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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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

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/

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: 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/