Mr Tusk’s leadership victory fails to quell unease in the ruling party

An inconclusive victory meant that the Polish prime minister’s re-election as leader of the ruling party last month failed to draw a line under recent political crises and speculation continues that his challenger could lead a breakaway threatening the government’s parliamentary majority. There was also uncertainty over the future of the finance minister and it was confirmed that the Warsaw mayor will face a recall referendum in October.

Civic Platform’s ongoing difficulties

The main development on the Polish political scene last month was the leadership election of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party. Prime minister and incumbent Donald Tusk was hoping that the election would help to re-assert his authority over the ruling party and draw a line under the political crisis that enveloped it in recent months. Both the Civic Platform-led government and Mr Tusk’s approval ratings have slumped to their lowest levels since they came to office six years ago and, since May, the ruling party has fallen behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, in the opinion polls.

The slump in Civic Platform’s support is due to a number of factors. Continued economic sluggishness has accompanied a growing perception that the 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, an ongoing sense of crisis. At the same time, Law and Justice has scored points by focusing its core message on ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues and simply but effectively criticising the government’s apparent failures, while managing to avoid making any major gaffes.

Mr Gowin’s lonely free market challenge

The election was originally meant to be held at the party’s spring 2014 congress. However, in an attempt to resolve the issue quickly and give potential challengers little time to organise themselves, Mr Tusk persuaded the party leadership to bring forward the contest to this summer and broaden the franchise to include all party members. Mr Tusk felt that this would make it more difficult for this internal party rivals to organise themselves and, although a members’ ballot meant that party divisions might be aired more publicly, it would also help him to win re-election more decisively, particularly in any contest against his main rival and potentially most serious challenger, deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna. However, fearing that he could suffer a humiliating defeat under the new voting system, Mr Schetyna decided not to contest the election.

In the event, Mr Tusk’s only challenger was Jarosław Gowin, a leading figure from the party’s conservative wing whom the prime minister had sacked as justice minister at the end of April after they fell out over same-sex civil partnerships and in-vitro fertilisation. However, although Mr Gowin argued that Civic Platform needed to be careful not to alienate socially conservative voters, his leadership campaign focused primarily on economic issues. The former justice minister accused Mr Tusk of becoming a ‘social democrat’, arguing that he had abandoned Civic Platform’s original free market ideals and that the party needed to return to its economically liberal (and socially conservative) ‘roots’. However, Mr Gowin cut a lonely figure: no party leaders and only two minor parliamentary deputies, John Godson and Jacek Żalek, openly supported his challenge.

An unconvincing victory

Mr Tusk responded by accusing Mr Gowin of wanting to turn Civic Platform into a narrow free market socially conservative grouping, arguing that the party’s success was built upon its ability to unite various factions and ideologies. In recent years, Civic Platform has turned from being a centre-right liberal-conservative party into an ideologically eclectic centrist grouping; or ‘post-political party of power’ as some critics have dubbed it. Mr Tusk also argued that Mr Gowin’s criticisms of the government had weakened the party during a difficult period and accused him of being too friendly towards the Law and Justice opposition. However, although Mr Tusk was able to draw upon the support of the party ‘machine’, he ran a complacent campaign and treated his opponent in a very dismissive way.

The election outcome was never really in any doubt and, as expected, Mr Tusk won comfortably. Nonetheless, Mr Gowin ran a dogged campaign and secured a significantly better than expected result, winning 20.4% of the votes to Mr Tusk’s 79.6%. Most commentators expected the prime minister to win by an even wider margin and argued that the challenger’s relatively good result highlighted the growing dis-satisfaction with Mr Tusk that undoubtedly exists within the party. As the prime minister’s popularity ratings have plummeted many Civic Platform politicians privately fear that he could be leading the party to defeat. Even more disappointing for Mr Tusk was the fact that only 51.1% of the party’s 42,000 members participated in the ballot; although this was attributed partly to the fact that it took place during the summer holiday period.

What next for Mr Gowin (and the government’s majority)?

There was much speculation during the campaign, including by Mr Tusk, that Mr Gowin was not standing with any hope of winning but rather intended to carve out a niche for himself as the precursor to launching a new pro-free market, socially conservative party. Given that Polish experience suggests that breaking away from a large party is a huge risk that can lead swiftly to political marginalisation, Mr Gowin is biding his time knowing that it is in his interests to remain a Civic Platform member for as long as possible and draw upon the political capital obtained from his better-than-expected election result. So far he has confined himself to saying that will not leave the party and set out his future plans in the next few weeks, although he also said that he will continue to argue strongly for the government and party reforms that he promoted during the leadership campaign.

For his part, Mr Tusk knows that it is much better for him if Mr Gowin resigns, as expelling him will come across as an act of revenge on an internal party rival whose position has grown too strong. The prime minister, therefore, discouraged a number of his supporters among high-ranking Civic Politicians who wanted to expel Mr Gowin immediately. However, Mr Tusk’s allies will now do everything that they can to provoke Mr Gowin and his closest supporters to leave the party or provide the leadership with a pretext to expel them before the next parliamentary election, which is scheduled for autumn 2015. For example, at the end of the month, Mr Żalek, Mr Gowin’s closest parliamentary ally, was suspended from the party’s parliamentary caucus for three months for, among other things, abstaining (alongside Mr Godson and Mr Gowin) in a key parliamentary vote at the end of July to suspend fiscal rules and allow an increase in the state budget deficit after it emerged that there would be a shortfall in treasury revenues this year. Mr Gowin ‘suspended’ his own caucus membership for the same period as an act of solidarity with his colleague, while Mr Godson had already resigned from the party a few days earlier.

All of his has reduced the government’s already-slim majority to only 231 out of 460 seats in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. However, Civic Platform can generally rely on non-aligned deputies, including those who have defected or been expelled from other parties, to support the Tusk administration in key parliamentary votes. In particular, they are hoping to lure away further defectors from the Palikot Movement (RP), an anti-clerical liberal party which emerged as the third largest grouping at the last parliamentary election but has seen its support slump in recent months. Four of these have now formed a separate parliamentary grouping called the Dialogue Initiative (ID) which generally votes with the ruling party.

Mr Rostowski on the way out?

The leadership election failed to re-affirm Mr Tusk’s authority and renew the party in the way that he had hoped for, and is unlikely to lead to a revival in Civic Platform’s polling numbers. As a consequence, attention has now turned to the re-shuffle which many commentators expect to take place in November (the mid-point of the parliamentary term) as the centre-piece of the government’s much-heralded ‘new opening’. However, in order to have any real impact the re-shuffle cannot be confined to heavily-criticised, but relatively low profile, ministers and last month there was speculation that Mr Tusk was seriously considering dismissing his finance minister Jacek Rostowski. Apparently, Mr Tusk is unhappy with the fact that, as noted above, the government is having to amend the state budget due to much lower than expected budget revenues.

Mr Rostowski’s dismissal would certainly make an impact and allow Mr Tusk to blame the un-popular decisions associated with the country’s economic difficulties on the outgoing finance minister. However, sacking Mr Rostowski is likely to be received negatively by international financial institutions. Moreover, Mr Tusk has been so closely associated with Mr Rostowski – who has been finance minister during the whole six-year period of Civic Platform-led government and is widely (and rightly) seen as the chief architect of the its economic strategy – that his dismissal could be viewed by many Poles as a broader admission of failure by the administration.

Warsaw referendum is the next big challenge

In fact, Civic Platform faces a much more immediate challenge as it was confirmed by the state electoral commission last month that 167,000 valid signatures (30,000 more than required) had been collected to hold a referendum on whether to recall Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a Civic Platform deputy leader, and that this will take place on October 13th. Experience of previous 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 there is a strong chance that a majority will vote to recall Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz, 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 party leaders, joined last month by the popular Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski, are encouraging the mayor’s supporters to boycott the referendum, hoping thereby to invalidate it. 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 TNS Polska poll conducted last month for Wiadomości, Polish TV’s main evening news programme, found that 36% of respondents said that they would participate in the referendum, including 26% who said that they definitely would. Given that such polls tend to over-estimate the actual numbers who will vote, achieving the minimum turnout threshold could be a difficult task. Moreover, as part of the de-mobilisation effort, Mr Tusk indicated that even if the vote to oust Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz was successful she would be appointed as a commissioner to run Warsaw until the next local elections, due in November 2014. The stakes are certainly high and the referendum has a political dimension that goes well beyond the capital. 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 counter-offensive.