Same-sex civil partnerships vote divides the ruling party

The most important development on the Polish political scene last month was the split within the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party over heterosexual and same-sex civil partnerships. Parliamentary votes on this issue highlighted on-going ideological divisions within the main governing party, led by prime minister Donald Tusk, over moral-cultural issues.

At the end of January, following a heated debate, the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, rejected three bills giving legal rights to un-married couples. Although, these so-called civil partnerships were expected to be used mostly by heterosexual couples, same-sex couples were also covered by the legislation. Two of the draft bills were proposed by the smaller left-wing opposition parties: the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). A third was submitted by Artur Dunin, a deputy from Civic Platform’s social liberal wing. The proposed legislation offered many of the same privileges that are currently are afforded by marriage to registered couples, including: the right to inherit property tax-free, alimony and pension benefits, and access to information about the care of ill partners. The Civic Platform proposal contained more limited inheritance rights and health benefits and did not propose additional tax benefits.

Reflecting modern lifestyles or undermining the family?

Supporters of the legislation argued that it was simply acknowledging that different lifestyles were a fact of modern life with many couples, not just those in homosexual relationships, living in informal partnerships. It was, they argued, parliament’s duty to make life easier for couples who did not want to get married, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Opponents argued that such couples could not be afforded the same recognition as those who were married as this undermined the traditional model of the family, whose primary goal is to procreate and which is enshrined in the Polish Constitution as one of the bedrocks of civilisation. Moreover, they argued that civil partnerships were simply a precursor to further demands for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by gay couples.

Some opinion polls appeared to show that, even in a strongly Catholic country like Poland, a majority of Poles accept civil partnerships and support allowing same-sex couples the kind of rights proposed in the legislation. However, polling on the issue of civil partnerships often fails to mention that they would also encompass homosexuals, while surveys that show support for providing rights to same-sex couples do not talk about granting them within the context of civil partnerships. Indeed, other surveys show large majorities of Poles opposed to same-sex marriage and around 90% against gay and lesbian couples being allowed to adopt children.

Civic Platform conservatives help to defeat the bills

Although Civic Platform did not impose discipline on its parliamentary deputies, the party leadership openly backed Mr Dunin’s proposal. In the event, while the two bills presented by the left-wing opposition parties were defeated by large majorities, the Civic Platform-sponsored bill fell with 211 deputies voting in favour and 228 against. However, while most Civic Platform deputies voted alongside the Democratic Left Alliance and Palikot Movement in supporting Mr Dunin’s bill, 46 of them joined the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main parliamentary opposition grouping, and Solidaristic Poland (SP), a small Law and Justice breakaway party, in voting against while a further 10 abstained. The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior partner in the governing coalition, also voted against all three bills. Most Peasant Party deputies have conservative attitudes towards moral-cultural issues anyway, but since Janusz Piechociński became the party’s leader last November it has been making encouraging towards the right, exemplified by that fact that it recruited a defector from the Solidaristic Poland parliamentary caucus last month. As part of this, the party has attempted to develop stronger links with the Catholic Church hierarchy, which strongly opposes civil partnerships.

Civic Platform’s divisions were further exposed when, shortly before voting on the legislation began, justice minister Jarosław Gowin, the informal leader of the party’s conservative faction, intervened to argue that the proposed legislation was incompatible with the Polish Constitution. He cited article 18 which calls for the state to protect marriage as a union between men and women. However, Mr Tusk dismissed Mr Gowin’s objections as his personal opinion rather than the government’s official position and called upon parliament to pass the civil partnership bills. By publicly backing these proposals, Mr Tusk thus turned their defeat into a challenge to his authority as prime minister and party leader.

Moral-cultural issues as an ongoing divide

This was not the first time that Civic Platform has had problems with moral-cultural issues and the civil partnerships vote simply highlighted how deeply divisive they are within the party. Last summer, a similar number of conservative Civic Platform deputies joined the right-wing opposition in supporting legislation to tighten Poland’s abortion law, already one of the most restrictive in Europe, and only backed down later following a strong personal appeal from Mr Tusk. The Civic Platform-led government has also been reluctant to risk a parliamentary vote on in-vitro fertilisation, trying to get around the matter by funding IVF programmes without recourse to legislation, and is avoiding parliamentary ratification of the Council of Europe convention on domestic violence against women, which conservatives like Mr Gowin view as a Trojan horse for the radical feminist left.

Civic Platform’s difficulties over these issues stem from the fact that while the party has tried to straddle the ideological centre ground it has always had strong social liberal and conservative wings. In the mid-2000s, it tried to present itself as a right-wing, socially conservative and economically liberal party, as part of an attempt to broaden out its electoral support. Party leaders, including Mr Tusk, appeared to draw lessons from the 1990s when liberal centrist parties of which they were members, such as the Freedom Union (UW), reached a ceiling of support at around 10-15%. Moving the party to the right by, among other things, re-fashioning it as more explicitly socially conservative helped Civic Platform to more than double its support in the 2005 parliamentary election which laid the groundwork for its subsequent victory in the 2007 poll.

A ‘liberal-left turn’?

However, during this period the party’s conservative wing became less influential. This was partly due to Civic Platform’s strategic decision to transform itself from into a more ideologically eclectic and all-inclusive centrist grouping attractive to a very wide spectrum of voters; what some critics dubbed a ‘post-political’ party of power. This approach helped to ensure that, in autumn 2011, Civic Platform became the first party in post-1989 Poland to be re-elected to government for a second term. The weakening of Civic Platform’s conservative wing was also due to the leadership’s efforts to build support for the party among the Polish liberal-left cultural and media establishment, exemplified by the influential liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. In spite of the fact that his ideological instincts were always closer to the party’s liberal wing, Mr Tusk had previously enjoyed a somewhat un-easy relationship with this milieu, but they were felt to be key opinion formers among social groups that comprised the party’s core electorate such as young people, the well-educated and better-off.

Civic Platform’s ‘liberal-left turn’ was given a further impetus by the electoral success of the Palikot Movement. This grouping was formed at the end of 2010 by the controversial and flamboyant businessman and former Civic Platform deputy Janusz Palikot, who left the party complaining at what he saw as its excessively conservative tilt. The Movement emerged as the third largest party in the autumn 2011 election winning just over 10% of the vote with a strong social liberally programme that included reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in public life, the de-criminalisation of so-called ‘soft’ drugs, abortion on demand, and more rights for sexual minorities including the legalisation of same-sex civil unions. Mr Palikot’s party succeeded in attracting a significant number of younger voters who felt that Civic Platform was still too socially conservative and excessively deferential towards the Church.

Are Mr Gowin’s day numbered?

However, while divisions on moral-cultural issues will continue to be a running sore for Civic Platform, in the short-term they are unlikely to threaten either party unity or the survival of the coalition government. The party remains broadly united on socio-economic policy and the social conservatives who voted against civil partnerships have supported, and will continue to support, the government on other issues, including controversial ones such as the radical structural reforms to which the Tusk administration remains committed, in theory at least. Indeed, Mr Gowin is an economic liberal and before he joined the government actually crticised the party leadership for not moving ahead quickly enough with such reforms. The odds are still that there will be no major split in the party unless it loses the next parliamentary election.

Nonetheless, the high profile disagreement between Mr Tusk and his justice minister does raise question marks over Mr Gowin’s long-term future as a member of the government. The Civic Platform leader has a record of dealing ruthlessly with party rivals whom he considers a threat to his authority. However, if Mr Tusk sacks the justice minister then Mr Gowin could cause him even greater problems on the backbenches, and possibly even persuade a number of conservative Civic Platform deputies to leave the party. Given that the government currently has a parliamentary majority of only five, this would mean it having to try and govern as a minority administration, cobbling together a new coalition with the smaller left-wing parties or calling a snap election. Any new coalition is likely to be much less stable than the current one and with Civic Platform only enjoying a narrow and uncertain opinion poll lead over Law and Justice these are scenarios that the ruling party will be very keen to avoid.