New left grouping gets off to shaky start

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.