The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: January, 2013

Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 5): The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene

This is the fifth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

For part 1, ‘A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/polish-politics-in-2012-part-1-a-difficult-year-for-the-ruling-civic-platform/

For part 2, ‘Strains in the governing coalition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/polish-politics-in-2012-part-2-strains-in-the-governing-coalition/

For part 3, ‘The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/polish-politics-in-2012-part-3-the-law-and-justice-opposition-struggled-to-find-a-winning-formula/

For part 4, ‘’The left remained weak and divided’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/polish-politics-in-2012-part-4-the-left-remained-weak-and-divided/

Last year, European politics was overshadowed by the on-going Eurozone crisis and events at the European Union level impinged increasingly upon Polish domestic politics. This meant that debates over attitudes towards European integration inevitably became the international policy issue that dominated the Polish political scene. All Polish parties were concerned that the Eurozone countries, especially France and Germany, were increasingly assuming a greater leadership role within Europe and acting in ways that circumvented the EU institutions and crowded out states like Poland. The main objective of the European policy pursued by the Polish government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was, therefore, to prevent the EU from breaking up into the Eurozone and ‘other’ second tier members.

The government and prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk used this argument to justify their support for closer German-led integration within the EU as the way for Poland to remain at the centre of the Union’s decision making core and part of what it termed the ‘European mainstream’. The Tusk administration thus defended its decision to participate in salvaging the single currency as an opportunity for Poland to gain influence upon the EU more generally. Warsaw was, for example, one of the 25 EU countries that signed the European fiscal treaty aimed at tightening budget discipline within the Eurozone. This was in spite of the fact that the government failed to achieve all of its negotiating demands aimed at ensuring that Poland would be involved in treaty summits where the most important decisions were to be taken. Moreover, the Tusk administration remained committed to Poland finding a safe way of adopting the Euro as a long-term strategic goal, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency zone.

Domestic political and economic constraints

However, the government was also concerned about the domestic political implications of signing up to new European initiatives and institutions which might impose compliance costs or have a negative impact on the Polish economy. This was a particularly sensitive issue given that it was not clear that Poland would be able to have a strong voice within these new supervisory mechanisms. It created tensions between domestic political imperatives and economic constraints, on the one hand, and the government’s strategy of trying to become a key EU player and part of the European ‘inner core’ on the other. As a consequence, for example, the Tusk administration sent out mixed messages as to whether Poland would be joining the proposed new EU banking union, which would give the European Central Bank supervisory power over all banks in the Eurozone, and included a mechanism for non-Euro countries to join on a voluntary basis. Initially it argued that it was not in Poland’s interests to join a body in which it did not have a vote while being subject to its decisions. However, it then seemed to adopt a more positive stance when the terms available for non-Eurozone countries to join the banking union’s decision making processes appeared to improve.

Civic Platform’s European policy was broadly supported by its junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL). It was also largely endorsed by the Civic Platform-nominated President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski, who remained Poland’s most popular politician throughout 2012, and the two smaller left-wing opposition parties: the anti-clerical liberal-left Palikot Movement (RP) and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). However, it was strongly criticised by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main parliamentary opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister. Law and Justice attacked the government for apparently failing to represent Poland’s interests effectively at the European level and lacking the will to stand up to the major EU states, particularly Germany. For example, Law and Justice argued that signing up to a fiscal treaty which gave Brussels more control over national budgets and finances was a threat to the country’s sovereignty and independence. Mr Kaczyński’s party was also very critical of the Tusk government’s decision to agree to offer financial assistance (via the IMF) to support Southern European Eurozone countries who were at risk but who, the party pointed out, had a higher standard of living than that enjoyed by Poland. More generally, Law and Justice argued that the government was too trustful of France and Germany and would have had a better chance of achieving its demands if it took a tougher negotiating line.

Poles remained strongly pro-EU, but were increasingly anti-Euro

Law and Justice was clearly hoping that, with the mood in Europe darkening and Poles feeling increasingly wary about the future of the integration project, the government’s strong pro-EU stance would turn from being a source of strength to one of weakness. However, although there was a small drop in levels of support over the last few years, Poles remained overwhelmingly supportive of EU membership. For example, a December 2012 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 81% of respondents still supported Polish membership of the EU (albeit down from 89% in July 2007) while the number of opponents stood at only 15% (5% in July 2007).This was likely to continue to be the case as long as: Poles had access to Western labour markets and enjoyed free travel throughout the Schengen zone; and Poland received substantial regional aid from the EU budget.

Nonetheless, Mr Tusk’s government had to tread warily on this issue. For sure, the vast majority of Poles remained supportive of EU membership in principle and (in theory at least) wanted the country to be included in any EU decision making ‘inner core’. However, they were also strongly opposed to bailing out what they saw as richer but more profligate EU states and became increasingly hostile to Poland adopting the Euro currency. For example, a July 2012 CBOS survey found only 25% support for Poland adopting the Euro (compared to 53% in March 2009) and an increase in the number of those opposed from 38% to 68% over the same period. All of this created a further domestic political constraint on the government’s room for manouvre in supporting further European integration.

Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 4): The left remained weak and divided

This is the fourth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

For part 1, ‘A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/polish-politics-in-2012-part-1-a-difficult-year-for-the-ruling-civic-platform/

For part 2, ‘Strains in the governing coalition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/polish-politics-in-2012-part-2-strains-in-the-governing-coalition/

For part 3, ‘The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/polish-politics-in-2012-part-3-the-law-and-justice-opposition-struggled-to-find-a-winning-formula/

The Polish left remained weak and divided in the 2012. They made no progress in challenging to the duopoly of the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO) and right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition party, the two parties that had dominated the political scene since 2005, and showed little prospect of being able to offer any serious challenge in the near future. Most opinion polls showed support for the two small left-wing opposition parties – the anti-clerical liberal-left Palikot Movement (RP) and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – flat lining at around 5-10%. The question of which (if any) of them would become the standard bearer of the Polish left remained unresolved.

The Palikot Movement lost momentum

In spite of picking up a couple of parliamentary defectors from the Democratic Left Alliance and Civic Platform (and, in the process, reducing the government’s majority to only three) the Palikot Movement failed to capitalise on its autumn 2011 parliamentary election success, when it emerged from nowhere to finish third with 10% of the vote. Its radical anti-clericalism may have provided the party with a niche electorate but was clearly nothing like enough to give it a potentially election-winning formula. Moreover, its parliamentary caucus was very short of any real political talent and its controversial leader, one-time Civic Platform deputy Janusz Palikot, was considered untrustworthy by most Poles.

More broadly, the party struggled to clarify whether it was an economically (and not just socially) liberal grouping or a more leftist party. It zigzagged between, on the one hand, breaking ranks with the rest of the parliamentary opposition and supporting the Civic Platform-led government’s controversial pension reforms (to gradually increasing the retirement age, starting in 2013, to 67 from the current level of 65 for men and 60 for women), to calling upon the government to intervene in the economy and build new factories on the other. However, although the Palikot Movement remained an unstable construct and its leader an unpredictable maverick, it was too early to write the party off. Mr Palikot remained a skilful political operator with a knack for attracting substantial media coverage for his political initiatives.

The Democratic Left Alliance stabilised but remained critical

The election of Leszek Miller to the leadership of the Democratic Left Alliance in April, after a brief interregnum when he was acting leader, steadied nerves within the party following its drubbing in the 2011 election when it slumped to fifth place. Mr Miller was a wily political operator who was previously Democratic Left Alliance leader from 1997 to 2004, led the party to victory in the 2001 parliamentary election, and served as prime minister of Poland from 2001-2004, overseeing Poland’s accession to the European Union. As a consequence, the drop in support for the party bottomed out, with some polls showing it stabilising at around 10%. However, the Democratic Left Alliance remained in a critical state and none of its current leadership appeared to have any clear political strategy or vision for how to re-build the party’s support in the longer-term.

For part 5, ‘The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/polish-politics-in-2012-part-5-the-eurozone-crisis-dominated-the-international-scene/

Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 3): The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula

This is the third of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

For part 1, ‘A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/polish-politics-in-2012-part-1-a-difficult-year-for-the-ruling-civic-platform/

For part 2, ‘Strains in the governing coalition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/polish-politics-in-2012-part-2-strains-in-the-governing-coalition/

Throughout the year many Polish voters were clearly disappointed and frustrated with the ruling party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), and feared that the economy was entering a period of crisis. However, for much of the year Civic Platform benefited from the continued weakness of the main opposition grouping, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Polls suggested that voters were reluctant to support Law and Justice because they did not see the party as representing a credible alternative to the Civic Platform administration led by prime minister and party leader Donald Tusk. They particularly disliked the apparently more aggressive and divisive style of politics that they associated with Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor who consistently topped the polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians.

Protecting its right flank

Part of the reason why Law and Justice was unable to take advantage of the government’s problems was that during the first part of the year it was embroiled in a bitter political struggle to retain the loyalty of its core right-wing electorate against the new ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party. This was a breakaway grouping comprising expelled Law and Justice members led by former party deputy chairman Zbigniew Ziobro who fell out with Mr Kaczyński after the autumn 2011 parliamentary election. The danger of Solidarsitc Poland chipping away at Law and Justice’s core support stemmed from the fact that Mr Ziobro was, after Mr Kaczyński himself, probably the best-known and most popular politician among right-wing voters.

However, it became clear fairly quickly that Mr Ziobro’s breakaway was not going to emerge as a serious challenger to Law and Justice. Of key importance here was the stance taken by the Catholic nationalist Radio Maryja media group run by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, which was very influential among Poland’s sizeable ‘religious right’ who comprised a core element of Law and Justice’s electoral base. Although Father Rydzyk always had close personal links with Mr Ziobro, and initially Radio Maryja took a neutral stance on the split, it soon became clear that Mr Kaczyński’s party had managed to retain the influential clergyman’s support.

Smolensk scuppers a successful autumn offensive

At one point in the autumn, Law and Justice finally looked like it was getting its act together and developing into a serious electoral challenger to Civic Platform when it launched a successful public relations offensive. The party focused its message on social and economic issues amid rising unemployment and a slowing down of the Polish economy, and proposed Piotr Gliński, a sobre and respected non-party sociology professor, to head up a technocratic ‘government of experts’ that would replace the Tusk administration. Law and Justice also made a major a major effort to adopt less aggressive and confrontational rhetoric, particularly in relation to the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy, the plane crash in which the then Polish President Lech Kaczyński, the Law and Justice leader’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while they were on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. This strategy appeared to be working as Law and Justice drew level in the opinion polls and in some of even pulled ahead of Civic Platform for the first time since Mr Tusk’s party first came to power in 2007.

However, the party’s support soon fell back in the turmoil that followed the publication of an article in the Rzeczpospolita newspaper claiming that traces of explosives had been found in the wreck of the plane that crashed in Smolensk. This brought this controversial issue back to the top of the political agenda. Jarosław Kaczyński reacted to the Rzeczpospolita article by arguing that it provided confirmation for those who claimed that the late President had been murdered. He called for Mr Tusk to resign arguing that his government had been shoddy in overseeing preparations for the visit and incompetent and dishonest in its handling of the crash investigation. At worst, he implied that it was complicit in a cover-up with the Russian authorities. However, Mr Kaczyński’s claims were undermined by a statement from the Polish military prosecutor in charge of the crash investigation that it could not confirm the newspaper’s claims (although he admitted that its tests would not be complete for some months) and the Rzeczpospolita management board went on to fire the journalist who wrote the article and editorial staff who approved it.

Still a touchstone issue

In recent years, Mr Kaczyński’s party made numerous attempts to tone down its more aggressive and controversial rhetoric and re-focus its core message onto ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues; most notably during the Law and Justice leader’s campaign in the June-July 2010 presidential election that followed his brother’s death. However, the party invariably ended up returning to the confrontational tone that appeared to come more naturally to Mr Kaczyński, particularly when discussing the Smolensk tragedy which became a touchstone issue for the Polish right.

For many Law and Justice supporters the Smolensk disaster was seen as part of a long history of Poland’s suffering at the hands of its more powerful neighbours. Mr Kaczyński could thereby use the tragedy to activate his core electorate by presenting it within a broader narrative of the Civic Platform-led government’s betrayal of Polish national interests. However, putting the Smolensk issue at the forefront of the political debate also distracted the party’s potential supporters from the Tusk-led government’s other shortcomings. By making the party appear obsessive and extreme, its Smolensk rhetoric also alienated more centrist voters who were not necessarily implacably anti-Law and Justice but rejected the party’s accusations of treason and assassination which they felt demonstrated Mr Kaczyński’s unfitness to govern Poland.

For part 4, ‘The left remained weak and divided’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/polish-politics-in-2012-part-4-the-left-remained-weak-and-divided/

For part 5, ‘The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/polish-politics-in-2012-part-5-the-eurozone-crisis-dominated-the-international-scene/

Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 2): Strains in the governing coalition

This is the second of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

For part 1, ‘A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/polish-politics-in-2012-part-1-a-difficult-year-for-the-ruling-civic-platform/

Not surprisingly, given the difficulties and turbulence that the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO) party faced last year, greater strains began to show in the coalition between the main ruling party and its junior partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL). Although relations between the two had generally been smooth during the previous 2007-11 parliament, there had already been several early indications that Civic Platform’s relationship with its coalition partner might not be as smooth this time around. Peasant Party leader Waldemar Pawlak – who was also deputy prime minister and economy minister, and whose relatively successful (if sometimes prickly) working relationship with prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk had been one of the keys to the smooth functioning of the coalition – faced a battle for re-election at the party’s autumn congress. This forced Mr Pawlak to differentiate his grouping more clearly from the main governing party.

Indeed, in May and June the ruling coalition faced the most serious crisis in its five year history when the Peasant Party promoted a flurry of initiatives to amend Civic Platform’s controversial pension reform bill. The latter envisaged gradually increasing the retirement age (starting in 2013) to 67 from the current level of 65 for men and 60 for women but was opposed by some 80-90% of the public. Given that raising the retirement age was the centrepiece of the reform programme set out in Mr Tusk’s policy speech that inaugurated the new parliament in November 2011, at one point disagreements between the two governing parties appeared so serious as to threaten the coalition’s survival. This prompted speculation that Civic Platform might try and construct a new government alignment or even call an early parliamentary election. The issue was eventually resolved with a compromise deal whereby Mr Tusk’s party agreed to the possibility of early retirement under certain conditions on partial pensions for women at 62 and men at 65.

Peasant Party leadership changes

However, at the end of the year the coalition faced another major new challenge when, at the Peasant Party’s November congress, Mr Pawlak was defeated in the party leadership election by Janusz Piechociński. The result came as a surprise as Mr Pawlak’s strongest rival was always felt to be agriculture minister Marek Sawicki, on whose patronage many party activists depended for their positions within government agricultural agencies but who fell out of contention when he was forced to resign from the government in July following allegations of abuse of public appointments. Moreover, although Mr Piechociński had been a parliamentary deputy on-and-off for the last twenty years, he had never held ministerial office. In fact, this actually proved to be part of the challenger’s appeal with the party grassroots, particularly among the new generation of younger Peasant Party politicians whom Mr Piechociński persuaded to support him with a promise that that he could expand the party’s electoral base and at least double the 5-6% that it was scoring consistently in most opinion polls.

During the leadership election, Mr Piechociński also pledged to separate leadership functions at parliamentary, party and government levels. However, immediately after his defeat Mr Pawlak resigned from his government posts and ignored Mr Piechociński’s attempts to persuade him to stay on, arguing that the government and party leadership roles were inseparable for the effective functioning of both the party and the coalition. Following a period of political uncertainty surrounding the future of the coalition itself, fearful of criticisms that he was avoiding the responsibilities of leadership Mr Piechociński ended up taking over both of his predecessor’s posts as deputy prime minister and the economy minister. He also backed down on his previous pledge to secure a new coalition agreement that was more detailed than the general framework agreement that was currently in place. Moreover, it was not clear if Mr Tusk would get on as well on a personal level with Mr Piechociński as he had with Mr Pawlak, placing a further a question mark over the coalition’s future stability.

The coalition looked set to continue

Nonetheless, although during the last year the Peasant Party started to increasingly signal its independence and disagreement with certain government policies, when it came to actual voting in parliament the party invariably supported Civic Platform’s plans and the current ruling coalition remained the most stable of any in post-1989 Poland. The fact that the two parties had somewhat different core electorates – with the Civic Platform primarily an urban party and, in spite of Mr Piechociński’s pledge to broaden his party’s socio-economic base of support, the Peasant Party’s voters were, for the foreseeable future at least, likely to be drawn mainly from rural communities – meant that they continued not to be in direct competition for the same voters.

Moreover, Mr Piechociński was a political realist and knew that in the short term there was no alternative for the Peasant Party other than to remain in government especially given that, notwithstanding its new leadership’s pledge to make the party less patronage-oriented in future, it remained primarily an office-seeking party. Retaining its ministerial posts, and thus its control of government-appointed posts and agencies (especially in the agricultural sector), thus continued to be a top priority for its grassroots supporters. Breaking up the government coalition could also have had the knock-on effect of de-stabilising the Civic Platform-Peasant Party coalitions which dominated Poland’s 16 regional authorities, another important source of party patronage at the local level.

At the same time, the Peasant Party also appeared to have drawn lessons from earlier periods as a member of coalition governments during the 1990s and early 2000s when it often distanced itself publicly from the main ruling party whenever its poll ratings declined or the government encountered difficulties. As part of the current coalition, the party has pursued a very different strategy: making a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously trying to project an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics. Finally, in practice Mr Tusk did not really have a credible or attractive alternative coalition available to him within the current parliament.  While the change of leadership in the Peasant Party created uncertainty and was bound to change the governing dynamics,  it was unclear exactly how and to what extent.

For part 3, ‘The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/polish-politics-in-2012-part-3-the-law-and-justice-opposition-struggled-to-find-a-winning-formula/

For part 4, ‘The left remained weak and divided’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/polish-politics-in-2012-part-4-the-left-remained-weak-and-divided/

For part 5, ‘The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/polish-politics-in-2012-part-5-the-eurozone-crisis-dominated-the-international-scene/

Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 1): A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform

This is the first of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

The first few months of 2012 were an extremely turbulent period for the government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party. The administration, led by prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk, found itself heavily criticised following a series of high profile policy errors made by government ministers at the start of the year. These seriously dented the ruling party’s carefully cultivated image as more competent, knowledgeable and professional than its political opponents and, as a consequence, led to a sharp fall in opinion poll support for the ruling party. The monthly tracking poll carried out by the TNS Polska polling agency for the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper showed a slump in support for Civic Platform from 37% in January 2012 to 28% in February and, with a couple of blips in the autumn, its support remained stuck around the 27-32% mark for most of the rest of the year.

Both the government and Mr Tusk’s approval ratings also fell to their lowest levels since the party first came to office in 2007. The monthly tracking poll carried out by the CBOS polling agency found that the number of government supporters fell from 44% in December 2011 to only 33% in December 2012 while the number of its opponents increased from 29% to 39% during the same period. Approval of the government’s performance fell from 45% to 30% while disapproval increased from 40% to 57%. Satisfaction with Mr Tusk as prime minister fell from 49% to 35% while disapproval increased from 38% to 50%. The number of respondents who said that they trusted the PO leader, previously the party’s most important electoral asset, also fell from 52% to 42% during the year.

Policy mistakes and controversial reforms

The first crisis to hit the government was over the controversial and poorly implemented new rules on prescription drug rebates which came into force at the beginning of January. The new regulations caused confusion among doctors and pharmacists, as a result of which many patients had more difficult access to their medication. Then came the controversy over the government’s decision to sign the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which triggered an unprecedented string of attacks by hackers on official websites and a wave of massive street protests across the country mobilising those who feared that the new regulations could lead to censorship of the Internet. The government’s stance on the ACTA treaty particularly damaged Civic Platform’s standing with younger urban voters, among whom the party had previously enjoyed very high levels of support. In response, having initially said that his government would not give in to blackmail, Mr Tusk suspended ratification of the treaty.

In fact, these controversies proved relatively easy for the government to deal with by simply registering the criticisms and taking remedial action. However, it faced a potentially more intractable problem in securing the passage of its hugely unpopular plans to reform the pension system. In order to help reform Poland’s public finances, the government proposed gradually increasing the retirement age (starting in 2013) to 67 from the current level of 65 for men and 60 for women. These proposals were of huge political significance because they were centrepiece of the reform package announced by Mr Tusk in his November 2011 policy speech setting out the then newly elected government’s programme for the new parliament. The Tusk government‘s first term was characterised by a preference for a gradual and cautious policy of introducing reforms by ‘small steps’ and it was often criticized for failing undertake more decisive, but potentially unpopular, fiscal and structural reform measures.

Winning power for an unprecedented second term of office in October 2011, Mr Tusk’s newly elected administration was forced by the financial markets, credit rating agencies and the EU to promise a more decisive long-term reform programme. Mr Tusk, therefore, announced a series of far-reaching policy initiatives and austerity measures designed to improve Poland’s public finances and protect the country from the global financial crisis; of which the proposals to increase the retirement age were the most controversial, opposed by some 80-90% of the public polled in opinion surveys. Opposition parties and the trade unions accused Civic Platform of purposely failing to reveal its plans during the election campaign, knowing that doing so would have lost the party votes, and forcing the reform through without consultation. The reforms sparked some of biggest street protests in recent years, especially those organised by the Solidarity trade union under its ambitious and dynamic leader Piotr Duda. Wary of the danger of continued protests, the government rushed the legislation through parliament and made sure that it was signed into law before the Euro 2012 football championships, which Poland co-hosted with Ukraine at the end June and beginning of July.

The further knock to the ruling party’s increasingly fragile popularity provided by the pension reform controversy, together with the increasingly unsettled economic environment, made the Tusk administration extremely wary of pushing ahead too rapidly with some of the other radical reforms set out in Mr Tusk’s policy speech; that, it feared, could further damage its public support and create tensions within the governing coalition. These included phasing out the special pension arrangements enjoyed by various occupational groups such as coal miners and farmers; as well as bringing the latter, who paid less health insurance than other workers and had traditionally enjoyed special welfare and fiscal subsidies, into the normal social security and tax systems. This was exemplified by the fact that Mr Tusk used his ‘second policy speech’ in October 2012, designed to re-launch the government, to focus on how it would boost investment spending on infrastructure to tackle the anticipated economic slowdown at a time when EU funds were winding down, rather on how it would push ahead with further fiscal and structural reforms.

Cronyism and financial scandal overshadow Euro 2012 optimism

The government had hoped to use the high profile Euro 2012 football championships to draw a line under its problems. For sure, it had faced controversy over Poland’s readiness for the tournament, especially over delays in completing the new national stadium in Warsaw. The championships failed to deliver the stimulus for a ‘civilisational leap’ in the country’s road and rail infrastructure that many had hoped for. Nonetheless, after an uneasy start when the international media focused on the apparent prevalence of racism in Polish football, it was felt that the country did a good job of hosting the championships. The generally positive publicity generated by Euro 2012 gave Civic Platform a breathing space, with some polls taken in its immediate aftermath suggesting that the party was starting to recover ground and regain the voters’ trust.

However, this recovery proved to be as short-lived as the Polish football team’s Euro 2012 adventure (having qualified automatically as co-hosts they failed to win a game and advance beyond the group stages) and it was not long before the government found itself on the back foot again and embroiled in a series of cronyism and corruption scandals. Firstly, agriculture minister Marek Sawicki – a nominee of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner – was forced to resign following allegations of abuse of public appointments. Although it was originally felt that this would damage Civic Platform’s coalition partner rather than Mr Tusk’s grouping, the Sawicki resignation unleashed a series of revelations by normally pro-government media that the main governing party had also used nominations to state-run bodies to reward party activists. Mr Tusk was then bounced into appointing veteran Peasant Party deputy Stanisław Kalemba, a harsh critic of the government’s plans to reform the agricultural sector, as Mr Sawicki’s replacement. The prime minister also lost face when Mr Kalemba reneged on a promise that his son would resign his job in an agriculture ministry-controlled agency.

This was followed closely by the scandal surrounding the collapse of Amber Gold, a so-called ‘para-bank’ which had attracted investors by offering them high interest returns on gold-indexed financial investments but turned out to be a classic financial ‘pyramid’ scheme. It transpired that Amber Gold – which went bankrupt in August and whose proprietor Marcin Plichta had previously been convicted of several different fraud charges – had been allowed to operate in spite of the fact that it had been issued several warnings by Poland’s financial authority. The opposition strongly criticised the public prosecutor for failing to act against the firm, despite numerous complaints about its business activities. It also emerged that Mr Tusk had warned his son, Michał, about the potential risks of working as a public relations adviser for the OLT Express budget airline, which was linked to Mr Plichta and also went bankrupt earlier in the year. This led to questions as to whether Mr Tusk had used access to privileged information to try to protect his son while failing to warn potential investors of the risks associated with the firm.

Back to square one?

2012 was, then, the most difficult year for the current government and ruling Civic Platform party since it was first elected to office in 2007, as it faced a series of crises linked to policy mistakes, controversy over its unpopular pension reform package and allegations of cronyism and a lack of competence. However, in spite of all of this turbulence the ruling party was able to hang on to much of its support and bby the end of the year some opinion polls suggested that it had regained a clear lead over the right-wing conservative Law and Justice (PiS), the main opposition grouping, although others indicated that support for the two main parties was more evenly balanced. Nonetheless, although the government came through 2012 rather shaken but (relatively) unscathed, the fragility of its support appeared to have discouraged it from pushing ahead too quickly with further radical structural and fiscal reforms.

For part 2, ‘Strains in governing coalition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/polish-politics-in-2012-part-2-strains-in-the-governing-coalition/

For part 3, ‘The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/polish-politics-in-2012-part-3-the-law-and-justice-opposition-struggled-to-find-a-winning-formula/

For part 4, ‘The left remained weak and divided’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/polish-politics-in-2012-part-4-the-left-remained-weak-and-divided/

For part 5, ‘The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/polish-politics-in-2012-part-5-the-eurozone-crisis-dominated-the-international-scene/