In spite of losing its formal majority last month, Poland’s right-wing ruling party should still be able to win key parliamentary votes with the support of smaller groupings and pro-government independents. But it has an unreliable junior coalition partner, whose leader appears increasingly semi-detached from the governing camp.
Turning the corner?
In June, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, lost its formal majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house parliament, when three deputies left its caucus to set up a new grouping called ‘Poland’s Choice’ (Polski Wybór). The three defectors – Arkadiusz Czartoryski, Zbigniew Girzyński and Małgorzata Janowska – criticised the government’s proposed economic reforms – which, they argued, could harm small businesses – and expressed disappointment at Law and Justice’s apparent shift in energy policy away from fossil fuels towards renewables and nuclear power. For its part, Law and Justice suggested that the deputies may have had ulterior motives; Mr Girzyński, for example, was said to be linked to a public relations company being investigated by Poland’s anti-corruption agency. Their departure left the ruling party with 229 seats, down from the 235 it secured at the most recent October 2019 parliamentary election and two short of an overall majority in the 460-member Sejm.
The defections raised serious doubts as to whether Law and Justice could secure the passage of key elements of its governing programme and came at a point when it finally appeared to be turning the corner after a torrid few months. While the government gained politically from the fact that it was judged to have handled the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic crisis in spring and summer 2020 reasonably well (or, at least, no worse than any other country), there was a widespread feeling that its response to the second and third waves in autumn 2020 and winter 2021 was chaotic in terms of both decision-making and public messaging. The revival of the pandemic issue coincided with a bitter political dispute over the Polish constitutional tribunal’s hugely controversial ruling that abortions as a result of foetal defects were unconstitutional, which effectively meant a near-total ban. Many less socially conservative elements of Law and Justice’s electorate appeared to give credence to opposition claims that the tribunal was under the political control of a ruling party increasingly dominated by ‘religious right’ ideological extremists.
At the same time, the unity of the governing camp was undermined by bitter internal conflicts between its various component parts over policy, strategy and leadership, raising questions about the government’s cohesion and even survival. Law and Justice’s two junior partners within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) governing camp – the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumiene), led by deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin – both had enough deputies to deprive the government of its slim majority and repeatedly contested key elements of the ruling party’s programme. Not surprisingly, according to the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice saw its opinion poll support slump from an average of 41% in August 2020 to only 31% in March 2021, still ahead of other parties but not enough to secure a parliamentary majority.
However, in recent weeks it appeared that Law and Justice was finally starting to turn the corner. In May, as the pandemic crisis subsided and the government progressively removed restrictions on economic and social life, Law and Justice launched its flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) recovery programme which, it hoped, would provide the party with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliament, scheduled to run until autumn 2023. The ‘Polish Deal’ includes a wide range of ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards through: tax reforms favouring Law and Justice’s less well-off core electorate; significant increases in spending on the health service and support for house-buyers, young families, and pensioners; and expanding investment in infrastructure and development projects, especially in sectors of the economy weakened by the pandemic crisis. Following its launch, ‘Ewybory’ showed an uptick in support for Law and Justice to around 34% at the end of May.
A de facto working majority?
So these three defections, and concomitant loss of Law and Justice’s formal parliamentary majority, came at a critical time for the ruling party. However, it can try and compensate for them and muster a de facto working majority by garnering the support of smaller parliamentary groupings and independents who, although not formally part of the governing camp, would vote with Law and Justice on key divisions. Last month, the party took the first step in this process when it formalized a co-operation agreement with right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz, who leads the eponymous Kukiz’15 grouping comprising four Sejm deputies, and promised to support the government in key votes on policy, appointments and votes of confidence.
Law and Justice has also tried to build support among non-aligned deputies. It persuaded Lech Kołakowski, who became an independent last autumn in protest against a ruling party-sponsored animal welfare bill but often continued to vote with Law and Justice, to rejoin its caucus bringing it back up to 230 members. It is hoping to see the formation a new pro-government parliamentary caucus clustered around two independents, Łukasz Mejza and Zbigniew Ajchler – who stood unsuccessfully as opposition candidates at the last election and have since taken up vacancies arising from the death and resignation of incumbents, but appear to have aligned themselves with the ruling party – and possibly other opposition defectors. Law and Justice is also optimistic that the three deputies who have formed ‘Poland’s Choice’ will continue to support the government in at least some key parliamentary votes.
An unreliable governing partner
However, a complicating factor here is that Law and Justice needs to be sure of solid support from the remainder of the ‘United Right’ parliamentary caucus but cannot necessarily rely on Mr Gowin and most deputies from the ‘Agreement’ grouping. The dispute with Mr Gowin dates back to last summer when he resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. In the event, the election was postponed by a few weeks and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following an autumn ministerial reshuffle but Law and Justice remained wary and suspected him of undertaking behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition. Since then, Mr Gowin and his allies have voted against Law and Justice on a number of occasions and indicated their unease about certain elements of the ‘Polish Deal’ reform programme, notably proposals to increase taxes on businesses and higher income earners.
Some commentators argue that Mr Gowin is already a semi-detached member of the governing camp, and it is only a matter of time before he leaves it formally. Indeed, negotiations with Mr Kukiz and non-aligned pro-Law and Justice deputies were originally part of the ruling party’s attempts to construct an alternative parliamentary majority which did not include Mr Gowin and his allies. Moreover, in February a pro-Law and Justice faction within the ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried (reportedly with the ruling party’s tacit support) to wrest control of the party from Mr Gowin by arguing that his statutory term of office as leader had expired. A court case to resolve the dispute is still ongoing but an initial ruling found in Mr Gowin’s favour. So last month Mr Bielan’s supporters formed a breakaway grouping, the Republican Party (Partia Republikańska), hoping to attract ‘Agreement’ deputies to its ranks, but also pledging to merge the two parties if it is resolved that Mr Gowin is not the legitimate leader. However, most ‘Agreement’ deputies stuck with Mr Gowin, and the three Law and Justice defections have made plans to construct an alternative majority that excludes him much more problematic.
An important litmus test of the balance of parliamentary forces, and ominous sign for Law and Justice, was the June Sejm vote, held before the recent defections, on the appointment of a new Civic Rights Advocate (RPO) when ruling party-backed independent Senator Lidia Staroń, secured a narrow majority of 231 votes (her candidacy was later rejected by the opposition-controlled Senate). Three of the four Kukiz’15 deputies supported her as did Mr Mejza and then-still non-aligned Mr Kołakowski (Mr Ajchler accidentally voted against). However, in spite of huge efforts by Law and Justice to win over Mr Gowin’s allies, only two of them supported Mrs Staroń while the other nine voted against. In the event, she only secured a Sejm majority thanks to the support of three deputies from the opposition radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) party.
This vote suggests that, even with the support of Kukiz’15 (and clearly not all four of these deputies can be relied upon) and some independents, the defection of three Law and Justice deputies to ‘Poland’s Choice’ means that, without Mr Gowin and his allies, the ruling party would not be unable to construct a stable parliamentary majority, unless it could win over members of the 11-strong ‘Confederation’ caucus. But the ‘Confederation’ would be a very problematic and unreliable partner for Law and Justice, even as an informal ally. Moreover, while some ‘Confederation’ deputies might be prepared to support the ruling party on less important parliamentary votes, its long-term strategic aim is to replace Law and Justice as Poland’s main right-wing political formation by challenging it on its radical right flank.
An early election?
If Law and Justice can muster a stable, even if not formally visible, parliamentary majority then then the government should still be able to continue to function. However, the situation remains very uncertain as long as the ruling party is dependent for its majority upon Mr Gowin, a theoretically much weaker political partner but whose supporters now occupy a pivotal position in parliament, particularly after the defection of three Law and Justice deputies. A key question is: how many of Mr Gowin’s apparent hard core of nine loyalists would still support him if it meant breaking definitively from the governing camp? Law and Justice strategists estimate that it might only be three or four but, with the parliamentary arithmetic so tight, even this could be enough to deprive the ruling party of its de facto, and not just formal, majority.
For sure, Polish experience suggests that it is possible for a party to govern for a considerable period of time without a stable parliamentary majority. A minority government can cobble together one-off majorities to win votes on specific issues, and there are often enough non-aligned deputies who can be bought off, or are afraid of losing their seats in a snap election, to help to keep an incumbent in office. Moreover, to replace a government an opposition has to secure the passage of a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in favour of a specific alternative prime ministerial candidate. This will be extremely difficult in the current parliament where even a minimal majority for any alternative to Law and Justice would have to encompass an extremely broad range of parties ranging from the radical left to radical right.
However, the Law and Justice leadership knows how politically debilitating governing without a working parliamentary majority can be. Up until now it has rejected the option of calling an early election. But the next few parliamentary sessions are likely to be critical in determining whether the government really can continue to secure the passage of its legislative programme, and approval of, and votes of confidence in, its key appointments. If it transpires that the ruling party lacks a reliable and stable de facto (not just formal) majority, and is simply in office administering rather than actually governing, Law and Justice could well conclude that the only way to break the deadlock is to risk a snap parliamentary poll.