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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/