Will the government re-launch revive the ruling party?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

The main development on the Polish political scene last month was the government’s much-anticipated ‘new opening’. The centre-piece of this was a major cabinet re-shuffle together with a keynote policy speech by the prime minister at the ruling party’s national convention.

A long-awaited re-shuffle

Although long-awaited and following months of speculation, the re-shuffle – which was originally planned to take place after the November 23rd convention of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party – had to be brought forward following the resignation of transport and infrastructure minister Sławomir Nowak. Mr Nowak’s departure was prompted by an investigation by the state prosecutor after he failed to disclose an expensive watch on his assets declaration, as obliged to by Polish law. This followed media reports earlier this year which suspected that the watch may have been a bribe, an allegation that Mr Nowak denies strenuously. At the same time, science and higher education minister Barbara Kudrycka also indicated that she wanted to relinquish her post due to exhaustion with the job.

Prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk knew that, in order to make an impact, the re-shuffle had to be wide-ranging so it involved seven ministries. The change that attracted the most international attention was the widely expected departure of finance minister Jacek Rostowski and his (much more surprising) replacement by Mateusz Szczurek, a relatively unknown 38-year old economist working for the ING Bank. Mr Rostowski was post-communist Poland’s longest serving finance minister having held the post for the whole six-year period of Civic Platform-led government. He was widely credited with maintaining Poland’s economic growth, albeit at a sluggish pace, throughout the global financial crisis. However, his critics argue that this came at the cost of allowing Poland’s deficit to soar in the early years of the crisis, which he has tackled through stop-gap solutions rather than structural reforms. The fact that the government was forced to amend the 2013 state budget due to much lower than expected revenues shook the prime minister’s confidence in Mr Rostowski.

Mr Szczurek’s appointment came after a number of better-known candidates had refused the job. Although he is widely judged to be a competent economist who enjoys good relations with the financial markets, Mr Szczurek is a risky appointment as he lacks any political experience. Many commentators argued that that this shifts the centre of economic policy-making within the government towards the prime ministers’ office, particularly Mr Tusk’s main economic adviser, Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a long-standing political collaborator of the Civic Platform leader who is widely seen as the power-behind-the-throne of the Tusk administration.

However, the key appointment, in terms of the government’s long-term political strategy was the promotion of regional development minister Elżbieta Bieńkowska to the rank of deputy prime minister. Due to her effective oversight of Poland’s EU funds, Mrs Bieńkowska has steadily emerged as one of the most highly regarded ministers in the Tusk administration and her promotion shows that the prime minister sees her as a key government asset during the second half of this parliament. Her department will also be expanded to incorporate the transport and infrastructure ministry which, it was argued, is logical given that a large proportion of EU regional aid is invested in infrastructure projects; although commentators suspected that the real reason for the merger was Mr Tusk’s inability to find a suitable replacement for Mr Nowak at such short notice. Moreover, although undoubtedly competent, Mrs Bieńkowska is a technocrat by nature and it remains to be seen whether she has the aptitude or temperament to play a more overtly political role defending the government’s programme as a whole.

Refreshing the government’s image

Other government changes included the expected sacking of heavily criticised ministers in the education, sport, and digitalisation and administration departments, together with new appointees to head up the environment and higher education and science ministries; although Mr Tusk left the controversial health minister Bartosz Arłukowicz in post. The unifying theme of the re-shuffle was not, however, policy change but the idea that new ministers would bring energy and vigour. It also confirmed Mr Tusk’s preference for appointing ministers who have no independent political standing and are, therefore, completely dependent upon him for their survival. The Civic Platform leader remains at the centre of all key decision-making within the administration and the re-shuffle exemplified this highly personalised style of government. Indeed, Mr Tusk did not even consult the changes with his junior coalition partner, the Polish Peasant Party (PSL).

The re-shuffle was – together with Mr Tusk’s policy speech at the party’s convention later that week, at which he set out a strategy for his revamped government for the remaining two years of the parliament and beyond – a key element of the so-called ‘new opening’, aimed at reversing the ruling party’s decline in support. Civic Platform, which has been in office since 2007, has been in an on-going state of political crisis for several months. Both the government and Mr Tusk’s approval ratings have slumped to their lowest levels since they came to office and, since May, the ruling party has fallen behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, in opinion polls. This is due to a number of factors. Continued economic sluggishness accompanied a growing perception that the government is drifting and failing 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, both contributed to, and were exacerbated by, the sense of crisis.

What is Mr Tusk’s strategy?

Mr Tusk’s strategy to revive the ruling party’s fortunes comprises three main elements. Firstly, the prime minister believes that political recovery requires him to tighten his grip on party organsation. A key element of this has been Mr Tusk’s apparently successful marginalisation of his main rival, deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna, following the latter’s narrow defeat in the election for the leadership of the Lower Silesia regional party organisation, previously his power base. Mr Schetyna was at one time a very close political ally of Mr Tusk’s but since he was sacked as deputy prime minister and interior minister in 2009 the two politicians have had a falling out and the prime minister has been determined to side-line someone whom he feels has tried to undermine his authority within the party. The last act of this drama is likely to be played out at the party’s December national council meeting when Mr Schetyna looks certain to lose his position as deputy leader and possibly even his seat on the party executive.

Secondly, Mr Tusk is hoping that economic recovery will revive the ‘feel-good factor’. There was some encouraging news for the government on this front as figures released this month suggested that the Polish economy was re-bounding faster than expected, with the country’s GDP growing by 1.9% year-on-year in the third quarter of the year.

Thirdly, the centrepiece of Mr Tusk’s strategy is utilisation of the generous EU funds that Poland will be able to tap into during the next few years. The government claims that the fact that Poland emerged as the largest net beneficiary of the 2014-2020 EU budget negotiations is one of its most important achievements. Having secured these hard-earned funds, the key task is now to ensure their efficient management and the government shake-up was presented as bringing in a new team that will use them bring about a much-promised ‘civilisational leap’. This explains the political significance of Mrs Bieńkowska’s promotion: following the creation of the new super-ministry she is now also in charge of key EU-funded infrastructure projects and is, thus, the embodiment of the government’s new strategy. Utilising EU funds also formed a major plank of Mr Tusk’s keynote speech to the Civic Platform convention, where he pledged that these would be directed increasingly towards improving the living standards of ordinary Poles and their families.

Has the government crossed a ‘tipping point’?

Will the ‘new opening’ succeed in changing the ruling party’s political fortunes? By creating the impression that Mr Tusk was refreshing the government with a number of new, sometimes surprisingly young, faces and giving a high profile to more effective ministers such as Mrs Bieńkowska, the re-shuffle certainly gave the government a few days of relatively good publicitly. The focus on effective utilisation of EU funds also meant that, for the first time in many months, Mr Tusk appeared to be setting out a clearly defined strategic objective for his government. Earlier in the month the government received another significant boost when it defeated, by 232 votes to 222, a parliamentary motion calling for a referendum on education reforms, in spite of the fact that two Peasant Party deputies broke party discipline and voted with the opposition. This showed that, in spite of defections that have reduced the coalition’s parliamentary majority to only 232 out of 460 deputies, it can still win key parliamentary votes thanks to support from non-aligned deputies.

However, arguably the government has passed a ‘tipping point’ so that negative attitudes towards the ruling party are relatively fixed and can only be shifted by a real political game-changer. The ‘new opening’ is, on its own, unlikely to be enough to change these political fundamentals. Many Poles have grown cynical of Mr Tusk’s repeated promises to deliver a ‘civilizational leap’. Moreover, the government is so strongly identified with Mr Tusk personally that even such a radical shake-up is unlikely to have a significant impact on Civic Platform’s poll ratings unless attitudes towards the prime minister also begin to change.

At the same time, recent weeks have seen various financial scandals involving government officials and Civic Platform politicians come to light. In addition to Mr Nowak’s resignation, Civic Platform was beset by allegations that supporters of Jacek Protasiewicz (including two parliamentary deputies) – the MEP who, with Mr Tusk’s backing, defeated Mr Schetyna in the Lower Silesia party leadership election – offered local party officials jobs in state-run bodies to secure their votes at the regional convention. The ‘new opening’ also coincided with the unveiling of a major corruption scandal concerning IT contracts in public administration, described by the central anti-corruption bureau (CBA) as the biggest such case in Poland’s history.

The jury is still out on the opposition

In fact, November was also a rather problematic month for the Law and Justice opposition. The party has landed blows on the government by focusing its core message on ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues and simply but effectively criticising its apparent failures, while managing to avoid making any major gaffes. However, its political momentum appears to have stalled recently. Apart from the obvious setback of failing to defeat the government in a key parliamentary vote, the main Law and Justice spokesman and public relations strategist Adam Hoffman was forced to suspend his party membership after it was discovered that he failed to notify tax authorities of a substantial sum of money that he received from an unknown source.

Last month, the party’s political council also elected Antoni Macierewicz – who heads up the controversial parliamentary commission investigating the April 2010 Smolensk air crash, in which the then Law and Justice-backed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others were killed – as one of its four deputy leaders. Although the Smolensk issue has proved effective in mobilising the party’s core supporters, giving Mr Macierewicz a higher profile will make it more difficult to win over centrist voters, many of whom regard the Law and Justice politician as extreme and obsessive. While, barring a major political game-changer, most voters appear to have a fairly settled view of Mr Tusk and the Civic Platform-led government, the jury is still very much out on whether they trust the opposition enough to vote them back into office.

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