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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/