Crisis in the Polish ruling party deepens

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Last month saw an intensification of the on-going crisis that has enveloped the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party since the start of the year. More government ministers came under pressure and the party slumped in the opinion polls. Increasing tensions within the party, a sense that the government is drifting, the continued sluggishness of the economy, and the fact that fear of the opposition has receded all contributed to a growing feeling that the Civic Platform-led government is facing its most serious political crisis since it came to office in 2007, and may even have reached a ‘tipping point’ from which it will be extremely difficult to recover.

The pressure mounts

Prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk had hoped that firing his treasury and justice ministers in April would both demonstrate his decisive leadership and draws a line under the government’s recent difficulties. However, last month began with two other ministers, both of whom had already been criticised for apparently not being up to the job, coming under heavy media fire. First, transport minister Sławomir Nowak came under pressure to explain allegations published at the end of April in the Wprost magazine that he accepted expensive entertainment from the Cam Media group, which has secured millions of złoties worth of several government contracts, without making an appropriate declaration, and failing to disclose the source of a collection of expensive watches that he said were ‘swapped’ with wealthy corporate executives. Then, sports minister Joanna Mucha was criticised following an investigation by Poland’s Supreme Audit Office (NIK) which suggested that funds allocated to the National Stadium in Warsaw had been misappropriated, with the bulk of them paying for the organisation of a Madonna concert which lost her ministry nearly 5 million złoties.

The sense of crisis intensified with the publication of a series of opinion polls showing Mr Tusk’s party being overtaken by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. One of these, the regular monthly tracking survey carried out the CBOS agency, showed Law and Justice ahead of Civic Platform for the first time since 2007, with Mr Tusk’s party recording its lowest poll rating for eight years. Although this was not the first time in the current parliament that Law and Justice had moved ahead of Civic Platform, the fact that several surveys by different agencies found the opposition party in front suggested that a more fundamental change of public attitudes might be occurring. This came alongside other polls confirming that the government and prime minister’s approval ratings continued to sink to record lows.

Internal party divisions intensify

Civic Platform’s difficulties stem from a number of factors. Firstly, recent months have seen the intensification of increasingly bitter internal divisions within the party over both programmatic and personality issues. Mr Tusk’s courting of the liberal-left cultural establishment – exemplified by last month’s sacking of justice minister Jarosław Gowin, informal leader of Civic Platform’s conservative faction (who is now considering launching a party leadership bid) – has made it increasingly difficult for the party to project itself as an ideologically inclusive, centrist party attractive to a wide spectrum of voters. With party conservatives feeling increasingly marginalised, there is now a real danger of Mr Gowin leading a right-wing breakaway. Although few deputies are likely to follow him, Mr Gowin symbolises Civic Platform’s continued appeal to conservative voters and his departure would send a clear signal to them that they are no longer valued by the party leadership.

However, while ideological divisions are clearly problematic because they reflect real differences over emotive policy issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, an equally serious threat to party unity has been the potential leadership challenge to Mr Tusk from Civic Platform deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna. Mr Schetyna has developed a bitter, if publicly subdued, rivalry with Mr Tusk since the Civic Platform leader sacked him first as interior minister and deputy prime minister in 2009, and then as speaker of the Sejm (the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament) after the 2011 election. Although Mr Schetyna has tried to present himself as representing the party’s more liberal wing, his conflict with Mr Tusk is really personality-based. Lacking Mr Tusk’s charisma, he is almost certainly too weak to defeat him in a leadership challenge but continued sniping between the two men’s supporters is proving debilitating for the party.

A lack of direction and purpose

Secondly, there is a growing sense of government exhaustion and drift with ministers appearing to spend too much of their time on crisis management. The government has been criticised for some time for its lack of direction and purpose, especially its failure to push ahead with further structural reforms following the buffeting that it took over its plans to increase the retirement age last year. Rather, Civic Platform appears to have reverted to the cautious policy of introducing reforms by ‘small steps’ that characterised its first term of office and which critics argue turned programmatic timidity into a governing philosophy.

This approach worked fairly well while the economy was performing strongly but began to come unstuck when the tempo of growth slowed, unemployment increased and Poles became increasingly gloomy about their future prospects. This was particularly true among the younger, urban and better educated voters who had formed the bedrock of the Civic Platform electorate but who were particularly badly hit by the economic slowdown and became increasingly frustrated with the government.

Fear of Law and Justice recedes

Thirdly, voters’ fear and mistrust of the Law and Justice opposition – which, for many years, was one of Civic Platform’s most important ways of mobilising its more passive and uncertain supporters – appears to be slowly receding. Continuing relatively high levels of support for Civic Platform were often more a reflection of the weakness of Law and Justice and the fact that many voters did not see opposition grouping as a credible alternative. They particularly disliked the apparently more aggressive and divisive style of politics associated with Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor who consistently topped the polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians. Winning voters’ trust has proved a long and difficult struggle for Law and Justice, but in recent months the party has made a major effort to adopt less confrontational rhetoric and appears to be making progress.

Mr Tusk tries to regain the initiative

Aware of this, Mr Tusk has tried to find ways to regain the initiative and refresh the governing party’s image. Firstly, in order to resolve the party leadership situation as soon as possible, he persuaded the Civic Platform national executive to bring forward internal elections due to run from this autumn until next spring to July or August of this year. A special convention will be held at the end of June (timed deliberately to clash with the Law and Justice party congress) to amend the party statute to facilitate election of the leader by a ballot of individual party members. Although a members’ ballot will provide an opportunity for party divisions to publicly aired, Mr Tusk feels that he will be win re-election more decisively under such a new system than in one were the outcome is decided by delegates at the spring 2014 party conference. Mr Tusk has also indicated that he is planning to make major changes to the government during this summer. Apart from Mr Nowak and Ms Mucha, the ministers most likely to be firing line are those responsible for health, education, administration and digitalisation, and the environment.

However, it is questionable whether a government re-shuffle alone will be enough to revive the party’s fortunes and there also has been some talk of it being accompanied by a ‘new programmatic opening’. At the moment, it is unclear what precisely this will involve, although there is talk of introducing policies to improve the situation in the Polish labour market. Mr Tusk is also planning a nationwide tour to publicise the fact that Poland will be the largest recipient of regional funds in the 2014-2020 EU financial perspective once the new budget is finally approved by the European Parliament this summer. However, according to some commentators the problem is not individual ministers or government policies but the fact that many Poles have grown tired of Mr Tusk himself and, having previously been one of the party’s main electoral assets, the prime minister’s satisfaction ratings have slumped to same levels as Mr Kaczyński’s. Of key importance here is what happens to the Polish economy and evidence is emerging that the slump may be deeper than originally anticipated. The most recent estimate by the Poland’s general statistical office (GUS) published in May showed that economic growth rate had slowed to only 0.4% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2013 (analysts forecast around 0.7%), hitting its lowest level for four years.

Too early to write off Civic Platform?

However, the future outlook is not completely hopeless and Civic Platform’s loss of support does not appear to be matched by a concomitant increase in Law and Justice’s poll ratings, suggesting that Mr Kaczyński’s party is still finding it difficult to win over new supporters. For example, a ‘Polityka Insight’ agency poll found that only 2% of 2011 Civic Platform voters had switched to Law and Justice; most defectors were either un-decided or said that they would abstain. This means that while a strategy based on mobilising its core supporters and de-mobilising Mr Tusk’s could, in the context of a low turnout, ensure that Law and Justice emerges as the largest party at the next parliamentary election, it will not give Mr Kaczyński’s grouping an outright majority. No party has achieved this in any post-1989 Polish election and to have any chance of doing so Law and Justice needs to develop a more convincing, and consistent, appeal to centrist voters. Otherwise, Mr Kaczyński’s party will need to find partners to form a parliamentary majority; a difficult task for a party that many commentators argue is ‘un-coalitionable’.

Moreover, while Civic Platform’s dominance of the Polish political scene appears to be over, it is difficult to tell if recent events are simply ‘mid-term blues’ or represent a more permanent structural crisis for the ruling party. Indeed, in spite of the fact that many Poles appear to be tiring of a government that has been in office for more than five years, Civic Platform still retains relatively high levels of support and Law and Justice’s poll lead is within the margin of statistical error. The next parliamentary election is scheduled for autumn 2015, more than two years away, by which time Civic Platform leaders will hope that the economy will have picked up, unemployment fallen, and new EU regional funds come on stream. In other words, the party still has plenty of time to win back its passive and disillusioned erstwhile supporters. At the same time, although anti-Law and Justice sentiments have receded somewhat they could re-surface very quickly, given Mr Kaczyński’s knack of returning to the confrontational tone that appears to come more naturally to him. The big question now is: whether Law and Justice and its leader can maintain their focus and self-discipline long enough to capitalise on what has been a truly awful period for the governing party?