Warsaw recall referendum was not a political game changer

by Aleks Szczerbiak

The main development on the Polish political scene last month was the Warsaw mayor surviving an attempt to sack her in a recall referendum. This came as a huge relief to the main governing party and ended a string of political successes for the opposition in recent local by-elections. However, as the month progressed it looked less likely that the referendum represented a turning point in the ruling party’s political fortunes.

Public relations offensive and boycott calls prove effective

On October 13th, Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz – who is also a deputy leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party – survived an attempt to oust her in a recall referendum. Although 95% of those who voted wanted to remove the incumbent, the turnout of 25.7% meant that the referendum was not valid. This would have required two-thirds of the number who voted in the previous 2010 mayoral election to have participated in the referendum, which meant a minimum turnout threshold of 29.1%.

The attempt to recall Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz failed for a number of reasons. The mayor and her supporters ran what turned out to be an extremely successful political counter-offensive. The referendum came about initially because she had irritated Warsaw residents with her distant and seemingly arrogant style of government and had mishandled certain policies which led, among other things, to confusion over new rubbish collection rules and frustration at the slow pace of construction on the city’s roads and metro system causing major traffic jams. However, over the last couple of months Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz recovered support steadily as she sacked a number of unpopular officials, speeded up investments, and generally improved her public relations machine.

More controversially, as soon as it became clear that a recall referendum would be held, prime minister and party leader Donald Tusk together with other Civic Platform dignitaries, including by the popular party-backed Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, tried to persuade the mayor’s supporters to boycott the poll as the most effective way of keeping Mrs-Gronkiewicz-Waltz in office. Experience of previous recall referendums showed that they invariably resulted in defeats for incumbents as opponents were more likely to vote than supporters. The boycott call proved to be effective as the referendum turnout was lowest in those parts of the city where Civic Platform traditionally enjoyed its highest levels of electoral support.

Given the relative closeness of the vote, another factor explaining why the turnout threshold was not reached was the fact that the left-wing Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which commands around 10-15% support in national opinion polls, did not join other opposition groupings in calling for Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s ouster. The party’s internal polling showed that its supporters had a reasonably positive view of the incumbent, while Mr Tusk sees the Democratic Left Alliance as a possible future coalition partner and enjoys good personal relations with its leader Leszek Miller who is also keen to return to government; although both of them have ruled out the possibility of a formal link-up in the current parliament.

Law and Justice campaign put off some mayoral opponents

 Civic Platform also managed to persuade many Warsaw residents that voting in the referendum would play into the hands of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. Paradoxically, this message was re-inforced by the way that Law and Justice conducted its own referendum campaign. This involved giving its combative leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, an extremely high profile that involved almost daily campaign appearances, which helped to turn a local referendum vote into a national contest between the government and opposition. It also included invoking emotive but controversial historical-patriotic themes. For example, war veterans criticised a Law and Justice campaign poster with a large letter ‘W’, which prompted comparison with the so-called ‘W hour’ symbol that signalled the outbreak of 1944 Warsaw uprising, an unsuccessful but heroic attempt to defeat the German occupiers of the city. This led some commentators to claim that the party was trying to appropriate patriotic symbols for partisan purposes.

In fact, Law and Justice faced something of a dilemma when deciding how to approach the campaign. Arguably, given the weakness of the other opposition parties and civic groupings that had originally initiated the referendum, it had to take a leading role and run a high profile campaign in order to mobilise its own supporters. It was far from clear that, as some commentators suggested, they would have turned out to vote anyway. On the other hand, these tactics buttressed Civic Platform’s argument that the referendum was not about local issues but an element of a broader national anti-government campaign. In a city where Mr Kaczyński’s party has struggled to win support in recent years, the Law and Justice referendum campaign almost certainly put off a segment of more liberal and left-wing voters who disliked Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz and would have happily voted to recall her, but did not want to contribute towards a Law and Justice propaganda coup.

Smolensk issue causes problems for Mr Kaczyński’s party

The opposition’s failure to oust Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz stalled its political momentum ending a string of successes in opinion polls and by-elections successes. The result also came as a huge relief to Civic Platform which has been in an on-going state of crisis for several months. The stakes were certainly high and the referendum had a political dimension that went well beyond the capital as Warsaw is one of the party’s strongholds, with Mr Tusk’s party having won every election there since 2005. Defeat for Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz would have been the political sensation of the year showing that Civic Platform could be beaten in the large cities that have provided the bedrock of its electoral support. As it is, the referendum result showed that Civic Platform retains substantial support in its core areas and that fear of Law and Justice remains a potentially powerful mobilising tool among this large segment of voters.

Indeed, Law and Justice had a difficult month following a series of blunders made by the team of experts working for the opposition-led parliamentary commission established in July 2010 by Antoni Macierewicz, a leading party deputy, to investigate 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. In particular, the commission’s credibility suffered a severe blow when one of its leading experts Jacek Rońda, an engineering professor, admitted that he had ‘bluffed’ in an April 2013 interview on Polish national TV. Prof Rońda claimed to have a secret Russian document proving that the President’s plane had not descended below 100 metres, a crucial piece of evidence which supported his theory that it blew up in mid-air rather than crashing in an accident.

The Smolensk issue is certainly an effective way for Law and Justice to build strong emotional ties with and mobilise its core supporters. However, putting the work of the Macierewicz commission at the forefront of the political debate can also potentially alienate more centrist voters by making the party appear extreme and obsessive. Consequently, Mr Kaczyński has made a conscious effort to tone down his rhetoric on Smolensk in recent months and its re-surfacing as a political issue in such a controversial way was very problematic for Law and Justice.

Re-shuffle and ‘new opening’ in November?

However, although the Warsaw referendum result and Law and Justice’s difficulties provided welcome short-term relief for Civic Platform, it is questionable whether they represented a turning point in the ruling party’s fortunes. Indeed, there are indications that public hostility to the ruling party is deep-seated and a more significant political game changer is required to reverse this trend. For example, although one opinion poll published this month commissioned by the TNS Polska agency for Polish TV’s Wiadomości evening news programme sensationally put Civic Platform back in the lead for the first time in several months, other post-referendum surveys continued to give Law and Justice an advantage of around 5-10%.

The ruling party is hoping that one such potential game changer could be a government re-shuffle scheduled for November, the mid-way point of the current parliament, possibly straight after the Civic Platform party convention on November 23rd (although there has been speculation that the ministerial shake-up may not actually take place until the start of 2014). This is meant to be a key element of the government’s much-heralded ‘new opening’ when Mr Tusk is set to announce his administration’s future plans. Civic Platform is also counting on the fact that, with two years left until the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2015), the economy will start to pick up, unemployment fall and new EU regional funds come on stream. However, in order to make an impact the government shake-up will need to be a radical one and not limited to, say, just sacking the heavily criticised but relatively low profile ministers of education, health and sport.

Last month there was renewed speculation that finance minister Jacek Rostowski, who has come in for widespread criticism for his mistaken 2013 budget forecast, could be fired. 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 him. However, the prime minister 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 its economic strategy – that his dismissal could be viewed as a broader admission of failure. Moreover, even this may not be enough as the government is so strongly identified with Mr Tusk personally that anything sort of the prime minister being replaced, an extremely unlikely scenario, may not have a significant impact on the Civic Platform’s poll ratings.

Another internal crisis for Civic Platform

Moreover, at the end of the month a major internal party crisis erupted within Civic Platform. In what appeared to initially be a further boost for Mr Tusk, 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 and now his main party rival, lost out narrowly and unexpectedly in the Lower Silesia regional party leadership election. Mr Schetyna was defeated in by the prime minister’s candidate, local MEP Jack Protasiewicz, in what had previously been the deputy leader’s local power base. However, Mr Protasiewicz’s victory was quickly overshadowed by subsequent claims that his supporters, including two Civic Platform deputies, had offered local party officials jobs in state-run bodies to in order to persuade them to support the challenger.

Although the party executive has suspended the membership of the two deputies and local officials involved, Mr Schetyna failed to persuade it to also annul the regional election result. Given that he is now fighting for his political life it is difficult to predict how precisely this internal party crisis will un-fold. For the moment, it appears to have overshadowed the party’s Warsaw referendum success and Law and Justice’s difficulties over Smolensk, but it has the potential to spiral more seriously out of control, with some commentators even predicting that it could culminate in a further split in the ruling party, precipitating a collapse of the government and early parliamentary election.

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