Political temperature in Poland remains high as parties hold rival conferences

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.