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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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: 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/

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/

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: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/polish-politics-in-2013-part-5-europe-became-a-valence-issue-again/