Polish government rocked by a series of political crises

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Last month, the Polish government was buffeted by an accumulation of political difficulties. Two ministerial sackings meant that prime minister and leader of the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party Donald Tusk was forced to undertake an impromptu government re-shuffle. Confusion surrounding negotiations on a strategically important gas pipeline project taking place without ministerial knowledge, divisions and tensions within the governing coalition, a further slump in support for the government and prime minister, and increasing cynicism towards the administration’s account of the causes of Smolensk air crash all contributed to a growing sense of chaos and lack of direction and purpose.

Treasury minister’s sacking causes coalition rift

Mr Tusk’s decision to dismiss treasury minister Mikołaj Budzanowski followed confusion over the signing of a memorandum between Polish gas transmission company EuRoPol Gaz and Russia’s Gazprom on a feasibility study to build a second line for the Yamal pipeline that would transport Russian gas across Polish territory by-passing Ukraine. Mr Tusk was forced to admit that he was unaware of the memorandum, a major embarrassment for the government given that the new pipeline would make it easier for Moscow to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, which is supposed to be one of Poland’s most important strategic partners in the region. Deputy prime minister and economy minister Janusz Piechociński – who is leader of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior governing coalition partner, and whose ministry has overall responsibility for energy policy – also claimed that nobody had briefed him on the issue; although the head of the state-owned natural gas company PGNiG (which has a 48% stake in EuRoPol Gaz) said that he had been informed All of this prompted Mr Tusk to order an investigation which led to the treasury minister being accused of poor supervision and failure to ensure an adequate exchange of information.

Mr Budzanowski’s sacking caused a major rift within the governing coalition with Mr Piechociński angry that he was not consulted over the move. The situation was exacerbated by Mr Tusk’s suggestion that there should be a separate ministry responsible for energy issues, which would have reduced Mr Piechociński’s government competencies significantly, leading the Peasant Party leader to threaten to resign if he continued to be marginalised within the government.

Mr Piechociński has come under increasing pressure from within his own party for his apparent failure to make an impact since he was elected leader last November, defeating his predecessor Waldemar Pawlak in a closely fought race. Mr Pawlak’s relatively successful (if sometimes prickly) working relationship with Mr Tusk was one of the keys to the smooth functioning of the coalition, and the change of Peasant Party leadership has inevitably altered its internal dynamics. Earlier this year, Mr Tusk failed to consult Mr Piechociński over a decision to promote finance minister Jacek Rostowski, one of the most mis-trusted Civic Platform ministers among Peasant Party activists, to the rank of deputy prime minister. The party is also hovering dangerously around the 5% electoral threshold required to secure parliamentary representation.

Mr Piechociński’s original plan was to separate out government and party management functions but he was bounced into also taking over Mr Pawlak’s ministerial responsibilities and appears to be finding it difficult to keep on top of everything. Earlier last month, three Peasant Party deputies voted in favour of an opposition-inspired vote of no-confidence in Civic Platform transport minister Sławomir Nowak (although it turned out that one of them did so by mistake) creating a dangerous precedent for a government with a slim five-seat parliamentary majority. Some commentators also cited Mr Piechociński’s failure to grasp the importance of the Yamal pipeline memorandum as evidence of his lack of governing experience.

Mr Tusk finally sacks his justice minister

Mr Tusk rounded off a difficult month for the government by dismissing justice minister Jarosław Gowin following the latter’s claim that Polish in vitro fertilisation clinics were selling embryos to Germany where they were used for scientific experiments; which he made while the prime minister was visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mr Gowin was unable to convince Mr Tusk that his (admittedly somewhat unclear) statements were manipulated by sections of the media who opposed the former justice minister’s strong conservative stance on moral-cultural issues. Accusing the justice minister of a lack of self-discipline, Mr Tusk argued that his sacking was not a result of his political views but because he had become embroiled in disputes over issues that lay outside his ministerial competencies.

Mr Gowin, who is the informal leader of the Civic Platform’s conservative faction, was almost fired from the government at the beginning of March after he led a group of party deputies to vote down a draft bill on same-sex civil partnerships supported by Mr Tusk; clashing with the prime minister in a testy parliamentary exchange over whether the legislation was compatible with the Polish constitution. Although Mr Tusk has a record of dealing ruthlessly with party rivals whom he considers a threat to his authority, he initially refrained from sacking Mr Gowin, fearing that he could persuade a number of conservative Civic Platform deputies to leave the party thereby threatening the government’s parliamentary majority. The Civic Platform leader was also reluctant to be seen to fire his justice ministers for ideological reasons as such a move could alienate the party’s more conservative voters. Under Mr Tusk’s leadership the Civic Platform has tried to present itself as an ideologically eclectic and all-inclusive centrist party attractive to a very wide spectrum of voters; what some critics dubbed a ‘post-political’ party of power.

However, Mr Tusk eventually decided that Mr Gowin was unlikely to leave the party (although he has not ruled out challenging the prime minister for the party leadership later in the year) and that even if he did very few deputies would follow him. He also judged that enough time had passed since the same-sex civil partnerships row for him to dispatch Mr Gowin safely without it appearing that the sacking was ideologically motivated. Moreover, in order to assuage the party’s conservative wing, Mr Tusk appointed Marek Biernacki – a former interior minister in Solidarity governments in 1990-2001, also with (albeit lower profile) conservative views on moral-cultural issues – as Mr Gowin’s successor.

Government support sinks to a record low

All of this came at a time when support for the government and Mr Tusk have sunk to record lows. With the economy slowing down and unemployment increasing, Poles are increasingly gloomy about their future prospects, and many commentators feel that the government has lost its sense of dynamism and purpose. A recent poll by the CBOS agency found that the number of respondents who declared themselves to be government supporters, approved of its performance, and were satisfied with Mr Tusk as prime minister fell to around 25% in each category compared to one-third at the beginning of the year and 45-50% at the start of 2012. Another CBOS poll found that only at 34% said that they trusted Mr Tusk, previously the party’s most important electoral asset, the lowest number since he came to office in 2007. This was only 1% higher than the number who trusted Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), the main opposition grouping, and Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor who has consistently topped the polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians.

However, while some surveys suggested that Law and Justice was drawing level with Civic Platform, most of them still indicated that Mr Tusk’s party retained a narrow opinion lead. This was remarkable given that many Poles appeared to be tiring of a party that had been in office for more than five years. In fact, continuing relatively high levels of support for Civic Platform were more a reflection of the weakness of Law and Justice, whom many voters still did not see the party as representing a credible alternative to the Tusk administration. Winning back the voters’ trust has proved a long and difficult struggle for Mr Kaczyński’s party, although in recent months it has made a concerted effort to do so by adopting less confrontational rhetoric and re-focusing its core message onto ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues.

The political dynamics of Smolensk may be changing

In particular, Law and Justice’s aggressive rhetoric on the Smolensk tragedy – the April 2010 plane crash in which the then Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’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 – has alienated many centrist voters. For sure, the Smolensk disaster – whose third anniversary fell last month and would probably have been the main political development had it not been overshadowed by the government’s continuing difficulties – was an effective of way of mobilising the Law and Justice core electorate who held the Civic Platform-led government responsible for the tragedy and saw it as part of a broader pattern of betrayal of the country’s interests to Poland’s more powerful neighbours. However, putting the Smolensk issue at the forefront of the political debate often made the party appear obsessive and extreme distracting its potential supporters from the Tusk-led government’s other shortcomings. Consequently, although Law and Justice once again boycotted the official state commemorations of the tragedy, Mr Kaczyński made a conscious effort to tone down his more controversial rhetoric.

Moreover, the political dynamics of the Smolensk issue appear be changing. Revelations of numerous errors in the official government investigation led by former interior minister Jerzy Miller – whose July 2011 report blamed poor planning, pilot error and mistakes by Russian air traffic controllers in difficult weather conditions for the catastrophe – and the Russian government’s continued refusal to hand over the wreckage of the plane have given credence to conspiracy theories. Although most Poles still do not believe that the flight was sabotaged, surveys suggest that the number who do has increased in recent months from around one quarter to one third of respondents. For its part, the Civic Platform-led government appeared to be deliberately trying to play down the Smolensk issue – Mr Tusk marked the anniversary in a small ceremony held early in the morning before leaving the country to pay a state visit to Nigeria – but, in doing so, has allowed Law and Justice’s narrative to increasingly dominate the debate.

The coalition still looks set to continue

Nonetheless, although the governing coalition appeared to be coming under greater strain, the latest rows were probably just sabre-rattling and it looks likely to continue for some time at least. The Peasant Party is primarily an office-seeking grouping and retaining its ministerial posts, and thus its control of government-appointed posts and agencies (especially in the agricultural sector), continues to be a top priority for the party’s grassroots supporters. At a joint press conference with Mr Tusk held on the day after Mr Piechociński’s apparent resignation threat, the Peasant Party leader claimed that he had been misinterpreted and the two leaders denied that there was any conflict between them.

At the same time, Mr Tusk does not, for the moment at least, have a credible or attractive alternative coalition available to him within the current parliament. There has been some speculation that Civic Platform may be contemplating linking up with the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), one of the small left-wing opposition parties, and evidence that the party’s conservative wing may be slowly coming to terms with this idea. Nonetheless, this scenario remains less likely than the continuation of the current coalition which, for all its recent difficulties, remains a relatively stable and known quantity.