-building the country’s previously close links with the Franco-German axis, especially its strategic partnership with Berlin. They also propose re-opening the debate on Polish adoption of the Euro so that Warsaw is 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.

A pivot towards Germany?

In fact, with the imminent loss of its main EU ally and attempts to build closer co-operation with other post-communist states proceeding fairly slowly, some commentators have noted a pivot in Poland’s international relations towards closer co-operation with Berlin. This was exemplified by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s February visit to Poland and meetings with government and Law and Justice leaders. The visit was billed by some as the most important by a German leader since the collapse of communism in 1989, and hailed by government supporters as both an indication that there are no serious problems with Polish-German relations and important symbol of Poland’s role as a key leader in debates on the EU’s future.

Clearly, relations between the two countries remain strained over a number of issues. For example, Poland has criticised Berlin for failing to oppose the ‘Nord Stream 2’ pipeline that is being built under the Baltic Sea by Russian energy giant Gazprom to send gas directly to Germany. Warsaw argues that this undermines common European energy policies and runs contrary to Mrs Merkel’s attempts to encourage a tough EU stance towards Moscow. Long-standing disagreements have been supplemented by new ones over issues such as the European migration crisis, with Law and Justice opposing attempts, championed by Germany, to relocate migrants from North Africa and the Middle East across all EU states including Poland.

However, although the government’s critics argue that one high profile visit does not represent a political breakthrough, the leaders of the two countries do appear to have put contentious issues that could undermine strategic co-operation on the backburner. Law and Justice believes that, for all their policy differences, a Merkel administration is its preferred partner in Germany. At the same time, the Merkel government appears to have accepted that it will have to deal with Law and Justice at least until the next Polish parliamentary election in autumn 2019. Although Berlin seems to share the Commission’s concerns about Law and Justice’s approach to Poland’s constitutional tribunal crisis, it is also wary of alienating the Polish government at a time when the EU faces an existential crisis.

Migrant rights could limit Warsaw’s room for manoeuvre

In terms of the Brexit negotiations specifically, the Polish government wants the EU to maintain close relations with the UK and is trying to position itself as the leader of those states opposing punitive action against London. The UK is not only an important trading partner for Poland, even more importantly Warsaw wants Britain to remain engaged in the European continent as a military security actor. However, there are a number of issues that could complicate Warsaw’s plans to ensure an amicable separation. One of these is the question of the UK’s contribution to the 2014-20 EU budget. Poland is currently the greatest beneficiary of EU regional funds, which many commentators see as crucial to the country’s economic modernisation. At the same time, given that the UK is one of the largest net contributors to the current EU budget Brexit will almost certainly limit the scale of these fiscal transfers. So the Polish government will need to try and protect this funding, particularly given that this is likely to be last time that Warsaw benefits so substantially from EU aid.

But perhaps the most important complicating issue is the future status of the UK’s Polish community. 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 been one of the main pillars of support for EU membership in Poland. Britain was one of the few states that gave immediate and relatively unrestricted access to its national labour market to workers from the post-communist states which, like Poland, joined the EU in 2004. As a consequence, the UK has been one of the most popular destinations for Poles seeking work in Western Europe with an estimated 800-900,000 Polish migrant workers currently living there. However, the ability to regain control over immigration from EU countries was one of the key reasons why British people voted for Brexit in last June’s referendum.

In fact, the Polish government is keen to lure migrant workers back to their homeland so is likely to accept that there will be restrictions on Poles hoping to access the UK labour market in the future. Rather, it will concentrate on protecting the current status and rights of Polish citizens living in the UK. For its part, the British government has promised to guarantee the status of these Polish (and other EU) citizens as quickly as possible, providing that the rights of British citizens living in other EU countries are also maintained. However, it is not clear what the ‘cut-off’ date will be for who is included in this guarantee, and if it will encompass access to all state benefits. The fate of the Polish community in the UK is of huge domestic political significance as virtually every family in Poland has someone living and working there. So, whatever its aspirations to lead broader debates on the EU’s future, Warsaw has little room for manoeuvre on this issue, making it much trickier for it to play the role of main spokesman for an amicable Brexit settlement.

Can Poland’s opposition recover?

January was a dismal month for Poland’s opposition as it was hit by a series of leadership crises and ended its parliamentary sit-in without extracting any further concessions from the government. Although they retain considerable assets and should not be written off, the government’s opponents will struggle to mount an effective challenge until they recognise that most Poles do not want a return to the status quo ante, and can offer a convincing alternative on the social and economic issues that are their most pressing concerns.

Sit-in without an exit strategy

Last month saw deputies from Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition parties end their month-long sit-in protest in the main plenary chamber of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. The crisis began on the final day of the December 2016 parliamentary sitting when Michał Szczerba – a deputy from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping – was excluded by Sejm speaker Marek Kuchciński, from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party which has been in office since autumn 2015. Mr Szczerba tried to use a debate on the 2017 budget to raise parliamentary media access reforms proposed by Mr Kuchciński and ignored his instructions to leave the rostrum. A number of Civic Platform deputies then occupied the area around the podium demanding that Mr Szczerba be re-instated. The Sejm session was moved to an ancillary chamber where the budget was passed by deputies from Law and Justice, which holds an outright parliamentary majority, and a handful of opposition members.

Although Mr Kuchciński said that the vote was conducted in line with Sejm regulations, the government’s opponents refused to recognise its legality and anti-Law and Justice protesters rallied outside the parliament building. Sensing that it had little to gain from continuing its conflict with the media, Law and Justice backed down and agreed to keep the current parliamentary access rules in place until new ones could be agreed. Nonetheless, deputies from Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party continued their occupation over the Christmas recess, demanding that the key budget vote be re-run.

However, although Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ wrong-footed Law and Justice with their occupation tactic, they missed the opportunity to end the protest on a high note when the proposed media regulations were withdrawn and left themselves without an exit strategy for finishing the sit-in without losing face. While smaller opposition groupings also opposed the new media rules, the anti-establishment Kukiz ‘15, the third largest parliamentary caucus, never supported the sit-in while the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s one-time junior coalition partner, withdrew its backing once Law and Justice shelved its proposals.

Leadership crises

Moreover, the sit-in protest was severely undermined when ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru was photographed on a plane heading to Portugal for a New Year’s Eve holiday with one of his deputies, the recently divorced Joanna Schmidt. Before Mr Petru admitted he was on a private trip another ‘Modern’ deputy leader, Katarzyna Lubnauer, insisted it was a ‘pre-planned’ visit ‘related to party matters’. The fact that Mr Petru and Ms Schmidt broke off from the protest to take a foreign holiday while their party colleagues were involved in an apparently urgent struggle to save Polish democracy was an appalling error of judgement. As well as being the latest in a series of gaffes that have allowed the party’s opponents to portray Mr Petru as an over-promoted political lightweight, it played directly into the government’s narrative that nothing extraordinary was happening and the opposition was playing a cynical game aimed at generating public hysteria.

At the same time, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement that has provided the main focus for mobilising extra-parliamentary opposition to the government, was also hit by a leadership crisis. The Committee was formed in November 2015 days after Law and Justice took office, with the initial impetus for its protests being controversy over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Government supporters argued that its activities were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to Law and Justice’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. Nonetheless, the Committee was been able to project itself, 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.

However, in January documents leaked to the press revealed that more than 120,000 złoties from the Committee’s public collections had been channelled in regular payments to an IT company owned by its leader Mateusz Kijowski, a computer programmer who quickly rose from obscurity to head up the organisation, and his wife. Not only was the Committee’s leadership unaware of these payments, they also appeared to contradict a claim by Mr Kijowski (who had previously come under attack from government supporters for his inability to pay alimony from a previous marriage) that he did not receive any official income from the movement. Mr Kijowski admitted that it was probably imprudent to combine the roles of leader and professional services provider but also called the media reports a ‘provocation’. He rejected a call from the Committee’s management board to resign, insisting that he would be standing in the movement’s March leadership election. In fact, some commentators argued even before the IT contract scandal that, while it retained the capacity to mobilise thousands of people in street demonstrations, the Committee was losing momentum and had little idea of how to reach out to Poles who were not already committed opponents of the government, especially younger people who were notably under-represented on its protests.

Mr Schetyna relatively unscathed

The only opposition figure to emerge relatively unscathed from the parliamentary crisis was Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna. Mr Schetyna was uneasy about the sit-in, fearing that many Poles did not really understand its purpose and viewed the behaviour of some of its participants as immature and self-indulgent. Indeed, the impetus for the occupation came from mainly younger deputies, who were close to former Civic Platform prime ministers Ewa Kopacz and Donald Tusk (who became EU Council President in December 2014) but were marginalised by Mr Schetyna. Nonetheless, he was obliged to (at least publicly) support the occupation as he did not want to be outflanked by Mr Petru, his bitter rival for the opposition leadership. In fact, following his Portuguese holiday scandal, Mr Petru tried to defuse the crisis: participating in talks aimed at securing a compromise (which he subsequently backed away from) and making it clear that his party’s deputies would not block the Sejm rostrum when parliament returned from its recess. Mr Schetyna used this as an opportunity to present himself as the government’s most uncompromising opponent and boycotted the talks. However, much of this was posturing: Mr Schetyna had already come to the conclusion that, without a convincing narrative as to why the opposition was continuing with the protest, it had become counter-productive. In the event, he ended the sit-in abruptly in mid-January on the second day after parliament resumed.

In fact, when Mr Schetyna took over the Civic Platform leadership following its crushing 2015 election defeat, the party faced a major, possibly even existential, crisis. ‘Modern’, which was elected to the Sejm for the first time in 2015, was able to contrast its ‘newness’ with the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform, which many Poles saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals, and pulled ahead of Mr Schetyna’s party in opinion polls. However, Mr Petru’s party lost its initial momentum while 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 included 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. In the wake of the parliamentary crisis, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys found Civic Platform holding steady at 20% compared with a large slump in support for ‘Modern’, down to only 11%; although both opposition groupings were running well behind Law and Justice on 39%.

Nonetheless, although Mr Schetyna is a good organiser and an experienced (and ruthless) political operator, he lacks dynamism and charisma, and does not yet appear to have an effective strategy for re-building Civic Platform’s support. He also leads a deeply divided party with a strong internal opposition, notably from those younger deputies who were clearly dissatisfied that he ended the sit-in protest without securing any further concessions from the government. Indeed, some commentators have floated the possible return of Mr Tusk to national politics either as Civic Platform leader or to head up a united opposition alliance. Mr Tusk’s first two-and-a-half year term as EU Council President expires in May and, although he enjoys widespread backing from European leaders, Law and Justice have indicated that they will not support extending his mandate.

However, while Mr Tusk remains a charismatic and authoritative figure, it is far from clear that most Poles really want him to return to front-line national politics. Having previously been one of his party’s most important electoral assets, Mr Tusk’s popularity slumped during the last parliament. Law and Justice long argued that he personified the shortcomings and pathologies of the Civic Platform government, which it often referred to as the ‘Tusk system’. The ruling party will no doubt try and remind voters of this by, for example, making Mr Tusk appear before a special parliamentary commission that is investigating the 2012 Amber Gold pyramid scheme scandal, as a result of which thousands of Poles lost their savings, questioning him on when he first learned about the company’s problems given that his son was employed by one of its subsidiaries.

No going back

The Polish opposition still retains the support of most of the country’s cultural and business elites, and has strong links with the EU political establishment and much of the Western opinion-forming media which share its dislike of Law and Justice. Although the ruling party shrugs off EU criticisms, international pressure has forced it to devote valuable time and political capital defending its position in the European arena. The political scene is also very polarised: many Poles oppose the government, uneasy about its alleged centralising tendencies, and, given that they live disproportionately in urban areas, can be mobilised relatively easily to take part in street demonstrations. The opposition may need to wait for an opening when the government faces a major crisis, but the next (local) elections take place in autumn 2018 and the key parliamentary poll is not scheduled until 2019, so it still has time to develop an attractive political alternative.

However, it still spends too much time focusing on issues that are too abstract for most Poles, while failing to offer a convincing alternative on pressing social and economic concerns where Law and Justice is more in tune with public opinion. Although critics argue that the government’s social spending plans will place a strain on the public finances, it has introduced reforms, such as its extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, that benefit the many Poles who feel frustrated not to have shared in the country’s recent economic growth. Law and Justice’s election victory also reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. The opposition will struggle to mount an effective challenge until it recognises that most Poles do not simply want a return to the status quo ante.

Is Poland’s constitutional tribunal crisis over?

With one of the judges elected by the current parliament taking over as its new president, and the opposition losing interest in the issue, the political conflict surrounding Poland’s constitutional tribunal is moving into a new phase. Although the European Commission is very unlikely to secure support for EU sanctions against Poland, some tribunal members appointed by previous parliaments could boycott cases involving contested judges elected by the new one.

Contested appointments

The bitter conflict over the membership and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws, has dominated the political scene since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party came to office following its victory in the October 2015 parliamentary election. The most serious constitutional crisis to affect the country since the collapse of communism in 1989 began almost immediately after Law and Justice took office in November. The new government decided to annul the appointment of five judges to the 15-member body by the previous parliament – dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the former ruling party – who were to replace those whose terms of office expired that month and in December. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda, who questioned the legality of their appointment, did not accept their oaths of office.

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, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgments about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges elected by the new parliament instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by only allowing those two filling the December vacancies to assume their duties.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse 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 recognise all of those 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. However, in March 2016 the tribunal decided that it was empowered by the Constitution to ignore these amendments and declared the ‘repair law’ unconstitutional. The government, in turn, said that the tribunal had no power to review the law (as the Constitution stipulates its rules are regulated by parliamentary statute), 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.

Undermining democracy or restoring pluralism?

Most of the opposition and legal establishment argued that the government’s actions violated judicial independence and would paralyse the tribunal. They bundled the issue up with a number of other government measures to accuse Law and Justice of undermining 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 opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom they enjoyed strong links and many of who shared their dislike of Law and Justice. In January 2016, the European Commission decided to undertake an unprecedented investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. Moreover, in March the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, issued a critical report which supported the appointment of the three judges elected by the previous parliament and said that the ‘repair law’ was a threat to the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The government’s supporters, however, robustly denied these allegations and defended its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party. They placed the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the Civic Platform-led government which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the October 2015 election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. They pointed 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. More broadly, they said that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites and vested interests hostile to its sweeping socio-economic policy reforms and plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state. They also argued that the Commission’s rule of law probe was flawed by lack of objectivity and insufficient knowledge of the Polish Constitution and legal system, and strongly opposed external interference in what they insisted was a domestic political dispute.

The conflict deepens

However, the government also introduced another reform bill which passed through parliament at the end of July 2016. This removed the two-thirds majority threshold and lowered the quorum for tribunal rulings in the most important cases from thirteen to eleven. But it also required the tribunal president to allow the three un-recognised Law and Justice-nominated judges to participate in its work and introduced a new veto mechanism allowing four justices to postpone a case for up to six months.

At its July meeting, the European 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; and screen the July law for compliance with the Venice Commission. It gave Poland three months to comply with its recommendations or risk a Commission proposal that the European Council impose sanctions; in the worst-case scenario suspending the country’s voting rights.

Moreover, in August the conflict deepened when the tribunal majority also rejected parts of the July law as unconstitutional, including the provisions that four judges could block a case by up to six months and that the tribunal president should swear in the three contested judges. In response, the government once again claimed that the tribunal had not followed the procedural rules determined by parliament and refused to publish its ruling.

The battle for the presidency

Law and Justice then decided to focus its efforts on trying to ensure that, when his term of office expired in December, Mr Rzepliński would be replaced by one of the judges elected by the current parliament. The tribunal president is chosen by the Polish President from among nominees presented to him by its members and the July law was constructed to ensure that at least one of these would be from among the ‘new’ justices. The tribunal majority tried to circumvent this by stipulating that any nominees would also need to secure a majority of votes before they could go forward to the President. However, the Law and Justice-nominated judges prevented the majority from making any nominations by depriving them of the required quorum of ten. Nonetheless, the ‘old’ judges still hoped that Mr Rzepliński’s close ally tribunal vice-president Stanisław Biernat would assume his responsibilities in the interim.

In December, therefore, three new laws were passed which modified the timing and procedure of the election so that from the day that Mr Rzepliński’s term ended the tribunal would be led by an acting president who was the judge with the longest record of service in all courts and positions in central public administration relating to the application of the law. Given that this was Julia Przyłębska, one of the justices appointed by the current parliament, it was assumed that she would then allow the three contested Law and Justice-nominated judges to take office, bringing the total number of ‘new’ judges to seven. Moreover, in order to avoid the risk of the ‘old’ judges rendering the process invalid, the quorum was suspended for the nomination meeting as long as two candidates were proposed and one secured at least five votes.

Consequently, on the night that Mr Rzepliński’s term of office ended Mr Duda signed the new constitutional tribunal bills into law and appointed Mrs Przyłębska as acting president, who immediately recognised the three disputed judges. A tribunal meeting then nominated two of the ‘new’ judges including Mrs Przyłębska whom Mr Duda confirmed as the new president. Although the ‘old’ judges still argued that any nominees required the support of the tribunal majority, they subsequently accepted her appointment. Not only does Mrs Przyłębska now control the tribunal’s day-to-day functioning, when Mr Biernat’s term of office ends in June a majority of the 15 judges will have been elected by the new parliament; indeed, another one of the ‘old’ judges, Andrzej Wróbel, also announced that he would be standing down, even though his term was set to run until 2020.

No longer a source of conflict?

As its salience has declined the opposition has gradually lost interest in the constitutional tribunal crisis as a source of political contestation. The tribunal’s defenders were vocal and well-organised and many citizens had misgivings about the government’s approach to the issue. However, it was too abstract an issue and did not affect the day-to-day lives of most ordinary Poles who were concerned with socio-economic questions where Law and Justice was more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opponents. The tribunal also saw a substantial decline in its approval ratings as it was sucked into the political conflict. A December 2016 survey by the CBOS agency found that only 28% of respondents evaluated it positively (down from 42% in March 2015) compared with 42% who viewed it negatively (12% in 2005); 30% did not know (46% in 2015).

For sure, having started the ‘rule of law’ procedure it is difficult for the European Commission to back down without losing face. Indeed, at the end of December it gave Warsaw two months to implement its earlier recommendations and respond to additional concerns that there were no provisions in the Polish Constitution for the appointment of an acting president. It called for the tribunal to review the constitutionality of the new laws and Mr Biernat to replace Mrs Przyłębska until it was clear she had been appointed lawfully. However, although the dispute has forced Law and Justice to devote valuable time and political capital defending its position in the European arena, the Polish government has no intention of bowing to what it considers to be opposition-initiated international pressure. It also questioned the legality of the Commission procedure, saying that it was based on non-treaty practices invented by officials, and could challenge it in the European Court of Justice. The only option that the Commission now has is to propose sanctions under article 7 of the EU treaty but this requires unanimity in the European Council and the Hungarian government, for one, has made it clear that it will veto any such measures.

With the tribunal soon to be dominated by justices elected by the current parliament, the government’s opponents claim that Law and Justice has taken it over illegally and packed it with political appointees. Supporters of the ruling party, on the other hand, argue that without Mr Rzepliński at its head the tribunal should now start to function normally rather than as a tool of the opposition. But this will be difficult if the ‘old’ justices boycott cases involving the three contested judges appointed by the new parliament. The danger is that this could spill over into other parts of the legal system with lower courts not recognising judgments involving the contested judges, and the government then threatening them with disciplinary action. So the constitutional tribunal conflict is not over, it has simply moved into a new phase.

How will Poland’s parliamentary crisis develop?

An occupation of the main legislative chamber and street demonstrations at the end of December, prompted by the exclusion of an opposition deputy following his protest against new parliamentary media rules, precipitated a major political crisis in Poland. Although the right-wing government withdrew its planned media regulations, the sit-in continued throughout Christmas as the opposition refused to recognise the legality of a budget vote. The crisis has reached an impasse and could escalate when the legislature returns in mid-January with the possibility of rival government and opposition parliamentary sittings.

New media rules sparked the crisis

The crisis began when Marek Kuchciński, the speaker of the Sejm (the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament) from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has been in office since autumn 2015, proposed new rules on parliamentary media access. The changes included: limiting the number of reporters with full parliamentary access to two per media outlet; requiring all other journalists to work from a specially designated media centre located away from the main plenary chamber; prohibiting reporters from recording parliamentary proceedings; and only making live broadcasts available to five selected TV news stations.

Up until now, hundreds of journalists were theoretically free to roam all the common areas of parliament without restrictions in search of comments from lawmakers, while multiple TV crews could film the main chamber at will. The system was designed to open politicians up to journalists but the government argued that the chaotic media presence interfered with day-to-day parliamentary proceedings. The new rules, they said, were in line with other Western democracies and would help reporters to organise their work in a more professional manner. However, critics argued that they violated the Polish Constitution which guarantees that ‘a citizen shall have the right to obtain information on the activities of organs of public authority as well as persons discharging public functions’ which includes ‘entry to sittings of collective organs of public authority formed by universal elections, with the opportunity to make sound and visual recordings’.

Sit-in leads to disputed budget vote

The parliamentary turmoil started on December 16th when Michał Szczerba – a deputy from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping – was excluded by Mr Kuchciński when he tried to use a debate on the annual budget to raise the media rules issue by brandishing a card saying ‘Free media in the Sejm’ and ignored the speaker’s instructions to leave the rostrum. A number of Civic Platform deputies then occupied the area around the podium and conducted a sit-in holding up similar signs, demanding that Mr Szczerba be re-instated and blocking work on legislation. Following a recess lasting several hours, the Sejm session was re-convened in an ancillary hall outside the main chamber and deputies from Law and Justice, which holds an outright parliamentary majority, and a handful of opposition members approved the 2017 budget together with a bill reducing the pensions of former communist-era security service functionaries.

However, the opposition refused to recognise the legality of the session and called for Mr Kuchciński to re-run it arguing that, with the votes counted on a show of hands instead of the usual electronic system, it was impossible to confirm that the required quorum of 231 lawmakers were present. They also questioned the fact that amendments were voted en bloc rather than individually, and claimed some opposition deputies were prevented from accessing the hall and not allowed to speak and raise procedural motions. Some journalists, they said, were also denied access and not permitted to record the votes, only observe proceedings via an official camera feed, while other persons who were not deputies may have taken part in the vote.

For his part, Mr Kuchciński denied there was any wrongdoing and said that the vote was conducted in line with Sejm regulations. Plenary sessions have been held in rooms other than the main chamber before, all measures were taken to inform deputies of the change of venue, and any of them could have participated. Voting by show of hands is permitted and, government supporters said, a total of 236 deputies were present. They argued that the media had access to the transmitted proceedings and could anyway have filmed them from the end of the room.

Defending democracy or paralysing parliament?

Nonetheless, thousands of people rallied outside the parliament building in support of the opposition’s claims that Law and Justice had caused a constitutional crisis. Anti-government protesters blocked all the parliamentary exits and police had to clear the streets to allow government ministers and Law and Justice deputies to be escorted out of the building in the middle of the night. Protests in Warsaw and other cities organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement who accused the ruling party of allegedly undemocratic practices, continued over the subsequent weekend.

More broadly, the opposition tried to bundle up the parliamentary crisis with its argument that the sweeping changes introduced by Law and Justice to the country’s legal framework, judiciary, public administration and the media since it came to office have undermined democracy and the rule of law. This narrative has been picked up by both the Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and many of who share their dislike of Law and Justice, and the EU political establishment. For example, last 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’ following controversy over the membership and competencies of the country’s constitutional tribunal.

For its part, Law and Justice fiercely rejected such accusations and strongly opposed Commission interference in what it insisted was a domestic political matter. It argued that, far from being spontaneous civic actions, the anti-government protests were pre-planned and the result of Law and Justice’s opponents’ inability to come to terms with the fact that they had lost power. Even if the government had not proposed the new media regulations, nor Mr Szczerba been excluded from parliament, the opposition would, they argued, have found another pretext to cause social unrest. While the protests may have involved many politically non-aligned citizens, Law and Justice argued that they were orchestrated by vested interests hostile to the government’s sweeping socio-economic policy reforms and moves to radically reconstruct the Polish state, many of whose institutions, the party claims, have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Indeed, some government supporters even accused the opposition of trying to foster disruption and chaos on the streets in order to paralyse parliament so that they could remove Law and Justice from office.

Too abstract for ordinary Poles?

Nonetheless, sensing that it had little to gain from continuing its conflict with an influential group who were the public’s main channel of political information, Law and Justice backed down and agreed to keep the current parliamentary media access rules in place until new ones could be agreed with journalists. However, the fall-out from these events continued as deputies from Civic Platform and the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party, which has many fewer parliamentarians but is currently running narrowly ahead of the former in the polls, demanded that the key vote on the 2017 budget be repeated and vowed to continue their sit-in protest until at least January 11th when the Christmas recess ends.

The crisis does not, however, appear to have affected patterns of support among Poland’s main parties. As the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows, Law and Justice still enjoys a clear lead averaging around 37% support compared with 20% for ‘Modern’, 19% for Civic Platform (PO) and 9% for the anti-establishment Kukiz ‘15, the third largest parliamentary grouping. Arguably, the opposition simply mobilised people who opposed the government anyway around questions that are too abstract for ordinary Poles who are concerned primarily with socio-economic issues where Law and Justice is more in tune with public opinion.

For its part, Law and Justice tried to project the image of a government that is continuing to introduce reforms that benefit the many Poles who feel frustrated not to have shared in the country’s recent economic growth, especially low income households who live beyond the large urban centres. Although critics argue that its reforms have placed a strain on the public finances, the ruling party has delivered on many of the social spending pledges which were the key to its 2015 election victory. In April, for example, the government introduced its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families, which has provided a significant financial boost to many low income families. Only last month, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda approved a law reversing the Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular 2012 decision to increase the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men); although critics argue that the reduced value of pensions for those taking early retirement will discourage many from taking advantage of the new provisions.

Rival parliamentary sittings?

Moreover, although the liberal and centrist opposition wrong-footed Law and Justice with their parliamentary occupation, they arguably missed the opportunity to end the protest on a high note when the proposed media regulations were withdrawn. While smaller parliamentary opposition groupings also opposed the new media rules, Kukiz ’15 never supported the occupation tactic while the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s one-time junior coalition partner, withdrew its backing once Law and Justice shelved its proposals. There were also suggestions that Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna was uneasy about the sit-in, fearing that many Poles viewed it as self-indulgent. Indeed, a survey conducted by the TNS Polska agency just before Christmas found that only 26% of respondents supported the opposition’s tactics while 47% were against. In fact, the impetus for the occupation came from mainly younger deputies who were close to Mr Schetyna’s predecessor, former prime minister Ewa Kopacz, but who have been marginalised by the new leader. However, Mr Schetyna was obliged to (at least publicly) support the occupation as he did not want to be outflanked by ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru, his bitter rival for the leadership of the Polish opposition.

Attempting to de-escalate the crisis, Law and Justice offered the opposition an ‘outstretched hand’ saying that they were willing to give it more rights and privileges: creating the institution of ‘leader of the opposition’ and allowing it to run every fifth parliamentary sitting. On the other hand, there are no indications that the ruling party will back down in the face of what it argues is blackmail and re-hold the budget vote, concerned this will create a dangerous precedent and encourage the opposition to disrupt parliamentary proceedings as an effective tactic in subsequent disputes. Law and Justice has, therefore, indicated that it is only willing to hold discussions with the opposition on condition that they allow parliament to return to its normal operations.

At the same time, the opposition has boxed itself in and does not appear to have an exit strategy for ending its sit-in protest without losing face. If Law and Justice’s opponents continue to prevent parliament from sitting in January there is a danger that they could be held responsible for any ensuing disruption and instability. However, if they end the protest without extracting any concessions from the government the occupation will be seen as a pointless exercise. The crisis has, therefore, reached an impasse and there is a risk that when the Sejm returns in mid-January it could escalate with a possibility of rival parliamentary sittings: most of the government’s opponents continuing to occupy the main plenary chamber, while the ruling party and other opposition deputies try to conduct normal legislative business in an another venue.

Has the abortion issue changed Polish politics?

The abortion issue precipitated the most serious challenge to Poland’s right-wing government since it was elected in autumn 2015. However, although it faced unexpectedly large street demonstrations, the ruling party was able to defuse the issue through a hasty tactical retreat and these ‘black protests’ did not herald a broader ‘feminist awakening’. While the government is anxious to prevent this emotive issue from re-surfacing, abortion remains important for many of its core supporters on the ‘religious right’ and is likely to re-emerge in some form during the current parliament.

Moves to tighten Poland’s abortion law

Since 1993 Poland has had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe with the procedure only permitted up to the twelfth week of pregnancy if it is the result of incest or rape, puts the health of the mother at risk, or if the foetus is severely damaged. For a number of years, anti-abortion groups have been lobbying for a total ban, collecting millions of signatures and proposing draft laws, none of which have secured a parliamentary majority. However, in September a bill to make abortion illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life was at risk, sponsored by the ‘Stop Abortion’ civic legislative initiative, collected 460,000 signatures and was introduced in parliament.

The October 2015 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. Law and Justice presents itself as a staunch defender of Christian values and enjoys a great deal of sympathy among Catholic bishops, clergymen and Church-linked civil society organisations, such as the ‘Radio Maryja’ media conglomerate which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’ electorate. The Catholic Church is, of course, a long standing opponent of all forms of abortion and in a letter read out in every parish in April the Polish Episcopate urged the country’s parliamentarians to extend the current restrictions to ensure ‘the full protection of life from conception to natural death.’

Consequently, although it was not government legislation and Law and Justice allowed its parliamentary deputies a free vote on the issue, virtually all of them voted to progress the civic anti-abortion law to the parliamentary committee stage of the legislative process. At the same time, most of them also voted to reject a competing draft law filed by the ‘Save the Women’ legislative initiative which collected 215,000 signatures and would have allowed abortion on demand until the twelfth week of pregnancy (and later dates in exceptional circumstances). This was in spite of a Law and Justice election promise that the party would allow all civic legislative initiatives that had collected the required number of signatures to pass to the parliamentary committee stage.

However, knowing that most Poles opposed an outright ban the Law and Justice leadership was also hoping that the draft anti-abortion law would stall at this stage of the legislative process. For sure, Poland is one of the most socially conservative and staunchly Catholic countries in Europe and most Poles do not support liberalisation of the current abortion regulations. An October survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 23% of respondents wanted to see the current law relaxed (a fall from 34% in August 2012). Indeed, in recent years there has actually been a decline in those supporting liberalisation of the abortion law. For example, CBOS found that the number of Poles who felt that abortion should be allowed when a woman found herself in financial difficulties fell from 47% in March 1992 to only 20% in May 2016, while the number opposed increased from 39% to 72% over the same period. Nonetheless, the October CBOS survey also found that only 7% of respondents supported introducing further restrictions on abortion while 62% backed maintaining the existing law, which most Poles appeared to view as an acceptable ‘compromise’.

Taken aback by the ‘black protests’

As it turned out, Law and Justice was taken aback by the scale of the opposition to the civic anti-abortion bill as, at the beginning of October, thousands of mainly women protesters marched through the streets of Polish cities dressed in black as a symbol of mourning for their ‘reproductive rights’, some having gone on strike from work or school. Indeed, at one stage it appeared possible that the abortion issue could provide a springboard for the weak and divided Polish left to mount a recovery on the back of a ‘feminist awakening’. Although no openly centre-left grouping was elected to parliament in the October 2015 poll, the original pro-abortion protests were organised by left-wing politicians such as Barbara Nowacka – who presented the ‘Save the Women’ draft bill in parliament and was previously leader of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral alliance that, with 7.6% of the votes, narrowly failed to secure parliamentary representation in 2015 – and radical left groupings such as the ‘Together’ (Razem) party which secured 3.7% in that election.

In fact, the ‘black protesters’ were successful because they framed their opposition to the draft anti-abortion law in terms of ‘defending women’s rights’, focused on the fact that the legislation proposed prison sentences for pregnant women who ‘caused the death of a conceived child’, and claimed that it would discourage doctors from carrying out pre-natal tests in case they led to a miscarriage (arguments which the bill’s sponsors said grossly misrepresented its intentions). By doing so, they attracted the support of a much broader group of young women beyond the feminist left, including many who had not previously taken part in anti-government protests.

For their part, the anti-abortion camp clearly under-estimated their opponents and failed to appreciate that simply drafting a law and collecting signatures in support of it was not enough. In the end, sensing the groundswell of opposition and not wanting to expend political capital on an issue that was not a government priority, the vast majority of Law and Justice deputies voted down the civic anti-abortion initiative. Unlike the ongoing dispute over the composition and membership of Poland’s constitutional tribunal – which has been the main focus of the opposition’s attacks on the government during its first year in office, but is too abstract for most ordinary Poles and does not appear to affect their day-to-day lives – the abortion issue is both highly emotive and politically combustible.

Although the abortion vote was Law and Justice’s most significant policy climb-down in the face of mass protests since it came to office, and will have disappointed many of the party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’, it has, for the moment at least, defused the issue. More broadly, the Law and Justice leadership justified its tactical retreat by referring to the so-called ‘pendulum theory’: the concern that, in the longer-term, an outright ban on abortion could lead to a backlash against what many Poles might perceive to be an overly restrictive law, and could, therefore, actually result in its liberalisation; in other words, the precise opposite of what anti-abortion campaigners intended.

No ‘feminist awakening’?

The pro-abortion camp was clearly able to mobilise a somewhat broader constituency for their demonstrations than, for example, the anti-government Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) civic movement, including an apparently larger proportion of young people. However, without the anti-abortion bill to provide it with a focus, support for the ‘black protest’ movement declined rapidly once the civic initiative was rejected and it had achieved its immediate objective. A further round of October protests held three weeks after ‘Black Monday’ and organised around a somewhat broader feminist agenda – more liberal abortion laws, easier access to family planning, and action to tackle violence and harassment against women – attracted much smaller numbers.

The ‘black protests’ did not, therefore, appear to have affected the balance of forces on the Polish political scene nor provided the basis for a broader ‘feminist awakening’ that could be turned into a more enduring political project. Parallels can be drawn here with the January 2012 controversy over the decision by the then government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, to sign the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). This triggered a massive wave of flash street protests across the country mobilising mainly young people who feared that the new regulations could lead to censorship of the Internet, but which dissipated very quickly when the government suspended ratification of the treaty.

Moreover, the abortion issue was also a problematic one for Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition parties, as it forced them to align themselves with a movement that was traditionally associated with the more radical elements of the feminist left. Civic Platform, currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping which was the ruling party from 2007 until the 2015 election, knew that it risked alienating more socially conservative voters if it identified too closely with the pro-abortion movement. The party’s ability to broaden its appeal to elements of the centre-right was one of the main reasons for its previous electoral success, and an important element of its current leader Grzegorz Schetyna’s analysis of why Civic Platform lost the last election so heavily was the idea that it had pivoted too strongly in favour of social liberalism. At the same time, the more unambiguously liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party, which has much smaller parliamentary representation than Civic Platform but is currently running narrowly ahead of it in opinion polls, was also aware that the social base for a purely liberal political grouping is relatively small and almost certainly too narrow to win an election in Poland.

If the abortion issue does re-surface then the focus of any new proposal is likely to be restricting so-called ‘eugenic’ abortions in cases were the foetus is badly damaged. Of the 1040 legal abortions that were carried out in Poland in 2015, 996 (96%) were due to a damaged foetus. Opponents of abortion argue that most of these were potentially babies with Down’s syndrome, although pro-abortionists dispute this saying that the health ministry does not collect data that could identify this as the cause. In fact, the government is already preparing the ground for introducing such restrictions and trying to anticipate the arguments of those who say that carers of disabled children lack support, by passing a law introducing a new state scheme for mothers who decide to give birth to children with a serious disability or incurable illness discovered in pre-natal tests. This includes a one-off benefit of 4000 złoties and support from a family assistant, but the government has promised that these are just the first steps in a more comprehensive support programme for such children known as ‘Za życiem’ (For life).

Still important for the ‘religious right’

The abortion issue does not, therefore, appear to have altered the balance of forces on the Polish political scene. Although the pro-abortion ‘black protests’ were able to mobilise many young women who had not previously taken part in anti-government demonstrations, they have not turned into a more enduring political project nor led to a revival of the Polish left on the basis of a ‘feminist awakening’. Clearly, Law and Justice does not want to re-open this Pandora’s Box and will proceed very cautiously in promoting any further legislation aimed at restricting the current abortion regulations. However, given that one of the party leadership’s key strategic objectives is to prevent the emergence of any political challengers on its right flank, it will be very difficult for Law and Justice to completely ignore an issue that enjoys substantial support among the ruling party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’. Indeed, another civic movement-sponsored bill aimed at tightening the abortion regulations is currently being considered by the parliamentary petitions committee. So while it has moved down the political agenda, for the moment at least, this emotive and highly politically combustible issue is likely to re-surface in some form during the current parliament.

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.