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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/