Pressure continues to mount for the ruling party

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.