The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: March, 2013

New left grouping gets off to shaky start

There were a number of important developments on the Polish political scene last month. There was an apparent truce in the sharp internal conflict over same-sex civil partnerships within the governing centrist Civic Platform (PO), as prime minister and party leader Donald Tusk appeared, at least temporarily, to resolve his differences with justice minister and un-official conservative faction leader Jarosław Gowin. Last month also saw the defeat a long-running attempt by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, to replace the current government with a technocratic administration led by Piotr Gliński, a non-party sociologist, through a constructive parliamentary vote of no-confidence. However, the event that could potentially have the greatest long-term significance was the faltering start of the new Europa Plus grouping, the latest attempt to develop a left-wing challenger to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly that has dominated the political scene since 2005.

Mr Kwaśniewski links up with the Palikot Movement

Europa Plus was actually launched at the end of February when former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski announced that he would be supporting a list of centre-left candidates to contest the May 2014 European Parliament elections. The new grouping, which had no programme and gave the impression of being put together in a hurry, will announce its candidates’ list in September and Mr Kwaśniewski has not ruled out running himself. If Europa Plus achieves a positive result in the EP poll it could use this as a springboard for contesting the next parliamentary election which is scheduled for autumn 2015.

At the press conference launching the new initiative, Mr Kwaśniewski was accompanied by Janusz Palikot – a one-time member Civic Platform deputy who left to party in 2010 to form a new anti-clerical liberal party, the Palikot Movement, which emerged from nowhere to finish as the third largest grouping in the Sejm (the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament) with 10% of the vote after the most recent October 2011 parliamentary election – and MEP Marek Siwiec, a long-time political ally of Mr Kwaśniewski’s. At the end of last year, Mr Siwiec resigned from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the once-powerful communist successor party that Mr Kwaśniewski helped to found at the beginning of the 1990s and which provided the organisational backbone for his two successful presidential bids in 1995 and 2000. The Alliance governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but was in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following its involvement in a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. At the last parliamentary election it suffered its worst ever election defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote.

However, the Palikot Movement failed to capitalise on its 2011 election success and in recent opinion polls has found itself bumping along at around the 5% electoral threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. The situation worsened when the party became embroiled in a huge controversy following its withdrawal of support for Wanda Nowicka as the party’s nominee for Sejm deputy speaker after she had received a substantial parliamentary bonus without informing the party. After some hesitation, Ms Nowicka reneged on her initial promise to resign and Civic Platform and Democratic Left Alliance deputies joined forces in parliament to defeat an attempt by the Palikot Movement to remove her. This led to a huge falling out between the Mr Palikot’s party and leading members of the Polish feminist movement, particularly when it went on to expel Ms Nowicka, a prominent pro-abortion campaigner, from its parliamentary caucus. In his frustration at her unwillingness to stand down as deputy speaker, Mr Palikot accused Ms Nowicka of ‘wanting to be raped’, remarks that were condemned even by many of his erstwhile allies and supporters. By linking up with Mr Palikot in the Europa Plus grouping, Mr Kwasniewski was thus throwing him a political life-line.

Criticism from the Democratic Left Alliance

In fact, Europa Plus got off to a rather shaky start. Some of the high profile centrist politicians whom it had been hoping to attract as possible candidates – such as foreign finance minister and foreign secretary Andrzej Olechowski who was, along with Mr Tusk, one of Civic Platform’s co-founders – reacted coolly to the initiative. The new grouping also came under fierce criticism from the Democratic Left Alliance. By openly supporting its main rival on the centre-left, Mr Kwaśniewski’s scuppered an attempt by his former party to recruit the former President to join its own ‘Alliance for Europe’ EP election coalition. Democratic Left Alliance leader Leszek Miller, who has had a famously ‘rough’ relationship with the former President, dating back to the early 2000s when he was prime minister in an Alliance-led government, is hostile any electoral co-operation with Mr Palikot whom he sees as opportunistic and untrustworthy. Not surprisingly, therefore, Mr Miller’s party suspended from party membership Ryszard Kalisz, one of its best known and most popular parliamentarians but also a one-time head of Mr Kwasniewski’s Presidential Chancellery, when he agreed to serve as a liaison between Europa Plus and the Polish feminist movement (many of whose leading figures dismissed the new grouping as simply an election machine for a group of ageing male politicians).

Since the last election, the Palikot Movement and Democratic Left Alliance have been constantly sniping at each other, with an occasional, unconvincing unity initiative, in a life-or-death battle for the leadership of the Polish left. Mr Miller is a wily political operator and steadied nerves within the party when he took over the leadership following its 2011 election drubbing and most opinion polls now suggest that it has recovered ground and is hovering around 10-15%. However, some critics argue that Mr Miller lacks any clear political strategy or vision for how to take the party’s support above this ceiling and that his political ambitions are limited to securing the post of deputy prime minister as a junior coalition partner in a Civic Platform-led government.

Early polls send mixed messages

With the EP elections so far away, and voters knowing very little about the new formation, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about Europa Plus’ electoral potential from the opinion polls that have been conducted to date. While, encouragingly for Mr Kwaśniewski’s new grouping, a couple of early polls indicated that it could secure around 15% of the vote in the EP poll, the same ones also showed the Democratic Left Alliance holding steady suggesting that the new grouping was potentially a greater threat to Civic Platform by peeling off some of its disillusioned liberal-left voters.

However, these early polls do not take into account the dynamic effects of two competing centre-left electoral lists engaged in a mortal combat that is likely to intensify in the run up to the EP poll. Moreover, other opinion surveys showed support for Europa Plus at less than 10%, particularly those that asked how people would vote in a parliamentary rather than an EP election. At the same time, recent polls also showed support for the Palikot Movement stuck at the precarious 5% level, suggesting that his party had benefited little from its link up with the former President and that it might even be time to throw in its lot completely with Mr Kwaśniewski’s new initiative.

Is Mr Kwaśniewski really the left’s saviour?

There are also question marks over the longer-term prospects for both Europa Plus specifically and any formation sponsored by Mr Kwaśniewski more generally. For sure, he was a very popular President who enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his two terms and remains one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. (Some reports suggested that Mr Kwaśniewski’s initiative was prompted by the Party of European Socialists trans-national party federation as a way of boosting support for its EP grouping.) Many commentators still see him as the one politician with the real potential to transform the electoral fortunes of the Polish left. Various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as being on the political left at around 25-30% with some analysts arguing that Civic Platform has ‘borrowed’ a substantial number of potential centre-left voters who vote for them as the most effective way of keeping the Law and Justice party out of power.

However, it is unclear whether Mr Kwaśniewski’s high approval ratings as President, a largely ceremonial position with few executive powers, will translate into support for those that require more decisive political leadership. It is also questionable how much energy and commitment the former President will devote to the difficult and painstaking task of grassroots party building. Indeed, immediately after the Europa Plus launch press conference he threw himself back into the lucrative international lecture and consultancy circuit and left the task of rolling out the new grouping at a local level to Mr Palikot and Mr Siwiec.

The record of previous initiatives sponsored by Mr Kwaśniewski aimed at forging unity on the Polish centre-left is not especially encouraging. For example, in the 2007 parliamentary election Mr Kwaśniewski gave this backing to the Left and Democrats (LiD), an electoral alliance of four parties of which the main component was the Democratic Left Alliance but which also comprised the Democrats (Demokraci), a small liberal party that included well-known figures from the Solidarity-led governments of the 1990s. However, the grouping only secured 13% of the vote which was less than the combined total that the parties comprising it achieved in the previous election. Indeed, Mr Kwaśniewski was often more of a liability than an asset, including notable occasions when he addressed election rallies allegedly under the influence of alcohol.

Another false dawn?

More broadly both Mr Kwaśniewski and some of the centrist and ‘technocratic’ left-wing figures whose support Europa Plus hopes to secure appear to belong to a by-gone generation whose ability to sway today’s Polish voters might be very limited. Indeed, although Mr Palikot is an unstable maverick who uses coarse, often brutal, political rhetoric and whose political initiatives often lack consistency and follow through, in many ways he is the ‘freshest’ political figure associated with the new formation. While linking up with such an erratic figure clearly carries major risks, Mr Kwaśniewski appears, rightly or wrongly, to have come to the conclusion that the Democratic Left Alliance is no longer capable of playing the role of main standard bearer on the Polish left and, in spite of all of his character flaws, only Mr Palikot, with his knack for attracting substantial media interest in his political initiatives, has the political talent to really shake up the Polish political scene.

The real test for Europa Plus will be to sustain public and media interest in the coming months. But even if it can achieve a one-off success in the EP election on the back off Mr Kwaśniewski’s personal popularity this could be difficult to repeat in subsequent local and parliamentary elections, where its lack of established local and national party organisational structures could count against it. These are early days to make definitive judgements but Mr Kwaśniewski’s new grouping has made an awkward start and faces a long and difficult road ahead if it is not to prove yet another one of the numerous false dawns that the Polish left has seen in recent years.

European issues high on the political agenda

Although February was a busy month on the Polish political scene – that included a small government re-shuffle, continuing divisions within the ruling party over same-sex civil partnerships, and turmoil on the Polish left culminating in the launch of ‘Europa plus’, a new formation spearheaded by former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski to contest the 2014 European Parliament elections – the main developments involved debates regarding the country’s relations with the EU.

Government claims credit for EU budget success

At the beginning of the month, negotiations on the 2014-20 EU budget were concluded and Poland once again emerged as the largest recipient of EU funds. In spite of the fact that the new budget saw the first ever overall spending reduction in the EU’s history, Poland managed to secure an overall increase in funding for the next seven years to nearly 106 million euros, compared to the 102 billion that it received in the 2007-13 budget. Perhaps most significantly, the amount of money that the country would receive from so-called ‘cohesion funds’, which are distributed among the EU’s poorer members for infrastructure and other projects, increased from 69 million to just under 73 billion euros. At current exchange rates, this translated into 303 billion złoties, which was of huge symbolic importance because it fulfilled the 300 million złoties target that the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party, had pledged to secure for Poland in the 2011 parliamentary election campaign. This was probably the party’s most high profile and specific election promise.

The Civic Platform-led government argued that this outcome was a triumph for the Polish negotiators, particularly at a time of economic crisis which inevitably limited the willingness of wealthier states to finance EU projects. Prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk called it ‘one of the happiest days of my life’ and the positive media coverage of the EU summit provided welcome respite for a government that had been under considerable pressure following sharp divisions within the ruling party over moral-cultural issues, notably the divisive question of same-sex civil partnerships. A series of opinion polls showed a narrowing of Civic Platform’s opinion poll leader over the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main parliamentary opposition grouping, to less than 5%.

For its part, Law and Justice argued that, as a large poor country with a sizeable agricultural sector, Poland only got what was its due according the EU’s resource allocation model. It claimed that the country received less per head of the population than a number of neighbouring post-communist states and that the government could have secured a better deal if had negotiated more effectively. It also accused the Tusk administration of sacrificing rural communities so that it could fulfill Civic Platform’s election pledge on cohesion funding pointing out that, while the level of direct subsidies to Polish farmers was set to increase, the funds allocated for development in rural areas was cut from 13.5 billion to just under 10 billion euros. The government argued that this could be offset by directing some of the extra cohesion fund money to rural projects.

Europe as a ‘valence’ issue

In the past, the two main parties have treated Poland-EU relations as a so-called ‘valence’ issue, one where parties compete over which of them is the most competent to pursue a shared objective; in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU. This could be also seen in the debate on the EU budget, with both parties claiming that the outcome vindicated their different strategies and approaches. Civic Platform argued that its apparent success was a vindication of the government’s broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach with Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ as a reliable and stable member state.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Mr Tusk’s government could have extracted more concessions if it had adopted a tougher negotiating stance. Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński said that Mr Tusk should have taken advantage of the fact that EU budgets require unanimity and threatened a Polish veto. The government’s negotiating strategy, the party argued, exemplified its lack of robustness in being willing to stand up to the major EU states, particularly Germany, in defence of Polish national interests.

Parliament approves European fiscal treaty

Later in the month, the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, passed a bill allowing Polish President Bronisław Komorowski to ratify the European fiscal treaty aimed at strengthening budget discipline through European-level oversight of euro zone members’ national finances. With the smaller left-wing opposition parties, the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) and communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), joining the government in supporting ratification – and only Mr Kaczyński’s party and Solidaristic Poland (SP), a small Law and Justice breakaway grouping, voting against – the treaty was approved by 282 votes to 155.

The government argued that adopting the fiscal treaty would strengthen Poland’s position within the EU by allowing it to participate in summits which would decide on the future of the euro zone at a time when the Union’s decision making processes were being re-configured and the single currency area was becoming the core of the European integration project. It also pointed out that, even if Poland adopted the fiscal treaty, this did not place any additional obligations upon it and would only be bound by its provisions when it adopted the euro or if it agreed to observe them voluntarily. The main objective of the Civic Platform-led government’s European policy in recent months has been to prevent the EU from breaking up into the euro zone and ‘other’ second tier members and it has used this argument to justify its participation in initiatives aimed at salvaging the single currency like the fiscal treaty.

The Law and Justice opposition argued that signing up to a fiscal treaty which gave Brussels more control over national budgets threatened the country’s sovereignty without providing it with any compensatory gains. The party also claimed that both the content of the treaty and method by which it was being ratified were unconstitutional: as it placed the setting of the Polish budget under the control and supervision of supra-national institutions and other states; and because, under article 90 of the Polish constitution, any treaty that transferred national sovereignty to an international organisation required a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The government responded that no sovereignty would be lost because the treaty was not part of the EU’s laws and that other parts of the Polish constitution requiring balanced budgets and limiting the national debt already bound the country to the treaty’s key provisions. However, this did not stop Law and Justice promising to refer the ratification bill to the constitutional tribunal.

Euro adoption back on the agenda

Mr Tusk combined the fiscal treaty ratification debate, which was originally meant to have taken place in January, with his announcement in parliament of the EU budget negotiation outcome, in the hope that the latter would generate a more positive atmosphere in relation to Poland’s relations with the EU. Moreover, the fiscal treaty discussion inevitably turned into a more general debate about Poland’s approach towards European integration, and specifically on whether or not Poland should join the euro zone; although formally the fiscal treaty had nothing to do with any future decisions on this issue.

In spite of the turbulence in the single currency zone, the Tusk government has remained committed to Poland joining adopting the euro as a strategic goal as part of its commitment to be seen to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core. However, Mr Tusk appeared to back off somewhat from the issue last month, warning that, while Poland would work to fulfill the criteria needed to enter the euro zone as quickly as possible, the country would not be joining the euro zone any time in the immediate future. Arguing that Poland could be ready to start preparations for euro adoption in 2015 or 2016, thus implying an accession date of no sooner than 2017 or 2018, he also stressed that the government did not have a target date.

Law and Justice responded by repeating its call for a referendum to determine whether or not Poland should join the single currency area. Supporters of Polish euro adoption argue that the country’s Yes vote in the 2003 EU accession referendum also committed the country to join the single currency so no further plebiscites are necessary. Although, as noted above, up until now European integration has been primarily a valence issue, since the start of the euro crisis Law and Justice has been questioning not just the effectiveness of Civic Platform’s strategy for achieving shared goals, but also the latter’s more fundamental support for deeper European integration. In particular, Mr Kaczyński’s party appears to have hardened its anti-euro stance, arguing that it could not see any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency.

However, Law and Justice has always had, in rhetorical terms at least, a broad commitment to an anti-federalist, sometimes verging on Eurosceptic, approach to European integration. In practice, though, this ideological inter-governmentalism has often given way to a more integrationist approach. This was particularly true when Law and Justice was in government in 2005-7 and, for example, it signed Poland up to the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, the party has never formally opposed Polish adoption of the euro, simply arguing that it should be delayed until this could be achieved without damaging the Polish economy and preceded by a referendum.

The Law and Justice position on this issue matters because Poland cannot join the euro zone without a change to its constitution which designates the National Bank of Poland as the only body that can set monetary policy and emit currency in Poland; and a two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to pass an amendment that would give that role to the European Central Bank. Even with the support of the smaller left-wing opposition parties, which support deeper European integration and rapid Polish euro zone accession, Mr Tusk’s administration lacks such a ‘constitutional’ majority.

Politicising euro adoption is a risky strategy

The first opportunity to elect a parliament that could amend the Polish constitution to facilitate euro adoption will not come until the next election, scheduled for autumn 2015. Some commentators argued that Civic Platform was considering making Poland-EU relations in general, and adoption of the euro in particular, major issues in the next parliamentary election. However, this is a risky strategy and party leaders now appear to moving away from this idea. While the vast majority of Poles continue to support EU membership, the euro zone crisis has led to a slump in public support for adoption of the single currency; with recent polls showing that around two thirds of the public are opposed and only a quarter in favour.

Moreover, experience suggests that Polish elections are always dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues; except when the latter are framed as valence issues. Mr Tusk’s caution on setting a target date for euro adoption, and his decision to combine the fiscal treaty ratification debate with his report from the EU budget negotiations, suggest that he is fully aware of the current unpopularity of joining the euro zone among the Polish public and the risks involved in making this issue a dimension of party competition.