Has the Ukrainian crisis ‘reset’ the Polish European election campaign?

Events in Ukraine continued to dominate the Polish political scene last month. They cast a shadow over the European Parliament election campaign: re-shaping the terms of political debate and levels of support for the main parties, and making the outcome of the May poll much more uncertain than before the crisis began.

Ukraine changes the EP election dynamics

The European Parliament (EP) election, which will take place in Poland on May 25th, 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. The election will be more important in Poland than most countries because it will kick off an electoral marathon that includes autumn local government elections, the summer 2015 presidential election, and culminate in the autumn 2015 parliamentary poll.

Before the recent events in Ukraine developed into the most serious international crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, appeared to be heading for victory over the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk. With a 5-10% lead in the opinion polls, Law and Justice – led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister – hoped to turn the election into a referendum on the performance an unpopular government and prime minister. Most commentators assumed that the EP poll would be a typical ‘second order’ election which voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote against the governing party.

Although the EP election is part of a Europe-wide electoral process to an EU institution, it was expected that, like all previous Polish elections, it would be dominated by domestic rather than European issues. However, the Ukrainian crisis has made it impossible to conduct a ‘normal’ campaign and given the EP election an unexpected international dimension, diverting public attention away from the domestic issues that would otherwise have dominated it. A March survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that 82% of respondents felt that events in Ukraine were very significant for Poland (compared with 59% in February) and 72% that they threatened Polish security (only 30% in February). Last month, these domestic issues would no doubt have included: a major government initiative to tackle health service waiting lists; the resignation of the agriculture minister; the two main parties presenting their EP election candidate lists; and a sit-in inside the Polish parliament by carers of disabled children demanding increases in their welfare benefits.

Moreover, events in Ukraine appear, in the short-term at least, to have re-configured the terms of political debate and patterns of support for the parties in the run-up to the EP poll. Law and Justice’s opinion poll lead has narrowed to less than 5% and a couple of surveys have even put Mr Tusk’s party ahead; although some commentators argue that Civic Platform’s recovery actually pre-dates the Ukrainian crisis. At the same time, according to CBOS both the government and prime minister’s approval ratings have increased to their highest levels since the start of 2013. 41% of respondents said that they trusted Mr Tusk, making him Poland’s fourth most popular politician, an increase of 6% since February and 10% more than those who trusted Mr Kaczyński.

Civic Platform plays the ‘security card’

To some extent, this was inevitable given that citizens naturally rally around existing leaders at times of international crisis. The initial mood of inter-party unity over Ukraine, together with the wall-to-wall media coverage of foreign affairs, also stymied attempts by Law and Justice and other opposition parties to criticise the government’s domestic record. At the same time, Mr Tusk quickly recognised that the threat of armed conflict on Poland’s border would change voters’ priorities radically and re-calibrated the Civic Platform EP campaign accordingly.

Firstly, the party prioritised Polish and European military and non-military security portraying the Tusk government as being fully in control of the crisis and ready to respond to any future scenario, reflected in its EP campaign slogan: ‘A strong Poland, secure Poles’. In his dramatic keynote address to Civic Platform’s EP campaign launch, Mr Tusk argued that the key issue in the forthcoming election would be whether Europe would survive and an integrated EU and NATO act in solidarity as effective security guarantors? Alluding to the date of Poland’s invasion by Germany in 1939, and dismissing critics who questioned whether Polish schools would be ready to accommodate 6-year-olds this autumn, Mr Tusk claimed that the election would determine whether Polish children would be going to school at all in September! In a political masterstroke, Mr Tusk also invited former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, one of the most high-profile Ukrainian opposition leaders, to address the campaign launch and sign a co-operation agreement between Civic Platform and his Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR – the Ukrainian word for ‘punch’) party.

Secondly, the Tusk government started, to some extent at least, ‘talking Law and Justice’: adopting a more national-patriotic and anti-Russian rhetorical tone. For example, in a live televised address to the nation, the prime minister was flanked by Polish flags with no EU emblems, normally obligatory on such occasions, in sight. Similarly, drawing analogies with Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski described Russia’s incorporation of Crimea as an ‘Anschluss’. This represented something of a volte face for Civic Platform, a major element of whose appeal in recent years had been that it provided a pragmatic and realistic alternative to Law and Justice’s apparently confrontational radicalism, in both domestic and foreign policy.

Thirdly, at the same time Mr Tusk claimed that Ukrainian developments highlighted the Civic Platform-led government’s effectiveness in promoting Polish interests at the international level. Contrasting his party’s enthusiasm for the European project with Law and Justice’s apparent Euroscepticism, Mr Tusk argued that Poland’s security depended upon its position within a strong, politically and economically integrated EU.He tried to position the Polish government as a key player in determining the European and international response to the Ukrainian crisis, mobilising the EU and its allies to react to the Russian threat in a decisive manner. Mr Tusk argued that his government’s approach, based on building alliances with Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’, was bearing fruit. In particular, he claimed that his government was effective precisely because it had previously steered clear of anti-Russian rhetoric. This made its criticisms of Moscow’s actions more credible than a Law and Justice administration would have been, given that Mr Kaczyński’s poor relations with Russia had simply re-inforced the prevalent image of Poles as knee-jerk Russophobes. In other words, he argued that supporting Civic Platform in the EP election would consolidate and strengthen Poland’s hard-won leadership position within the EU.

Law and Justice’s Eastern policy vindicated?

The Law and Justice party’s initial response to the Ukrainian crisis was, as noted above, to present a united front with the government. As well as acting in what he believed to be the national interest, such a stance also allowed Mr Kaczyński to counter his confrontational and divisive image and present himself as a moderate politician able to put aside personal and political animosities at a time of crisis. However, Civic Platform’s apparently successful and potentially game-changing ‘Ukrainian strategy’ forced Law and Justice to respond more vigorously, arguing that a strong and secure Poland required a change of government.

Mr Kaczyński’s party contrasted what it claimed was its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve and short-sighted approach. Law and Justice leaders pointed out that it had consistently warned of how dangerous Russian President Vladimir Putin was and argued that, rather than simply relying on developing close relations with the major EU powers, Poland had to play the role of regional leader building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. This was embodied in the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother who was the Law and Justice-backed Polish President from 2005 until 2010 when he died in an air crash at Smolensk in Western Russia in what the party claims were mysterious circumstances. Although often dismissed by Civic Platform and its supporters as Russophobic and paranoid, Law and Justice argued that the late President was a rare example of a far-sighted Polish politician who had, for instance, warned after Russia annexed part of Georgia in 2008: ‘Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic States and then maybe my country (Poland).’

At the same time, Law and Justice claimed that the Ukrainian crisis represented a defeat for Civic Platform’s apparently over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. The party said that by downplaying the threat of Russian expansionism and downgrading the development of stronger ties with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, the Tusk administration had de-sensitised Polish and international public opinion to the Russian threat and encouraged Mr Putin to think that he could act even more aggressively without any consequences. Law and Justice argued that Mr Tusk’s newly assertive approach towards Moscow was not credible and would be abandoned quickly if the government found itself himself moving too far away from the EU mainstream. However, even if there was, as Law and Justice claimed, a dissonance between the Tusk government’s current rhetoric towards Russia and its earlier approach, the public has a short memory on such matters and is more interested in how its leaders act now than what they said in the past.

A long-term game-changer?

How long is the Ukrainian crisis likely to continue to work in Civic Platform’s favour? This is difficult to foresee and obviously depends on whether public and media attention remain focused on the issue over the next few weeks and months. Even if there is no open armed conflict, as long as Poles continue feel uneasy about developments on their Eastern border and the level of international tension remains high, then security issues are likely to be at the centre of the campaign. Beyond that, however, it is questionable if the Ukrainian issue can act as a long-term political game-changer. For sure, a better-than-expected EP election result could provide Civic Platform with political momentum in the run up to the other elections scheduled to take place over the next eighteen months. On the other hand, if the international situation stabilises then the issue may start to fade and ‘normal politics’ return to the fore. There is also a danger that Civic Platform could be perceived to be instrumentalising the crisis for electoral purposes

Moreover, focusing its campaign on geo-political security also means that Civic Platform will ultimately be judged by the results of its European and international efforts. There is clearly a risk that if the EU and international community’s actions against Russia are felt to be ineffective then this will undermine the Tusk’s government’s claim to be a ‘European player’ and appear to confirm Law and Justice’s argument that Poland needs to develop its own alliances and not rely solely on the main EU powers to guarantee the country’s security. Interestingly, a poll by the IBRiS Homo Homini agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper conducted towards the end of the month found that although 58% of respondents still approved of the government’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis this was down from 71% in February while number who disapproved had increased from 22% to 34%.

The Ukrainian crisis has shaken up the Polish political scene and made the outcome of the EP election much less predictable than it was a couple of months ago. For how long, and to what extent, this will continue – and whether Ukraine can be a long-term political game-changer – is not clear and depends as much upon international developments as it does on the actions of Polish politicians.