Parties gear up for the European election

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Although it is nearly four months away, the European Parliament election has already started to dominate the Polish political scene. Last month’s row over Polish migrants claiming welfare benefits in the UK gave an indication of how the inter-party debate on European issues is likely to play out in the run-up to this election.

 A test of party strength

The biggest political event in Poland during the first half of 2014 is likely to be the May European Parliament (EP) election. This will be keenly watched and analysed by politicians and pundits alike as the first test of national party strength since the October 2011 parliamentary poll. It will kick off an electoral marathon that includes autumn local elections, the summer 2015 presidential election, and culminate in the autumn 2015 parliamentary poll. Although there are nearly four months of campaigning left, Polish parties have already started gearing up for the May election, honing their electoral strategies and finalising their candidate lists.

The most important thing to look out for will obviously be the contest between the two main parties that have dominated the Polish political scene since 2005: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), led by prime minister Donald Tusk, which has been the main governing party since 2007; and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister. Support for the ruling party and prime minister has slumped and since last May Law and Justice has been running around 5-10% ahead in the opinion polls. Given that EP polls are often so-called ‘second order’ elections, which voters use as a cost-free opportunity to cast a protest vote against incumbents, Law and Justice is hoping to end a run of six consecutive defeats in local, parliamentary, European and presidential elections since 2006.

However, Mr Kaczyński’s party will need to not just emerge ahead but win convincingly, by at least 5% and probably nearer 10%, if it is to maintain its political momentum and demonstrate that it is a serious contender for power. Working in Law and Justice’s favour is the fact that turnout in Polish EP elections has traditionally been extremely low (around 20-25%), and many observers feel that the party’s core voters are more highly motivated and easier to mobilise than Civic Platform’s. Civic Platform, on the other hand, will be looking to minimise the scale of its defeat and hold on to as much of its electoral base as it can.

The battle on the left

At one point, the other key question would have been: which of the two smaller left-wing opposition parties, the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) or the liberal-left Your Movement (TR, formerly the Palikot Movement [RP]), would emerge as the leading force on the Polish left? However, over the last year this issue appears to have been resolved with the Democratic Left Alliance now clearly the main left-wing standard bearer and undisputed third force in Polish politics. The party will be looking to confirm this position in the EP election and is now aiming even higher, trying to offer a serious challenge to the two main parties and overtake a weakening Civic Platform.

On the other hand, Your Movement – which will contest the European election as part of ‘Europa Plus’, a centre-left grouping headed up by former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski – has found itself struggling to cross the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. The party originally hoped that Europa Plus would benefit from Mr Kwaśniewski’s sponsorship, given that he was a very popular President throughout his two terms (1995-2005) and remains one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. However, following the grouping’s high profile launch last February, Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement has been half-hearted to say the least and a number of commentators have argued that his ability to sway today’s Polish voters is actually very limited. Tensions also emerged between Janusz Palikot, Your Movement’s controversial and flamboyant leader, and the leaders of some of the other small left-wing and centrist parties involved in Europa Plus. The latter felt that Mr Palikot was trying to dominate the electoral coalition and use it to promote his own grouping. This was exemplified by a row over whether the initiative should be re-named ‘Your Movement Europa Plus’ (TREP); as a compromise, it was agreed to call it ‘Europa Plus Your Movement’ (EPTR) instead!

High stakes for the Peasant Party and right-wing challengers

For Janusz Piechociński – deputy prime minister and leader of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner – the stakes in the EP elections are extremely high. There has been widespread unease over Mr Piechociński’s apparent failure to make an impact since he was elected leader at the end of 2012, as his party has hovered dangerously close to the 5% electoral threshold. The party council, the most important statutory body between congresses, has, in the past, used its powers to remove incumbent leaders and could do so again, so Mr Piechociński will need a strong showing to quell internal unrest. If the party fails to win 5% of the vote, or even match the 7% and 4 MEPs that it secured in the previous 2009 EP election (it actually won 3 seats but acquired an extra one when Polish EP representation was expanded as a result of the Lisbon treaty), then Mr Piechociński will come under intense pressure and may even resign. In fact, the Peasant Party leader has set himself an ambitious target of securing more than 10% of the vote and increasing the party’s EP representation to six. This will be very difficult to achieve as experience suggests that EP election turnout is generally lower in rural areas, where the Peasant Party picks up most of its support.

The EP poll will be a crucial electoral test for the new liberal-conservative Poland Together (PR) grouping, formed last December by former Civic Platform justice minister and unsuccessful party leadership challenger Jarosław Gowin but also comprising Law and Justice defectors from earlier breakaway parties. The election will also be make-or-break for the right-wing Solidarisitc Poland (SP), a Law and Justice breakaway formed after the 2011 parliamentary election by former party deputy leader Zbigniew Ziobro. Previous centre-right challengers to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly have all ended in failure and opinion polls show these two parties bumping along at only 3-5% support; although, of the two, Poland Together looks somewhat better prepared than previous initiatives. The EP election will also be the first electoral outing for the National Movement (RN), which comprises a number of radical nationalist parties and youth-oriented groupings, but which only appears to be attracting only around 1-2% in the polls.

Polish migrant rights emerges a valence issue

Although the EP poll will be part of a Europe-wide electoral process to an EU institution, like all previous Polish elections this one is likely to be dominated by domestic rather than European issues. The only exception here will be when the latter are framed as so-called ‘valence issues’: where parties compete over which one of them is most competent to pursue a shared objective – in this case, effectively representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU. Last month, there was an indication of how this process could play out in the 2014 EP poll following comments in a TV interview by British Conservative prime minister David Cameron that he would work to change EU regulations to allow Britain to withhold welfare benefits paid to EU migrants who worked in the UK but whose families remained in their home countries. In doing so, Mr Cameron specifically mentioned Poles, now one of the largest migrant communities in the UK, whose children lived in Poland but still received child benefit, as an example of the potential for the system to be abused. Although the then British (Labour) government estimated that there would be very little migration from post-communist states like Poland that joined the EU in 2004, according to the ‘Polityka Insight’ think tank about 700,000 Poles are thought to have permanently settled in the UK, with hundreds of thousands more working there temporarily, compared to the 69,000 who lived in Britain before Poland’s EU accession. Two thirds of the 24,000 migrant families in the UK claiming benefits for some 40,000 children are Polish.

The political significance of this issue stems from the fact that access to Western labour markets is seen by many Poles as one of the greatest benefits of EU accession and one of the keys to continuing very high levels of Polish support for EU membership. During the last ten years, more than two million Poles have left to find work in Western Europe, the largest labour migration from any of the new member states, affecting almost every Polish family. Not surprisingly, therefore, Polish politicians reacted strongly to Mr Cameron’s statement, with the parties trying to out-bid each other on who could defend the rights of Poles living abroad most effectively. Both Mr Tusk and Mr Kaczyński raised the issue directly with the British prime minister saying that it was not acceptable for him to single out any national group in this way. Mr Tusk also vowed to veto any British proposals to changes EU rules aimed at reducing access to welfare benefits for migrants. However, they were both out-done by Peasant Party parliamentary caucus leader Jan Bury who called upon Poles to boycott the British supermarket chain Tesco.

EP party group membership a source of contention

The EU migration issue also became tied up with the question of European trans-national party group membership. This issue also came up during the last EP elections when Civic Platform argued that its membership of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest EP party grouping, strengthened Poland’s position within the EU. Law and Justice, on the other hand, claimed that it could achieve more in advancing Polish interests by being a major component in the smaller, but still influential, European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping. However, Mr Cameron’s comments made it very awkward for Mr Kaczyński’s party as both Civic Platform and the Peasant Party (also a European Peoples’ Party member) drew attention to the fact that Law and Justice were members of the same EP grouping as the British Conservatives. Indeed, Mr Tusk argued that Law and Justice’s trans-national party affiliation meant that it was ‘objectively’ acting against the Polish national interest. Mr Piechociński also called upon Law and Justice (which is the Peasant Party’s main rival for the rural vote) to leave the European Conservatives grouping.

Mr Kaczyński responded by arguing that the European Conservatives and Reformists had supported Polish demands on issues such as Common Agricultural Policy reform and accused the Peasant Party of failing to defend the interests of Poland’s rural communities effectively within the EU. He argued that the European People’s Party was dominated by the German Christian Democratic Union and that Polish interests on issues such as energy security were frequently at odds with the EU policies promoted by Berlin. Mr Kaczyński also pointed out that he had protested strongly to Mr Cameron before any other Polish party leader and warned him that failure to revise his views would make it exceptionally difficult for their two parties to continue to work together in the same EP grouping.

The EP election thus looks set to dominate the political scene for the next few months. Polish parties will continue to compete over which of them will best represents Poland’s interests within the European institutions, with EP party grouping membership likely to remain an ongoing source of controversy.