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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/04/polish-politics-in-2013-part-1-a-year-of-crises-for-the-ruling-party/

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: 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/