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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/