High profile defection could shake up the political scene

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Another busy month on the Polish political scene saw the prime minister declaring that the country’s economic crisis was over, several days of anti-government union protests in Warsaw, and the Smolensk air crash re-surfacing as a political issue. However, the development with possibly the most significant long-term political consequences was the departure from the ruling party of unsuccessful leadership challenger Jarosław Gowin, its most high profile defection since the party came to office in 2007.

 Mr Gowin’s defection is no surprise

The departure of Mr Gowin from the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) was not a surprise and followed months of speculation that he was planning to form a new centre-right breakaway party. During his leadership challenge, in which he secured a surprisingly high 20% of the vote among party members, Mr Gowin was very extremely critical of the Civic Platform’s current trajectory, attacking prime minister and incumbent leader Donald Tusk for moving it too far to the left on both social and economic issues. Mr Gowin’s departure pre-empted a meeting of the party executive that was due to consider his expulsion and he obviously came to the conclusion that it was better for him to leave on his own terms.

The proximate cause of Mr Gowin’s defection was the government’s announcement that it would dramatically revamp the country’s obligatory OFE private pension fund by moving its government bond assets to the state-run ZUS scheme. It also declared that those Poles currently enrolled in OFE would be transferred to ZUS automatically unless they opted to remain in their current scheme. Although Mr Gowin was a leading member of the Civic Platform’s social conservative wing – and he had previously clashed with Mr Tusk over same-sex marriage and in-vitro fertilisation, which ultimately led to his dismissal from the post of justice minister in April – his leadership campaign focused primarily on economic issues. Mr Gowin argued that the government’s plan to dismantle the OFE scheme was another example of how Civic Platform had abandoned its free market roots under Mr Tusk’s leadership.

Government majority in danger?

The departure of Mr Gowin, together with his two closest allies, from the Civic Platform parliamentary caucus leaves the governing coalition holding only 232 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. The government can generally rely on most of the dozen non-aligned deputies and is also trying to win over defectors from the Palikot Movement (RP), an anti-clerical liberal grouping which emerged as the third largest party at the most recent parliamentary election but has since slumped in the polls. Four Palikot Movement defectors have formed a parliamentary mini-caucus, the Dialogue Initiative (ID), that generally votes with the government and there is speculation that up to six more could be co-opted into Civic Platform’s ranks.

However, losing its formal Sejm majority will be of symbolic importance to the government and further weaken its public standing. Moreover, independents and defectors can be unreliable and constant horse-trading with them could further erode the Tusk administration’s already-damaged credibility as an effective governing force. One alternative would be to broaden the governing coalition to include the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition party which currently has 26 Sejm deputies. Mr Tusk enjoys good relations with the Alliance’s leader Leszek Miller and has already floated the possibility of a link-up with his party after the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015. However, both leaders have ruled out a formal coalition in the current parliament. The Democratic Left Alliance is a communist successor grouping and forming a coalition with it will be controversial for many of the remaining conservative Civic Platform deputies. For his part, Mr Miller would probably prefer to wait until after the next election when he hopes to win more seats and thereby increase his party’s negotiating leverage. A pre-election alliance would also play into the hands of both Mr Gowin, apparently confirming his warnings about Civic Platform’s lurch to the left, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, who would thus portray itself as the only genuine alternative to an unpopular and exhausted administration.

An early election?

Consequently, there are now some indications that Mr Tusk is seriously considering calling an early parliamentary election, particularly if the coming period suggests that it will be difficult for the Civic Platform-led administration to govern effectively with a tiny parliamentary majority and having to rely on the support of independents. Mr Tusk’s calculation would be that even if Law and Justice won the largest share of the vote it would be unable to muster a parliamentary majority. Opting for an early election would also give the Civic Platform leader an opportunity to purge the Civic Platform candidates list of deputies opposed to a future coalition with the Democratic Left Alliance. However, calling an early election is also extremely risky and goes against all of Mr Tusk’s cautious instincts. The most likely scenario still remains that the current parliament will serve out its full term unless further Civic Platform defections change the calculus.

One of the reasons why Mr Tusk is wary of calling a snap election is that Civic Platform remains well behind Law and Justice in opinion polls. Several published last month put Mr Kaczyński’s party between 5-10% ahead (except for one outrider by the CBOS agency which gave Civic Platform a 2% lead). The message of the polls appeared to be confirmed when, at the start of September, Law and Justice candidate Zdzisław Pupa won a comprehensive victory in a by-election for a seat in the Senate (Poland’s less powerful second chamber) in the Podkarpackie region in South-Eastern Poland. Mr Pupa secured 60.8% of the votes, a 12% increase on party’s 2011 parliamentary election performance and nearly three times as many votes as the ruling coalition’s candidate, Mariusz Kawa from the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior governing partner (Mr Tusk’s party did run their own candidate). This was the latest in a string of by-election successes for Law and Justice in recent months. However, it is difficult to draw any far-reaching conclusions from the Pokarpackie result because the region has always been a stronghold of the Polish right (it is the only one of the country’s sixteen regional councils controlled by Law and Justice) and the 15.8% turnout (although the highest in any post-1989 Senate by-election) was only one third of what one would normally expect in a parliamentary poll.

Law and Justice stalls?

Moreover, Law and Justice also experienced some political difficulties of its own last month. Firstly, Mr Kaczyński, who has managed to avoid making any major gaffes in recent months denounced sections of the Polish business community as exploitative and said he would levy punitive taxes if they did not pay their workers well enough. He also threatened to expose those businessmen whom he argued owed their success to unsavoury connections with the former communist regime. This gave Mr Tusk an opportunity to pose as the defender of a constituency who have supported Civic Platform in the past but felt taken for granted and become disillusioned with the government recently.

Secondly, in the run up to the union protests in the capital Mr Kaczyński appeared to suddenly break off co-operation with the Solidarity trade union. This placed in jeopardy several months of apparently successful wooing of the union’s charismatic but ambitious leader Piotr Duda whom Mr Kaczyński fears as a potential rival for the leadership of the Polish right.

Thirdly, last month also saw the re-surfacing as a political issue of the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others died in a plane crash. This followed a war of words between Law and Justice and the Polish military prosecutor’s office after the latter revealed testimony that appeared to question of competence of those advising the party’s parliamentary commission investigating the causes of the crash. Law and Justice has tried to avoid putting the Smolensk issue at the forefront of political debate, knowing that, although an effective way of mobilising its core supporters, the party’s apparent claims that the crash was not an accident can make the it appear extreme and obsessive to more centrist voters.

A shake-up of the party system?

Meanwhile, speculation grew about Mr Gowin’s future plans, which he has promised to flesh out in October, and whether this could lead to a shake-up of the Polish political scene. Mr Gowin has apparently been in discussions for some time about the possibility of forming a new economically liberal and social conservative party with two politicians who lead small centre-right groupings that broke away from Law and Justice. One of these is MEP Paweł Kowal who heads up the ‘Poland is the Most Important’ (PJN) grouping that was formed by Law and Justice moderates who played a leading role in Jarosław Kaczyński’s 2010 presidential campaign, but only secured 2% in the most recent parliamentary election. The other is independent deputy Przemysław Wipler, an economic liberal who felt increasingly out of tune with Law and Justice’s political trajectory and left the party in June to form the ‘Republicans’ political association.

Mr Gowin certainly used both his period as justice minister and his party leadership campaign to skilfully build his political profile. Unlike the leaders of previous centre-right breakaway groupings he has developed an image as a serious and credible political figure who resigned from his party on an issue of strategic importance to its core supporters. Apparently, the new initiative also enjoys behind-the-scenes support from one of large Polish business associations and several high profile political figures have been touted as possible sponsors. A number of polls carried out last month found support for Mr Gowin’s hypothetical party ranging from 4-12% and interestingly one such poll, by the CBOS agency, suggested that the new proto-party was actually a bigger threat to Law and Justice than Civic Platform; although the sample of voters involved was so small that it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

However, given that the Polish party system appears stabilised and consolidated around the two big parties that have dominated the political scene for the last eight years, Mr Gowin clearly faces an up-hill task. He is a political intellectual and it remains to be seen if he also has the necessary charisma and organisational skills to build a new political grouping from scratch. Although he won 20% of the vote in the Civic Platform leadership election, Mr Gowin’s grassroots supporters did not represent an organised bloc that could provide the basis for local party structures. Moreover, the fact that in Poland the main parties now obtain most of their funding from the state budget (and Mr Gowin’s new grouping would not receive any direct funding until it secured at least 3% in a parliamentary election), and that there are strict limits on how much individuals can donate to parties, makes it extremely difficult for new entrants to challenge the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly. The key test for Mr Gowin is likely to be the May 2014 European Parliament election which has less stringent requirements for parties to register candidate lists than parliamentary elections and in which the low turnout potentially favours smaller parties who can mobilise a committed core of supporters. In meantime, many of Mr Gowin’s potential supporters are likely to wait and see how the new initiative develops before declaring their hand.

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