The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: January, 2014

Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 5): Europe became a valence issue again?

This is the fifth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

For part 1, ‘A year of crises for the ruling party’, see:

For part 2, ‘The governing coalition remained stable despite strains’, see:

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see:

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see:

Last year, the debate over attitudes towards the European Union was once again the main foreign policy issue on the Polish political scene. At one point it appeared that the future of the European integration project was emerging as a substantial issue in its own right. However, as the year progressed, Poland-EU relations reverted to being a ‘valence’ issue where parties competed over which of them was the most competent to represent and advance Polish national interests.

An issue in its own right?

The issue of Poland-EU relations was highly contested in recent years by the two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk; and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister. However, these divisions were often not over the future of the European integration project as such. Rather they were subsumed within domestic politics, with the two parties treating relations with the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue; that is, one where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU.

However, as the euro zone crisis unfolded there was some evidence that the Polish debate on Europe was becoming more about the substance of European integration itself rather than being simply an extension of domestic politics by other means. Indeed, at the start of last year, some commentators even suggested that Civic Platform was considering making Poland-EU relations in general, and adoption of the euro single currency in particular, more significant dimensions of party competition in the run up to the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015.

Debate over the substance of European integration as an issue in its own right probably peaked last February when the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, discussed a bill on whether to ratify the European fiscal treaty aimed at strengthening budget discipline within the euro zone. The Civic Platform-led government argued that adopting the fiscal treaty would strengthen Poland’s position within the EU by allowing it to participate in summits which would decide on the future of the euro zone. This was felt to be crucial given that the single currency area was becoming the core of the European integration project and the Union’s decision making processes were being re-configured to reflect this.

Following the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, the Tusk administration’s main European policy objective was to prevent the EU from breaking up into the single currency area and ‘other’ second tier members. Repeatedly stressing its commitment to the European project, it used this argument to justify support for closer German-led integration within the EU and participation in initiatives aimed at salvaging the single currency such as the fiscal treaty. This, it argued, ensured that Poland remained part of the ‘European mainstream’ and at the centre of the Union’s decision making core.

Civic Platform’s European policy was broadly supported by its junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and the Civic Platform-backed Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, who remained the country’s most popular politician throughout 2013. It was also largely endorsed by the two smaller left-wing opposition parties: the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP – re-branded as Your Movement [TR] in October); both of whom supported deeper European integration and rapid Polish accession to the euro zone. With these two parties joining the government in supporting ratification – and only Mr Kaczyński’s party and Solidaristic Poland (SP), a small Law and Justice breakaway grouping, voting against – the Sejm approved the fiscal treaty by 282 votes to 155.

However, both the government’s decision to sign up to the fiscal treaty specifically and its European policy more generally were strongly criticised by the Law and Justice opposition. This was partly on familiar ‘domestic politics’ lines: that the government was too trustful of, and lacked the will to stand up to, the major EU states, particularly Germany, and that it would have had a better chance of achieving its demands if it had taken a tougher negotiating line. However, since the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, Law and Justice also started to articulate a more fundamental, principled critique of Civic Platform’s support for deeper European integration. For example, it argued that signing up to the fiscal treaty was a threat to Poland’s national sovereignty and independence by giving more control over the country’s budget and finances to supranational institutions and other states without providing any compensatory gains.

Euro zone accession on the agenda

Debates on the fiscal treaty inevitably turned into discussions about Poland’s approach towards European integration more generally, and specifically on whether or not the country should join the euro zone. In spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, the Civic Platform-led government remained committed to Poland adopting the euro as a long-term strategic goal as part of its desire for the country to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

For its part, Law and Justice re-iterated its long-standing demand for a referendum to determine whether or not Poland should join the single currency area. However, following the onset of the euro zone crisis, Mr Kaczyński’s party also appeared to harden its earlier stance on this issue, that euro adoption should be delayed until the Polish economy was more closely aligned with the rest of the EU. It increasingly gave the impression that, given the euro zone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the euro.

The Law and Justice stance on this issue mattered because Poland could not join the euro zone without a change to its constitution which designated the National Bank of Poland as the only body that could set monetary policy and emit currency. A two-thirds parliamentary majority was required to pass an amendment that would give that role to the European Central Bank, and Mr Tusk’s administration lacked such a ‘constitutional’ majority even with the support of the smaller left-wing opposition parties.

Prioritising Europe was a risky strategy

However, as the year progressed Civic Platform began to send more mixed signals and appeared to back away from the idea of prioritising Europe as an issue in party competition. This was particularly evident in the way that Mr Tusk seemed to tone down his earlier enthusiasm for rapid Polish adoption of the euro. While continuing to say that Poland would work to fulfil the criteria needed to enter the euro zone as quickly as possible, he also stressed that the government did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future.

It was not surprising that the Tusk government decided to tread more warily, given the unpopularity of euro zone accession among the Polish public. For sure, although there was a drop in levels of enthusiasm over the last few years, the vast majority of Poles remained overwhelmingly pro-EU. For example, a May 2013 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 72% of respondents still supported Polish EU membership (albeit down significantly from 89% in July 2007) while the number of opponents stood at 21% (only 5% in July 2007). This was likely to remain the case as long as: Poles had access to Western labour markets and enjoyed free travel throughout the Schengen zone; and Poland received substantial regional aid from the EU budget. However, Poles also became increasingly hostile to the single currency; a January-February 2013 CBOS survey, for example, found only 29% support for euro adoption compared to 53% in March 2009, and an increase in the number of those opposed from 38% to 64% over the same period.

At the same time, although Law and Justice appeared to sharpen its anti-integration stance since the start of the euro zone crisis, the party always had, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (sometimes verging on Eurosceptic) approach to European integration. Moreover, this ideological inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice; particularly when Law and Justice was in government in 2005-7 and, for example, signed Poland up to the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, the party never actually opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle and, even after the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, its formal position remained simply that the process should be delayed until it could be achieved without damaging the Polish economy and that any final decision be approved by a referendum.

A valence issue again?

There were, therefore, indications the party debate on Poland-EU relations was once again being subsumed within domestic politics as a valence issue. This could, for example, be seen clearly in the discussions on the outcome of negotiations on the 2014-20 EU budget which concluded in February. Although Poland once again emerged as the largest recipient of EU funds, both of the main parties claimed that the outcome vindicated their different strategies and approaches.

The Civic Platform-led government argued that the outcome was a triumph for the Polish negotiators, particularly at a time of economic crisis which inevitably limited the willingness of wealthier states to finance EU projects. In spite of the fact that the new budget saw the first ever overall spending reduction in the EU’s history, Poland managed to secure an overall increase in funding for the next seven years. Perhaps most significantly, the amount of money that the country would receive from so-called ‘cohesion funds’, which are distributed among the EU’s poorer members for infrastructure and other projects, increased to 303 billion zlotys. This was of huge symbolic importance because it fulfilled the 300 million zlotys target that Civic Platform had pledged to secure for Poland in the 2011 parliamentary election campaign; probably the party’s single most high profile and specific election promise. The ruling party claimed that its apparent success (Mr Tusk called it ‘one of the happiest days of my life’) was a vindication of its broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ as a reliable and stable member state.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Mr Tusk’s government could have secured an even better deal if it had adopted a tougher negotiating stance, taking advantage of the fact that EU budgets require unanimity and threatening a Polish veto. It claimed that, as a large poor country with a sizeable agricultural sector, Poland only received what was its due according the EU’s resource allocation model and less per head of the population than a number of neighbouring post-communist states. It also accused the Tusk administration of sacrificing rural communities so that it could fulfill Civic Platform’s election pledge on cohesion funding: pointing out that, while the level of direct subsidies to Polish farmers was set to increase, there would be a substantial cut in the funds allocated for rural development.

The May European Parliament (EP) elections, which are likely to be the biggest political event in Poland during the first half of 2014, might be expected to raise the profile of the European integration issue in Polish politics. However, experience suggests that all Polish elections, even European ones, are dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter are framed as valence issues. Important as it will be as a test of party strength, the EP poll is, therefore, likely to be simply another ‘second-order’ national election.

Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 4): The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force

This is the fourth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

For part 1, ‘A year of crises for the ruling party’, see:

For part 2, ‘The governing coalition remained stable despite strains’, see:

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see:

Last year, the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the main standard bearer of the left and undisputed third force in Polish politics. The Palikot Movement, its rival for the leadership of the left, had a miserable year and its attempts to regain the political initiative through sponsoring a broader centre-left electoral coalition and re-branding itself proved largely unsuccessful.

A more disciplined force

At the beginning of last year the question of which party would become the leading force on the Polish left was still unresolved. Opinion polls showed support for the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the anti-clerical liberal-left Palikot Movement (RP), Poland’s two smaller parliamentary opposition groupings, roughly level with both parties hovering around 5-10%. The two were constantly sniping at each other with the occasional, unconvincing unity initiative punctuating an otherwise life-or-death battle for the leadership of the left.

The left – which was, at one time, the dominant force in Polish politics – has not had an electoral breakthrough since 2005. During the last nine years, the political scene has been dominated by a duopoly comprising the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. However, various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as being on the political left at around 25-30% with some analysts arguing that Civic Platform ‘borrowed’ a substantial number of these potential centre-left voters who supported them in recent elections as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of power.

A couple of years ago, many commentators had written off the Democratic Left Alliance. The once-powerful party governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but was in the doldrums since  support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following its involvement in a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. At the most recent October 2011 parliamentary election the party suffered its worst ever election defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote. However, last year the Alliance appeared to have recovered ground and emerged as the main left-wing challenger and new undisputed ‘third force’ on the Polish political scene, with most polls suggesting that its support was hovering the 10-15% mark.

The party was a much more disciplined force under the leadership of Leszek Miller, who steadied nerves when he took over following its 2011 election drubbing. A wily political operator, Mr Miller was previously Democratic Left Alliance leader from 1997 to 2004, led the party to victory in the 2001 parliamentary election, and served as prime minister of Poland from 2001-2004, overseeing the country’s accession to the EU. Although he had pursued fairly orthodox liberal economic policies when in office, and once even championed ‘flat taxes’, Mr Miller criticised the Civic Platform-led government’s programme and management of the crisis from a left-wing perspective. However, he also tried to portray a calm and predictable image and – although taking a clearly social liberal line on high profile questions such as Church-state relations, same-sex civil partnerships and in vitro fertilisation – not to come across as overly focused on moral-cultural issues.

At the same time, some critics argued that Mr Miller’s political ambitions were limited to securing the post of deputy prime minister by winning a respectable third place at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015, and then entering government as Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner. He was certainly keen to return to government and enjoyed good personal relations with Mr Tusk, with commentators long suspecting that the two were preparing to forge a strategic partnership. However, both leaders ruled out the possibility of a formal link-up in the current parliament. For his part, Mr Miller was wary of being associated too closely with an increasingly un-popular Civic Platform-led government and also hoped to increase his party’s negotiating leverage by securing more seats at the next election.

Later in the year, some commentators felt that Mr Miller’s ambitions might have grown and that the Alliance was hoping to overtake a weakening Civic Platform in the polls, possibly even eyeing another stint for himself as prime minister. However, there was a limit to how far its current strategy could take the party and it continued to lag well behind Mr Tusk’s grouping in the polls, around 10% on average. Critics argued that Mr Miller lacked any clear strategic vision on how to move the party’s support up to the next level. For the moment at least, Mr Miller’s party still appeared unlikely to be able to offer a serious challenge to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly in the two big electoral tests that awaited it in 2014: the May European Parliament (EP) election and autumn local elections.

The Palikot Movement implodes

The Democratic Left Alliance’s success was also, in part at least, due to the implosion of the Palikot Movement. The Movement was formed at the end of 2010 by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman and one-time Civic Platform deputy who left his previous party complaining at what he saw as its excessively conservative tilt (although its right-wing critics actually accused the party leadership of trying to cosy up to Poland’s liberal-left cultural and media establishment). The Movement emerged from nowhere to finish as the third largest party in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, in the 2011 election winning just over 10% of the vote. It did so on the basis of a strongly social liberal programme that included: reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in public life, the de-criminalisation of so-called ‘soft’ drugs, abortion on demand, and more rights for sexual minorities including the legalisation of same-sex civil unions. However, it failed to capitalise on its 2011 election success and, for most of last year, found itself bumping along at around 5% in the polls, the threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. While Mr Palikot clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest in his political initiatives, which had helped him to shake up the Polish political scene, many Poles still regarded him as an unpredictable maverick who used coarse, often brutal, rhetoric and whose political initiatives lacked consistency.

The year started very badly for the Palikot Movement when, in February, the party became embroiled in a huge controversy following its withdrawal of support for Wanda Nowicka, a prominent pro-abortion campaigner, as its nominee for Sejm deputy speaker after she had received a substantial parliamentary bonus without informing the party. After some hesitation, Ms Nowicka reneged on her initial promise to resign but Civic Platform and Democratic Left Alliance deputies joined forces in parliament to defeat an attempt by the Palikot Movement to remove her. This led to a huge falling out between Mr Palikot’s party and leading members of the Polish feminist movement, particularly when it went on to expel Ms Nowicka from its parliamentary caucus. In his frustration at her unwillingness to stand down, Mr Palikot accused Ms Nowicka of ‘wanting to be raped’, remarks that were condemned even by many of his erstwhile allies and supporters.

Over the course of the year, the Palikot Movement lost six further parliamentary deputies as a result of resignations and defections. Four of them formed their own parliamentary mini-caucus, the Dialogue Initiative (ID), which generally voted with the government and then went on to join the Sejm grouping of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), the junior governing coalition partner. The other two joined the Democratic Left Alliance.

Europa Plus flops

Mr Palikot tried to regain the political imitative and broaden out his party’s appeal by co-sponsoring ‘Europa Plus’, a new centre-left grouping set up to contest the EP election in Poland. In addition to Mr Palikot, the new initiative was fronted by former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Marek Siwiec MEP, a long-time political ally of Mr Kwaśniewski’s who resigned from the Democratic Left Alliance at the end of 2012, and included a number of smaller left-wing and liberal parties. Mr Kwaśniewski was a very popular President who enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his two terms which ran from 1995-2005, and remained one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. Many commentators saw him as the one politician with the potential to transform the Polish left’s electoral fortunes.

However, following its high profile launch the Europa Plus initiative proved to be something of a flop. It was always unclear whether Mr Kwaśniewski’s high approval ratings as President, a largely ceremonial position with few executive powers, would translate into support for those that required more decisive political leadership and the record of his previous initiatives aimed at forging unity on the Polish centre-left was not especially encouraging. Moreover, Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement in Europa Plus was always rather half-hearted and, immediately after its launch, he threw himself back into the lucrative international lecture and consultancy circuit clearly preferring not to devote the energy and commitment required to undertake the difficult and painstaking task of grassroots party building. Some commentators argued that Mr Kwaśniewski belonged to a by-gone era and that his ability to sway today’s Polish voters was very limited. Indeed, on occasions he appeared more of a liability than an asset, including a notable one in April when he addressed a Europa Plus event allegedly under the influence of alcohol. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, some of the high profile centrist and left-wing political figures whom Europa Plus had hoped to attract as possible EP candidates reacted coolly to the initiative. By the end of the year, Mr Miller was trying to persuade the smaller left-wing parties that had become disillusioned with Europa Plus to link up with the Democratic Left Alliance instead.

Finally, in October Mr Palikot tried to re-launch his party as ‘Your Movement’ (TR), toning down its anti-clericalism and social liberalism while placing greater emphasis on free-market economics. However, re-branding the party appeared to bring it little benefit in the polls as well as further complicating its relationship with Europa Plus. Your Movement was actually supposed to include several partner organisations, including (confusingly) Europa Plus; indeed, Mr Siwiec, who was formally chair of Europa Plus, was also elected one of the Movement’s deputy leaders. However, a number of the leaders of smaller parties affiliated to Europa Plus accused Mr Palikot of effectively abandoning the project and concentrating all of his efforts on promoting his re-branded party. More broadly, Mr Palikot’s party continued to struggle with its political identity and found it difficult to clarify whether it really was a left-wing party at all or more of an economically and socially liberal centrist grouping. While 2014 could, therefore, herald the Democratic Left Alliance’s long-awaited electoral breakthrough, the prospects for both Mr Palikot’s re-branded party and the Europa Plus alliance looked rather grim.

For part 5, ‘Europe became a valence issue again?’, see:

Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 3): Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition

This is the third of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

For part 1, ‘A year of crises for the ruling party’, see:

For part 2, ‘The governing coalition remained stable despite strains’, see:

The main opposition party made significant progress last year, landing some effective blows on the government and opening up a clear opinion poll lead. However, its knack of committing strategic errors at key moments and tendency to revert to controversial rhetoric, particularly over the Smolensk air tragedy issue, meant that serious doubts remained as to whether Poles were ready to vote the party back into office.

The tide turned in Law and Justice’s favour

2013 was an encouraging year for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping led by former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński. It scored impressive victories over the governing coalition parties in two high profile by-elections to the Senate (the less powerful second chamber of the Polish parliament) and won a fiercely contested mayoral by-election in the Baltic coastal town of Elbląg, an area of the country where the Polish right never enjoyed high levels of support. From May onwards, it overtook, and then opened up a 5-10% national opinion poll lead over, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk.

For many years, voters’ fear and mistrust of Law and Justice was one of Civic Platform’s most important ways of mobilising its more passive and uncertain supporters. Continuing relatively high levels of support for the ruling party were often a reflection of the weakness of Mr Kaczyński’s party and the fact that many voters did not see it as a credible alternative to the incumbent. They particularly disliked the apparently more aggressive and divisive style of politics that they associated with the Law and Justice leader, Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor who consistently topped the polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians. Winning back voters’ trust proved to be a long and difficult struggle for party.

However, last year there was evidence that the tide have might have turned in Law and Justice’s favour. The on-going sense of economic and political crises that enveloped the government and ruling party throughout last year opened up a window of opportunity for the opposition, which gauged accurately that the public was looking for more decisive political action to alleviate the poor economic situation. Law and Justice landed some heavy blows on the government by focusing its core message on ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues and simply but effectively criticising the Tusk administration’s apparent failures. At the same it made a concerted effort to tone down its own more aggressive and confrontational rhetoric and (mostly) managed to avoid making any major gaffes.

Will Smolensk throw the party off-balance?

However, serious doubts remained as to whether Law and Justice could really capitalise fully on the Civic Platform-led government’s weakness and, towards the end of the year, the party’s political momentum appeared to stall somewhat. Its failure to oust the Civic Platform mayor of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who was also one of the party’s deputy leaders, in an October recall referendum ended Law and Justice’s string of local by-election successes. Had it been successful, the recall would have been the political sensation of the year. Although it had receded somewhat, it was clear that anti-Law and Justice sentiment could re-surface very quickly, particularly given Mr Kaczyński’s knack of returning to the confrontational tone that he was generally so careful to avoid last year but often appeared to come more naturally to him.

The party also had something of a tendency to make key strategic errors at big political moments when the tide appeared to be turning in its favour. A good example of this was its decision to frame the Warsaw referendum as an anti-government plebiscite, thereby discouraging some Varsovians who disliked the mayor but did not want to contribute to an opposition propaganda coup from voting, thus ensuring that it did not secure the minimum turnout threshold required to be valid. A big question mark, therefore, remained over whether Law and Justice and its leader could maintain their focus and self-discipline during the electoral marathon that Poland faces during the next two years leading up to the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015?

In particular, the re-surfacing as a political issue of the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy – the plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while they were on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia – often proved to be highly problematic for the party. The Smolensk issue was certainly an effective way of mobilising and building strong emotional links with the party’s core supporters, who held the Civic Platform-led and Russian governments responsible for the tragedy. For many of these, the Smolensk tragedy was a touchstone issue and viewed as part of a long history of Poland suffering at the hands of its more powerful neighbours and a broader pattern of Civic Platform’s betrayal of the country’s national interests. For sure, opinion surveys found that only around 25-30% of Poles believed that the flight was sabotaged. However, revelations of numerous errors in the government investigation led by former interior minister Jerzy Miller – whose July 2011 report blamed poor planning, pilot error and mistakes by Russian air traffic controllers in difficult weather conditions for the catastrophe – led increasing numbers to question the official version of events. Moreover, the Russian government’s continued refusal to hand over the wreckage of the plane gave credence to those positing conspiracy theories.

However, Law and Justice’s often aggressive rhetoric on the Smolensk issue made the party appear obsessive and extreme. It alienated more moderate centrist voters who were not necessarily implacably opposed to the party but rejected its accusations of treason and willingness to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the tragedy, which they felt demonstrated Mr Kaczyński’s unfitness to govern. Consequently, Law and Justice strategists also made a conscious effort to tone down their rhetoric on the Smolensk issue and avoid placing it at the forefront of political debate.

Nonetheless, the party did not always pursue this strategy consistently and the issue retained a capacity to flare up in a way that was potentially damaging for the party. For example, there was controversy surrounding the team of experts advising the Law and Justice-led parliamentary commission established by Antoni Macierewicz, a leading party deputy, to investigate the causes of the crash. In particular, the commission’s credibility suffered a severe blow when, in October, one of its leading experts – Jacek Rońda, an engineering professor – admitted that he had ‘bluffed’ in an April interview on Polish national TV during which he 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. Moreover, in November, the Law and Justice political council elected Mr Macierewicz as one of the party’s four deputy leaders, once again raising the profile of his controversial commission.

Will winning the next election be enough?

Some commentators suggested that Law and Justice had reached a ceiling of around 30-35% opinion poll support and that it would be difficult for the party to broaden out its electoral base significantly beyond that. Moreover, apart from stalling the party’s electoral momentum, Law and Justice’s failure to oust Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz in the Warsaw recall referendum appeared to suggest that fear of Mr Kaczyński’s party remained a potentially powerful mobilising tool among a large segment of electorate and that the party still needed to develop a more convincing appeal to disillusioned centrist voters. Moreover, even if Law and Justice emerges as the largest party at the next parliamentary election it is very unlikely to win an outright majority of seats, something that no Polish party has achieved in any post-1989 election.

At the same time, although it appeared to have successfully seen off a challenge on its right flank from the Solidarisitc Poland (SP) party, a Law and Justice breakaway formed after the 2011 parliamentary election by former party deputy leader Zbigniew Ziobro, some polls suggested that the new liberal-conservative Poland Together (PR) grouping might emerge as a new electoral threat to Mr Kaczyński’s grouping. Poland Together was formed in December by former Civic Platform justice minister and unsuccessful party leadership challenger Jarosław Gowin but also comprised Law and Justice defectors from earlier breakaway parties. Moreover, while these two smaller right-wing parties may only attract small numbers of voters (polls showed them at around 3-5%), in a tight election this – and support for other minor parties such as the National Movement (RN), a radical right youth-based political grouping – could be enough to deprive Law and Justice of a parliamentary majority. This means that Mr Kaczyński’s party will probably need to find allies to form a government which, given it has few obvious potential coalition partners among the current main parties, could prove extremely difficult. As things stood, therefore, there was a strong chance that Law and Justice could end up the largest party after the next election but still find itself in opposition.

Two big electoral tests ahead

Like the other Polish parties, Law and Justice faces two major electoral tests in 2014: the May European Parliament (EP) election and the autumn local elections. These will be important preludes to the national elections that will follow in 2015: the summer presidential and, above all, autumn parliamentary election. Both EP and local polls are often seen as ‘second order’ elections in which voters punish governing parties by supporting the opposition. With Law and Justice likely to continue to lead in the polls, there is a good chance that it will perform strongly in both of these, thereby ending a streak of six consecutive defeats in local, European, parliamentary and presidential elections since 2006. However, Mr Kaczyński’s party needs to not just win the EP poll but to do so convincingly (by at least 5% and probably nearer 10%) if it is to maintain its momentum and demonstrate that it is a serious contender for power. Working in the party’s favour will be the fact that turnout in Polish EP elections has traditionally been extremely low (around 20-25%), and many observers feel that Law and Justice’s core voters are more highly motivated and easier to mobilise than Civic Platform’s.

Law and Justice will need to win by an equally convincing margin in elections to Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, the best indicator of national party strength in the autumn local polls. It will also need to perform well in the high profile mayoral contests held in the larger towns and cities which, like Warsaw, have provided the bedrock of Civic Platform’s electoral support. Finally, as Mr Kaczyński’s party is unlikely to win an outright majority in more than one or two regional assemblies, it also needs to demonstrate that it can form local governing coalitions. Its lacks of ability to do so following the previous 2010 regional elections meant that Law and Justice was not able to take control of any councils at this level, even where it emerged as the largest party. This will be an important indicator of how ‘coalitionable’ it might after the next parliamentary election and whether it can avoid the nightmare scenario of topping the poll but still remaining in opposition.

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see:

For part 5, ‘Europe became a valence issue again?’, see:

Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 2): The governing coalition remained stable despite strains

This is the second of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

 For part 1, ‘A year of crises for the ruling party’, see:

The biggest threat to the governing coalition last year was mounting pressure on the leader of the junior partner, who was widely criticised for allowing his party to be marginalised within the government and failing to make an impact in the polls. Nevertheless, in spite of these on-going tensions – and defections from the main governing party that, at one stage, appeared to threaten the government’s majority – the coalition remained stable and was able to win key votes in parliament.

Pressure mounted on Mr Piechociński

The main threat to the stability and cohesion of the governing coalition, which comprised the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), was mounting pressure on Janusz Piechociński, leader of the Peasant Party, the junior coalition partner. There was widespread unease within the party over Mr Piechociński’s apparent failure to make an impact since he was elected leader at the end of 2012, defeating his predecessor Waldemar Pawlak who had led party since 2005 (and earlier between 1991-97, which included two periods as prime minister), in a closely fought race. There were also increasing concerns among Peasant Party deputies and activists that the party was marginalised within the governing coalition by prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk, and a feeling that the main ruling party would not have treated its junior partner in this way under Mr Pawlak’s leadership.

Mr Pawlak’s relatively successful (if sometimes prickly) working relationship with Mr Tusk was one of the keys to the smooth functioning of the coalition, and the change of Peasant Party leadership inevitably altered its internal dynamics. Although Mr Piechociński had been a parliamentary deputy on-and-off for the last twenty years, he had never held ministerial office. His original plan was to separate out government and party management functions but at the end of 2012 he was bounced into also taking over Mr Pawlak’s responsibilities as deputy prime minister and economy minister and last year appeared to find it difficult to maintain a grip on all of these new responsibilities.

Mr Tusk failed to consult Mr Piechociński over the two government re-shuffles that took place last year: a smaller one in February when he promoted finance minister Jacek Rostowski (one of the most mis-trusted Civic Platform ministers among Peasant Party activists) to the rank of deputy prime minister; and a more radical one in November (when Mr Rostowski was sacked). Neither of these involved Peasant Party-nominated ministers but a much more serious rift opened up when in March, and again without consulting Mr Piechociński, Mr Tusk dismissed treasury minister Mikołaj Budzanowski and then suggested that there should be a separate ministry created to take responsibility for energy issues, which would have reduced the Peasant Party leader’s government competencies significantly. This actually prompted Mr Piechociński to threaten to resign and withdraw from the coalition. However, he quickly backed down from this threat, claiming that he had been misunderstood, and denied any rift with Mr Tusk.

There was also considerable unease about the fact that the party did not perform more strongly in opinion polls and spent the year hovering dangerously close to the 5% electoral threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. Mr Piechociński had persuaded many of the new generation of younger Peasant Party politicians to support his leadership bid on the grounds that he would expand the party’s electoral base but last year he failed to deliver on this promise. 2014 will, therefore, be a make-or-break year for Mr Piechociński, the outcome of which could have potential implications for the governing coalition. The Peasant Party faces two major electoral tests – the May European Parliament (EP) election and the autumn local elections – and Mr Piechociński’s days could be numbered if it performs below expectations in either of these. The party council has, in the past, used its statutory powers to remove incumbent leaders between congresses and could do so again.

The EP election will be a serious challenge as experience suggests that turnout in these polls is generally lower in rural areas, where the Peasant Party picks up most of its votes, than in larger towns and cities. In the previous 2009 EP election, the Peasant Party secured 7% of the vote and 3 MEPs (although it acquired an extra one when Polish EP representation was expanded as a result of the Lisbon treaty). If it fails to hold on to its share of votes and seats – or, even worse, falls below the 5% threshold – then Mr Piechociński will come under intense pressure. However, even if he survives the EP poll, Mr Piechociński faces a possibly even greater test in the local elections. As the political grouping with the most developed local grassroots organisation, the Peasant Party has tended to perform better in these than in national polls. In the previous 2010 local elections it actually finished third winning 16% of the vote across the country which translated into a share of power, in coalition with Civic Platform, in every one of Poland’s 16 regional authorities (although they actually lost control of one of these last year). Given that a large number of appointments to local state agencies depend upon strong Peasant Party representation in regional and local councils, in many ways, the outcome of these elections is even more important to party activists than the EP poll.

The coalition remained cohesive and stable

Nonetheless, in spite of these underling tensions and strains the coalition generally came through the year relatively unscathed. While the Peasant Party occasionally signalled its independence and disagreement with certain government policies, this often proved to be just sabre-ratting and when it came to actual voting in parliament the party invariably supported Civic Platform’s plans. Indeed, the current ruling coalition continued to be much more cohesive and stable than most of its predecessors in post-1989 Poland.

There were a number of reasons for this. The two governing parties had somewhat different core electorates and bases of support, with the Civic Platform primarily an urban party and the Peasant Party’s voters drawn mainly from rural communities, which meant that they were not in direct competition for the same voters. The fact that the Peasant Party had a clearly defined rural-agricultural electoral constituency also made it a pragmatic negotiating partner with a fairly narrow policy agenda. Indeed, the party was primarily an office-seeking grouping and retaining its ministerial posts, and thus its control of government-appointed posts and agencies (especially in the agricultural sector), continued to be a top priority for the party’s grassroots supporters. Breaking up the government coalition would also have had the knock-on effect of de-stabilising the local Civic Platform-Peasant Party coalitions which, as noted above, controlled all but one of Poland’s 16 regional authorities and were another important source of party patronage.

At the same time, the Peasant Party also appeared to have drawn lessons from earlier periods as a member of coalition governments during the 1990s and early 2000s when it was a very difficult partner and often distanced itself publicly from the main ruling party whenever its poll ratings declined or the government encountered difficulties. In the current coalition, the party pursued a very different strategy: making a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously trying to project an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics. As long as Civic Platform was careful not to push ahead too quickly with policies that threatened to undermine the interests of the Peasant Party’s core farming constituency, such as reforming the heavily state-subsidised farmers social security system, or on other issues where it felt that it might not have been able to count on its partner’s support, then the coalition functioned smoothly. Moreover, the fact that the Peasant Party hovered around the 5% threshold made it even more reluctant to risk precipitating an early election and, while there was clearly widespread underlying discontent with Mr Piechociński’s leadership, no one wanted to take responsibility for de-stabilising the party further ahead of next year’s elections.

The government retained its majority in spite of defections

For sure, the defections of former justice minister Jarosław Gowin and his two closest allies from the Civic Platform parliamentary caucus in September, following his unsuccessful party leadership challenge, reduced the government’s already-slim majority and left the coalition holding only 232 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. Nevertheless, the government still won all the key parliamentary votes thanks to support from non-aligned deputies, including those who had defected or been expelled from other parties.

Indeed, the coalition received a significant boost at the end of the year when four of these non-aligned deputies joined the Peasant Party’s parliamentary caucus. The four were originally elected to parliament as members of the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP), re-named ‘Your Movement’ (TR) after an October re-launch, but resigned from the party last year to establish their own mini-caucus called the Dialogue Initiative (ID). The Palikot Movement emerged as the third largest party at the 2011 parliamentary election with 10% of the vote but saw its support slump subsequently. Although the four had generally supported the government anyway, by joining the Peasant Party caucus they boosted the coalition’s formal parliamentary majority to 236. This was significant because even losing its formal Sejm majority would have been symbolically important for the government, while constant horse-trading with potentially unreliable independents and defectors could have further eroded the Tusk administration’s already-damaged credibility as a governing force. The recruitment of the four Dialogue Initiative deputies to the ranks of the coalition thus ended speculation, for the moment at least, about the possibility of an early parliamentary election.

No link up with the left in the current parliament?

Finally, in practice Civic Platform did not really have a credible or attractive alternative coalition partner that was as stable and known a quantity as the Peasant Party available within the current parliament. There was some speculation that Mr Tusk was contemplating a link up with the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition party. However, while Mr Tusk certainly appeared to have warmed to the idea of the Alliance as a possible future coalition partner – and enjoyed good personal relations with its leader Leszek Miller, who was also keen to return to government – both men appeared to rule out the possibility of a formal coalition in the current parliament. Linking up with the Democratic Left Alliance could have met with resistance from some conservative Civic Platform deputies who still retained a strong anti-communist ethos. On the other hand, waiting until after the next election would both give Civic Platform conservatives more time to come to terms with the idea and allow Mr Tusk to purge those who could prove most implacably hostile from the party’s candidates’ list. Mr Miller, on the other hand, hoped that his party would increase its parliamentary representation – and, therefore, its negotiating leverage – after the next election. A pre-election Civic Platform-Democratic Left Alliance link-up would also have played into the hands of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, by allowing the party to portray itself as the only genuine alternative to the Tusk administration. There was every indication, therefore, that the current governing coalition would serve out its full parliamentary term until the next scheduled election in autumn 2015.

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see:

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see:

For part 5, ‘Europe became a valence issue again?’, see:

Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 1): A year of crises for the ruling party

This is the first of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

Last year a series of on-going political crises led to a slump in support for the Polish ruling party. The party undertook a number of initiatives to revive its fortunes and retained some political assets, not least lingering doubts about the opposition. Nevertheless, there were indications that public hostility was so deep-seated that the government had passed a ‘tipping point’ and a major political game-changer was required to shift these fundamentals.

Economic sluggishness, government drift and party divisions

2013 was a year of on-going political crisis for the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, the main governing party in Poland. The approval ratings of both the Civic Platform-led government and prime minister and party leader Donald Tusk, previously one of the party’s most important electoral assets, slumped to their lowest levels since they came to office in 2007. A December 2013 poll by the CBOS agency found that the number who declared themselves to be government supporters and were satisfied with Mr Tusk as prime minister fell to 21% and 26% respectively compared to 33% and 35% a year earlier. Another December 2013 CBOS poll found that only 31% said that they trusted Mr Tusk, a slump of 10% over the past year. This was just 1% higher than the number who trusted Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), the main opposition grouping, and Mr Tusk’s controversial predecessor who had previously topped the polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians. Civic Platform also suffered a series of local by-election defeats and, since May, trailed Law and Justice by around 5-10% in the polls.

With the economy sluggish and unemployment remaining high, Poles became increasingly gloomy about their future prospects. This was accompanied by a growing sense of government exhaustion and drift with ministers appearing to spend too much of their time on crisis management and failing to undertake long-term structural reform measures. The Civic Platform-led government appeared to revert to the cautious policy of introducing reforms by ‘small steps’ that characterised its first term of office and which critics argued turned programmatic timidity into a governing philosophy. This approach worked fairly well while the economy was performing strongly but began to come unstuck when the tempo of growth slowed and unemployment increased.

At the same time, divisions and tensions within the ruling party, and a feeling that it was 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. This reached its peak during the summer when Mr Tusk was challenged for the party leadership by 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 the party’s more socially conservative voters, his leadership campaign focused primarily on economic issues claiming that Mr Tusk had abandoned the party’s original free market ideals.

In the event, although Mr Gowin secured a significantly better than expected result winning 20% of the votes, following his defeat he left the party along with his two closest parliamentary allies. In December, Mr Gowin launched a new political grouping, Poland Together (PR), which claimed to be returning to Civic Platform’s original economically liberal and socially conservative roots. Under Mr Tusk’s leadership, Civic Platform has turned from being a centre-right liberal-conservative party into an ideologically eclectic centrist grouping which some critics have dubbed a values-free ‘post-political party of power’. Mr Gowin was joined by politicians from two small Law and Justice breakaway groupings: the ‘Poland is the Most Important’ (PJM) party led by MEP Paweł Kowal formed by moderates who played a leading role in Jarosław Kaczyński’s 2010 presidential campaign (but only secured 2% in the 2007 parliamentary election); and the ‘Republicans’ political association led by Przemysław Wipler, an economically liberal parliamentary deputy who resigned from the party in June.

Trying to regain the initiative

Mr Tusk did take a number of initiatives to try and revive Civic Platform’s fortunes. Firstly, in what he felt was a pre-condition for any political recovery, Mr Tusk tightened his grip on the Civic Platform party organisation. A key element of this was the apparently successful marginalisation of his main rival, deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna. Mr Schetyna was at one time a very close political ally of Mr Tusk’s but developed a bitter, if publicly subdued, rivalry with the Civic Platform leader after he was sacked as deputy prime minister and interior minister in 2009. The party leadership election was originally meant to be held at Civic Platform’s spring 2014 congress but Mr Tusk persuaded the party to bring it forward and broaden the franchise to include all members. As a consequence, Mr Schetyna, who enjoyed greater support among party officials than rank-and-file members, decided not to mount a leadership challenge. Then, at the end of October, Mr Schetyna was defeated by a Tusk loyalist in the election for the leadership of the Lower Silesia regional party organisation, previously his local power base. Finally, at the party’s December national council meeting Mr Schetyna was not just ousted as deputy leader but failed to be re-elected to the party executive.

Secondly, in October Civic Platform stemmed the tide of by-election defeats when it scuppered an opposition attempt to oust Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who was also one of the party’s deputy leaders, in a recall referendum. The stakes here were extremely high and the referendum had a political dimension that went well beyond the capital as Warsaw was 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. However, as soon as it became clear that a recall referendum would be held, Mr Tusk and other Civic Platform dignitaries, including by the popular party-backed Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, called upon the mayor’s supporters to boycott the poll as the most effective way of keeping her in office. In the event, although 95% of those who voted wanted to remove her, the 25.7% turnout fell short of the 29.1% minimum threshold that was required for the referendum to be valid.

Thirdly, in November Mr Tusk attempted to re-launch his government with a radical (and long-awaited) cabinet shake-up – including the sacking of Jacek Rostowski, who had been finance minister since 2007 and was the main architect of the government’s economic strategy – and a policy speech at the party’s convention setting out the revamped government’s priorities for the rest of the parliament. However, the unifying theme of the so-called ‘new opening’ was not policy change but appointing ministers who it was hoped would bring fresh energy and vigour, such as the new finance minister Mateusz Szczurek, a competent but relatively unknown 38-year-old economist. A key element of the re-launch was making utilisation of EU funds a major strategic objective, exemplified by the promotion of regional development minister Elżbieta Bieńkowska to the rank of deputy prime minister and head of an expanded super-ministry that now included transport and infrastructure. Mr Tusk claimed that Poland emerging as the largest net beneficiary from this year’s negotiations on the EU’s 2014-2020 budget was one of the government’s greatest achievements and that the new team would ensure the effective utilisation of these funds to bring about a much-promised ‘civilisational leap’.

Down but not out

Moreover, Civic Platform retained some political assets and, with over two years to go until the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2015), there was still time for it to win back some of its passive and disillusioned erstwhile supporters. In spite of the fact that many Poles appeared to be tiring of a government that has been in office for more than six years, Civic Platform’s poll ratings did not go into free-fall and it still retained the support at around 25-30% of the electorate. Figures released towards the end of the year also suggested that the Polish economy was re-bounding faster than expected; although question marks remained as to whether, even with the EU funds coming on stream, the pace of recovery would be enough to revive the ‘feel-good factor’ before the next election.

It was also questionable just how much of an impact Mr Gowin’s new breakaway party will have. Although he developed an image as a serious and credible political figure, Mr Gowin was primarily an intellectual and it remained to be seen if he also had the necessary charisma and organisational skills to build a new political grouping from scratch. Moreover, the fact that in Poland the main parties obtained 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 there were strict limits on how much individuals could donate to parties, made it extremely difficult for new entrants to challenge the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly that dominated the Polish political scene for the last eight years. Early polls indicated that Mr Gowin’s new party was hovering around the 5% threshold required to secure parliamentary representation; and some suggested that it might actually end up as a bigger threat to Law and Justice than Civic Platform. Clearly, many of Mr Gowin’s potential supporters were waiting and see how the new initiative developed before declaring their hand.

Has the ruling party passed a ‘tipping point’?

Nonetheless, there were indications that negative attitudes towards Civic Platform were deep-seated and relatively fixed, and that the party had passed a ‘tipping point’ whereby a major political game-changer was required to shift these political fundamentals. Moreover, the government was so strongly identified with Mr Tusk personally, and many Poles had grown cynical of his repeated promises to deliver a ‘civilizational leap’, that even the radical cabinet shake-up and ‘new opening’ were unlikely to have a significant impact on Civic Platform’s poll ratings unless attitudes towards the prime minister also begin to change.

The two big tests for Civic Platform in 2014 will be the May European Parliament election and autumn local elections. These will be important preludes to the summer 2015 presidential and, above all, autumn 2015 parliamentary elections. Given that European and local elections are often ‘second order’ polls in which voters punish governing parties, and that Civic Platform looks set to continue to trail Law and Justice in the polls, they are likely to prove a very tough challenge for Mr Tusk’s party.

Civic Platform’s best hope remained the fact that the jury was still very much out on whether voters trusted the Law and Justice opposition enough to vote them back into office. As the Warsaw recall referendum showed, serious doubts remained as to whether Law and Justice could capitalise fully on the ruling party’s weakness and fear of Mr Kaczyński’s party was still a potentially powerful mobilising tool among a large segment of voters. Moreover, given Law and Justice’s low coalition potential, Mr Tusk began to make overtures to the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – the smaller left-wing opposition party that could emerge as the third force after the next election and whose leader, Leszek Miller, enjoyed good personal relations with the prime minister – as a possible future coalition partner. If can hold on to a sizeable share of its support, there is, therefore, still a good chance that Civic Platform could lose the next election but still remain in office.

For part 2, ‘The governing coalition remained stable despite strains’, see:

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see:

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see:

For part 5, ‘Europe became a valence issue again?’, see: