The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: July, 2013

Pressure continues to mount for the ruling party

July was another difficult month for the Polish ruling party as it lost a key local mayoral by-election, continued to trail the main opposition party in the polls and faced the prospect of a very difficult mayoral recall referendum in Warsaw, its flagship local authority. At the same time, party members received ballot papers to vote in a leadership election whose outcome appears in little doubt but could lead to the defection of a number of its parliamentary deputies.

The opposition wins a key mayoral election

The month began badly for the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party, when, on July 7th, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, won a fiercely contested mayoral by-election in the 125,000-strong Baltic coastal town of Elbląg. The previous Civic Platform-nominated mayor and city council were dismissed in April following a recall referendum. The Law and Justice candidate Jerzy Wilk won the first round of voting two weeks earlier but most polls had predicted that Civic Platform nominee Elżbieta Gelert would narrowly win the second run off, which was required as no candidate had secured over 50% of the vote. In the event, Mr Wilk secured 51.74% of the votes and Mrs Gelert 48.26% on a 35% turnout, relatively high for a local government by-election.

The Elbląg by-election election took on much broader significance as an important electoral test for the two main parties in a year when no national elections are scheduled. Both prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk and Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński visited the town on a number of occasions to campaign for their party’s candidates. The result was, therefore, very encouraging news for Law and Justice, coming as it did in an area of the country where the Polish right had never enjoyed high levels of support.

Law and Justice retains its opinion poll lead

Defeat in Elbląg was the latest in a series of warning signs for Civic Platform and came alongside a tranche of opinion polls confirming that Law and Justice retained a narrow lead of around 4-6% ahead of the ruling party. The slump in Civic Platform’s support and concomitant increase in support for Mr Kaczyński’s party is due to a number of factors. Continued economic sluggishness has accompanied a growing perception that the Civic Platform-led government is drifting and has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Divisions and tensions within the ruling party, and a feeling that it is absorbed with its own internal difficulties rather than trying to run the country and improve the economic situation, have both contributed to, and been exacerbated by, the on-going sense of crisis has enveloped Mr Tusk’s party since the start of the year.

At the same time, the economic and government crises have opened a window of opportunity for Law and Justice, which has gauged accurately that the public is looking for political action to alleviate the poor economic situation and has focused its core message on ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues. Mr Kaczyński, who comes across much more effectively when communicating directly with voters than at press conferences, has also undertaken an intensive nationwide tour of smaller towns and scored points by simply but effectively criticising the government’s apparent failures, while managing to avoid making any major gaffes.

However, Civic Platform’s ratings have not gone into free-fall and a couple of polls published last month appeared to show that the party may be starting to gradually make up some lost ground. Although the Elbląg by-election result was a psychological blow for Mr Tusk’s party, it was not a total catastrophe given that Civic Platform was badly compromised through its association with the previous, highly un-popular mayor. Mr Tusk is clearly hoping that, with over two years to go until the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2015), there will be an economic re-bound and that Mr Kaczyński will lose his focus and self-discipline and return to the confrontational rhetoric that he has been so careful to avoid in recent months but that often appears to come more naturally to him.

Warsaw referendum could be the next big challenge

The focus of attention has now shifted to the prospect of a mayoral recall referendum in Warsaw, a potentially even more significant electoral test for the ruling party. For a referendum to take place, a petition signed by at least 10% of those eligible to vote must be submitted which, in the case of Warsaw, means around 130,000 signatures. Last month a group trying to oust Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the mayor of Warsaw and a Civic Platform deputy leader, from office said that it had collected over 230,000 signatures calling for such a vote. The local electoral commission will now check the signatures to see if they are valid, a process that is likely to take up to 30 days, and, if enough of them are, then the referendum vote must be held within 50 days of the commission announcing its decision; in other words, around the end of September or beginning of October.

In order for the referendum result to be valid, at least three-fifths of the turnout at the last mayoral election (48%) will have to be recorded, which means that just under 30% of Warsaw voters need to participate. A poll conducted by the TNS Polska agency for the Warsaw edition of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper found that 41% of respondents said that they would definitely vote in a recall referendum with another 22% saying that they were likely to do so. Even taking into account that such polls tends to over-estimate the actual numbers who will vote this means that there is a good chance that the minimum turnout threshold will be reached.

Experience of previous Polish local recall referendums shows that they invariably result in defeat for the incumbent as opponents are more likely to vote than supporters. Indeed, opinion polls suggest that support for Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz has collapsed since her re-election in 2010 and that there is a strong chance that she will be voted out with many inhabitants of the capital also likely to use the referendum as an opportunity to register an anti-government protest vote. Conscious of this, Mr Tusk and other Civic Platform leaders are openly encouraging the mayor’s supporters boycott any recall referendum, a move un-leashed strong criticism from Law and Justice who accused the prime minister of undermining civic participation. However, the opposition party’s attacks were blunted somewhat by the fact that Mr Kaczyński had himself called for abstention three years ago during what turned out to be a successful attempt to recall the then Law and Justice-backed mayor of Łódź, Poland’s second largest city.

However, the Warsaw recall referendum has a political dimension that goes well beyond the capital. Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s election back in 2006 was an important landmark in Civic Platform’s march to power and was followed by a run of six consecutive victories in local, national and European elections. A defeat for the incumbent could prove to be the political sensation of the year showing that the ruling party can be beaten in the large cities that have provided the bedrock of its electoral support and dealing a serious blow to Mr Tusk’s plans to launch an autumn political counter-offensive which is likely to include a major government re-shuffle.

Civic Platform leadership election result seems in little doubt

July also saw the start of voting in the Civic Platform party leadership election. On Mr Tusk’s initiative, it was agreed to bring forward the contest from spring 2014 to this summer and open it up to all party members (previously the leader was chosen by delegates at the party congress). Mr Tusk’s only challenger is Jarosław Gowin from the party’s conservative wing whom the prime minister dismissed as justice minister at the end of April. Arguing that the party needed to return to its economically liberal and socially conservative roots, Mr Gowin has criticised Mr Tusk for lacking strategic vision and failing to undertake necessary but potentially unpopular reform measures. Mr Tusk’s government has been characterised by a preference for introducing reforms by ‘small steps’, which critics like Mr Gowin argue has turned programmatic timidity into a governing philosophy.

While Mr Tusk’s personal popularity ratings have fallen and many Civic Platform politicians privately fear that he could be leading the party to defeat, the prime minister looks certain to win the leadership election. After hesitating originally, Mr Tusk refused Mr Gowin’s challenge to hold public debates which would have given the challenger’s campaign some traction. Moreover, Mr Gowin’s views are too far from the party mainstream to be able to capitalise on the disillusionment with Mr Tusk that undoubtedly exists and his sharp criticisms of the government have been interpreted by many Civic Platform members as weakening the party during a difficult period when it should be showing a united front. In an indication of just how marginalised he has become, Mr Gowin, together with two of his closest allies, abstained in key parliamentary votes on government amendments to the public finance law to allow a revision of this year’s budget after it emerged earlier this month that there would be 24 billion złoty shortfall in treasury revenues in 2013. Mr Tusk and the Civic Platform parliamentary leadership made it clear that the only reason that the three deputies did not face immediate disciplinary consequences was the fact that Mr Gowin was a leadership challenger and that they would return to the issue once the election was over. The result is due to be announced on August 23rd.

Civic Platform is ready for defections

However, Mr Gowin is not standing for the leadership with any hope of winning. Rather, many commentators believe that he is using the election to raise his profile and carve out a nice for himself as the precursor to forming a new centre-right breakaway grouping. Although he claims that he has no plans to leave Civic Platform, it looks increasingly likely that Mr Gowin and his closest allies will be forced out of the party before the next parliamentary election. Indeed, there were reports earlier in the month, strenuously denied by Mr Gowin, that he had held secret talks with Mr Kaczyński about the possibility of a number of Civic Platform defectors standing on the Law and Justice ticket at the next parliamentary election.

Although, as the vote on the public finance law indicated, only a few of Mr Gowin’s most committed supporters are likely to follow him out of the party, this could still place in jeopardy the government’s slim five-seat majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. However, its supporters are convinced that any such breakaway can be compensated by persuading non-aligned deputies who have defected or been expelled from other parties to support the Tusk administration in key parliamentary votes. In particular, they are counting on defectors from the Palikot Movement (RP) – an anti-clerical liberal party which emerged as the third largest grouping at the last parliamentary election with 10% of the vote, but has seen its support slump in recent months – four of whom have now formed a separate parliamentary grouping, called the Dialogue Initiative (ID). In any event, both the outcome of leadership election and Mr Gowin’s subsequent defection appear to be foregone conclusions, and the Civic Platform leadership appears fairly sanguine about the prospect of the latter.

Political temperature in Poland remains high as parties hold rival conferences

A very busy month on the political scene was capped by the two main parties holding national conferences on the same weekend. The ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) held a special party convention to amend its rules on how the party leader should be elected, while the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, re-elected its party leader and approved a new programme. Both parties decided to hold their conferences in Silesia, a key region in electoral terms which contains more voters than the capital and has been hit severely by the economic crisis.

The ruling party in crisis

Internal tensions within Civic Platform have both contributed to and been exacerbated by the on-going sense of crisis has enveloped the ruling party since the start of the year. Continued economic sluggishness has accompanied a growing perception that the Civic Platform-led government is drifting and has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Opinion polls conducted last month appeared to re-inforce the trend identified in May, showing Law and Justice around 3-4% ahead of Civic Platform. Other polls also confirmed that the Civic Platform leader and prime minister Donald Tusk, previously one of the party’s most important electoral assets, was now as mistrusted as Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor whom many voters associate with an aggressive and divisive style of politics, while the government‘s approval ratings continued to sink to record lows.

The message from the polls appeared to be confirmed by a fiercely contested local by-election in the 125,000-strong coastal town of Elbląg, where the previous Civic Platform-nominated mayor and city council were dismissed in April following a recall referendum. In the first round of voting, on a relatively high turnout (36.6%) the Law and Justice mayoral candidate topped the poll with 31.8% of the votes, increasing the party’s share of the vote by around 15% compared with the previous 2010 election, and the Civic Platform nominee came second with 21.3%. As no candidate secured over 50% of the vote, the two will meet in a second round run off on July 7th. Although Civic Platform leaders were relieved that the result was not worse, and polls suggest that their candidate will narrowly win, this was still a very encouraging result for Law and Justice in an area where the Polish right has never been strong.

In an even more dangerous development for the ruling party, opponents of Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the mayor of Warsaw and a Civic Platform deputy leader, appear to have collected the required number of signatures to force a recall referendum which could take place as early as August (and by October at the latest). Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s election back in 2006 was an important landmark in Civic Platform’s march to power and was followed by a run of six consecutive victories in local, national and European elections. Opinion polls suggest that support for the mayor has collapsed and that there is a strong chance that she will be voted out in what could prove to be the political sensation of the year. This would have very significant implications for Civic Platform showing that the ruling party can be defeated in the large cities that have provided the bedrock of its electoral support.

Mr Tusk says he doesn’t want an EU job

Civic Platform was originally due to hold a leadership election at its next party congress scheduled for spring 2014. However, in an attempt to resolve the issue quickly and give potential challengers little time to organise themselves, Mr Tusk persuaded the party executive to bring forward the leadership election timetable to the summer. On Mr Tusk’s initiative, it was also agreed to open up the contest to all party members, and the outcome should be known by the end of August.

Preparing the ground for his re-election bid, Mr Tusk confirmed that he would not be a candidate for the European Commission presidency when the incumbent Jose Manuel Barroso’s term of office expires in 2014. Having sent mixed signals about his intentions over the last few months, Mr Tusk insisted that being Polish prime minister was ‘a hundred times more important than a potential European position’. Mr Tusk was apparently set to make this announcement at the special party convention but brought it forward because he felt that speculation about his possible departure for an EU job was both damaging his standing within the party and allowing opposition politicians to question whether the government’s European policies were motivated by the national interest or the prime minister’s personal ambitions. In fact, Mr Tusk’s potential candidacy was hamstrung by the fact that Poland is not a Euro zone member and there is every chance that could re-think his position if it becomes clear that he has strong German backing for a top EU post.

Mr Gowin’s challenge could lead to a Civic Platform breakaway

Mr Tusk’s challenger for the party leadership is Jarosław Gowin from the party’s conservative wing whom the prime minister dismissed as justice minister at the end of April. Mr Gowin has criticised Mr Tusk for lacking strategic vision and failing to undertake necessary but potentially unpopular reform measures, arguing that the prime minister’s cautious philosophy – sometimes dubbed ‘(ensuring) warm water in the taps’ – was not good enough to deal with the challenges that Poland faces. Mr Tusk’s government has been characterised by a preference for introducing reforms by ‘small steps’, which critics like Mr Gowin argue has turned programmatic timidity into a governing philosophy. Mr Tusk has also been alienating Civic Platform’s more conservative supporters by making strenuous efforts to build support among liberal-left voters, exemplified by his support for same-sex civil partnerships and Mr Gowin’s sacking, leading the former justice minister to argue that the party needs to return to its socially conservative and economically liberal roots.

Mr Gowin is not standing with any hope of winning but rather of raising his profile and carving out a political niche for himself, possibly as the putative leader of a new conservative-liberal grouping. Although he claims that he has no plans to leave Civic Platform, it looks increasingly likely that Mr Gowin and his closest allies will be forced out of the party before the next parliamentary election, which is scheduled for autumn 2015. In a move which some commentators viewed as a precursor to the establishment of a new breakaway party, Mr Gowin launched a new 20-member cross-party parliamentary group called ‘Good Changes’ to promote the issues that he had prioritised as justice minister and, interestingly, was joined by a number of deputies from the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior governing coalition partner.

A link up with the Democratic Left Alliance?

The defection of Mr Gowin and just a few of his most committed supporters from the Civic Platform parliamentary caucus would place in jeopardy the government’s slim five-seat majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. Perhaps acknowledging that he might need to find additional parliamentary votes – and in spite of the fact that his announcement met with strong resistance from some Civic Platform conservatives with a strong anti-communist ethos, Mr Tusk floated the idea of forming a coalition with the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – one of the smaller left-wing opposition parties. In an interview published in Polityka magazine, Mr Tusk argued that, for all its faults, the Alliance was the currently only moderate and reliable opposition party. While denying accusations that the party had swung to the left, the Civic Platform leader said that ‘the longer one is prime minister, the more one becomes a social democrat’. Although, Mr Tusk said that such a link up was very unlikely in the current parliament, commentators have long suspected that he and Democratic Left Alliance leader Leszek Miller have been preparing to forge a strategic partnership which would allow the prime minister to jettison his party’s conservative wing without risking the government’s parliamentary majority.

Winning the leadership election is not enough

While Mr Tusk’s personal popularity has fallen and many Civic Platform politicians privately fear that he could be leading the party to electoral defeat, the prime minister looks certain to win the party leadership election. For example, a poll conducted by the Homo Homini agency for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper found that 69% of Civic Platform voters would support Mr Tusk compared to only 6% who backed Mr Gowin, while 12.5% said that they supported party deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna. Formerly a very close ally of the Civic Platform leader until he was sacked as deputy prime minister and interior minister in 2009, Mr Schetyna was potentially Mr Tusk’s most serious leadership challenger but, fearing a humiliating defeat, announced at the party convention that he would not challenge the incumbent.

However, simply resolving the party leadership issue is unlikely to radically change Civic Platform’s political fortunes. Moreover, Mr Tusk does not appear to be in any hurry to introduce his much-heralded government re-shuffle, saying that he plans to review the performance of his ministers in the middle of the parliamentary term (which falls in November), and even then a radical shake-up is only likely to give Civic Platform a short-term breathing space. On the other hand, as the Elbląg by-election result showed, Civic Platform’s support has not gone into free-fall and it retains the backing of a sizeable proportion of the electorate. Mr Tusk’s party is also benefiting from the continued disarray on the Polish left which remains weak and bitterly divided. Finally, serious doubts remain as to whether Law and Justice can really capitalise fully on Civic Platform’s weakness.

Law and Justice still needs to broaden its electoral base

As opinion polls show, Mr Kaczyński’s party does appear to be making some progress. The economic and government crises have opened a window of opportunity and in recent months the party has made a major effort to re-focus its core message on to ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues. Mr Kaczyński has also undertaken an intensive tour of smaller and medium-sized towns, particularly in areas where the party performed badly at the last election, and scored points by simply but effectively criticising the government’s failures and shortcomings, while managing to avoid any major gaffes. At its own congress, which Civic Platform’s special convention was deliberately timed to overshadow, Mr Kaczyński was un-surprisingly re-elected as party leader un-opposed.

However, given Mr Kaczyński’s knack of returning to the confrontational tone that appears to come more naturally to him, there is still a big question mark over whether Law and Justice and its leader can maintain their focus and self-discipline during the electoral marathon that Poland faces during the next two years. Moreover, while voters may be deserting Mr Tusk’s party they do not yet appear to be moving over to Law and Justice in significant numbers. A strategy based on mobilising its core supporters and de-motivating Civic Platform voters could, in the context of a low turnout, ensure that Law and Justice emerges as the largest party at the next parliamentary election. However, it will not give Mr Kaczyński’s party an outright majority, which no party has achieved in any post-1989 Polish election. Law and Justice appears to have hit a ceiling of around 30% support and needs to develop a more convincing appeal to disillusioned Civic Platform voters if it is to broaden its electoral base much beyond that. Given the party’s low coalition potential, as things currently stand there is a strong chance that Law and Justice could end up the largest party in the new parliament but still be in opposition, which makes Mr Tusk’s overtures to the Democratic Left Alliance appear all the more understandable.