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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/polish-politics-in-2013-part-2-the-governing-coalition-remained-stable-despite-strains/

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/polish-politics-in-2013-part-3-progress-but-lingering-doubts-for-the-law-and-justice-opposition/

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/polish-politics-in-2013-part-4-the-democratic-left-alliance-emerged-as-the-new-third-force/

For part 5, ‘Europe became a valence issue again?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/polish-politics-in-2013-part-5-europe-became-a-valence-issue-again/