Main parties neck-and-neck as the Polish European election enters the final straight

The European Parliament election campaign continued to dominate the Polish political scene last month. Domestic issues were once again overshadowed by the Ukrainian crisis, which moved questions of national security to the top of the political agenda and helped the ruling party to recover support. The two main parties enter the final phase of the campaign neck-and-neck in the polls and how events play out in Poland’s Eastern neighbour over the next few weeks could be crucial to the election outcome.

Ukrainian crisis transforms the 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, most commentators assumed that the Polish EP poll would be a typical ‘second-order’ election: a referendum on the performance of the government fought primarily over domestic policy issues which voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote. With the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk, running 5-10% behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor – in the polls, only the scale of the latter’s victory appeared to be in doubt. However, the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis altered both the dynamics of the EP campaign and patterns of support for the two main parties.

Mr Tusk responded very swiftly to this crisis seizing upon the issue of Polish and European security to transform Civic Platform’s fortunes by successfully portraying his government as being fully in control and a key player in determining the international response. The Tusk government started, to some extent at least, to ‘talk Law and Justice’ and adopt a more national-patriotic and anti-Russian rhetorical tone. However, at the same time Civic Platform argued that the Tusk administration was effective at promoting Polish interests during the crisis precisely because it had previously tried to engage constructively with Russia. This, they claimed, 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. They also argued that Ukrainian developments highlighted how the Civic Platform-led government’s approach of building alliances with Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ was bearing fruit.

Civic Platform focuses on security

Last month, campaigning on the slogan ‘A strong Poland in a secure Europe’, all of Civic Platform’s election initiatives and Mr Tusk’s campaign visits were focused on promoting the party’s ‘security agenda’. Mr Tusk also tried to link the Ukrainian issue with the future of the European integration project. Contrasting the ruling party’s strong pro-EU stance with Law and Justice’s apparent Euroscepticism, the prime minister argued that Poland’s security depended upon its position within a strong, politically and economically integrated EU that was capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats. Portraying Civic Platform as the party of European realism, Mr Tusk argued that developing alternative foreign policy alliances was a chimera; an implicit criticism of Law and Justice’s so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ which was based on the idea of Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. Mr Tusk also claimed that Eurosceptic parties like Law and Justice played into Russia’s hands by encouraging the major European powers to develop bi-lateral relations with Moscow based on their narrow, short-term national interests, that often conflicted with Poland’s, rather than adopt a common EU stance.

At the same time, Mr Tusk tried to open up another dimension to the ‘security agenda’ by launching a diplomatic offensive for a so-called EU ‘energy union’ (most European energy policy making is currently in the hands of national governments). In a letter to the ‘Financial Times’, he called upon EU countries to boost energy security and reduce their dependence on Russia as a major gas supplier by: establishing a single EU purchasing body that would negotiate energy contracts with outside suppliers such as Russia’s Gazprom; strengthening the mechanism for ‘solidarity’ if a country’s gas supply was threatened; increasing EU funding of energy infrastructure projects in those countries that are most dependent on Russian gas; allowing countries to exploit existing supplies of coal and invest more in shale gas exploration; and seeking external supplies of liquid gas from the USA. Mr Tusk followed this up with a tour of European capitals and won support for his initiative from French President Francois Hollande, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response was much more lukewarm.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, were completely wrong-footed by Civic Platform’s skilful re-defining of the EP election debate around its ‘security’ narrative. As incumbent prime minister, Mr Tusk was able to project himself as an international statesman holding urgent meeting with European and world leaders in order to mobilise the international community, while Mr Kaczyński lacked the instruments to respond effectively. All of this appeared to pay dividends in the polls which last month showed the two main parties running neck-and-neck for the first time in almost a year.

Law and Justice counter-attacks

However, after its initial wobble, Law and Justice counter-attacked by trying to link security with domestic socio-economic policy issues, arguing that only they could reform and re-build the country to ensure the prosperity and good governance that were necessary to guarantee national security. The other pillar of Law and Justice’s counter-offensive involved trying to undermine Civic Platform’s credibility as a security guarantor by claiming that Mr Tusk’s administration was itself partly responsible for the Ukrainian crisis. Law and Justice leaders contrasted what they claimed was their accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. 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, they argued, de-sensitised Polish and international opinion to the Russian threat and encouraged Mr Putin to think that he could act even more aggressively without any consequences. Mr Tusk’s new, more assertive rhetoric would, they claimed, be abandoned quickly if the government found itself himself moving too far away from the EU mainstream. At the same time, Law and Justice said that Civic Platform’s ‘security agenda’ was more about public relations than policy substance.

Law and Justice’s attempt to steer the EP election campaign back on to domestic issues was not entirely successful. Moreover, Mr Kaczyński’s party also had to negotiate the tricky issue of the 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 Katyn forest in western Russia, whose fourth anniversary fell last month. Smolensk is an effective means of Law and Justice mobilising and building strong emotional links with its core supporters but the party’s often aggressive rhetoric on the issue sometimes makes it appear obsessive and extreme, alienating more moderate centrist voters.

Nonetheless, the Law and Justice counter-offensive steadied nerves within the party and did resonate with the prevalent feeling among many voters that the Tusk government had failed to deliver on many of its earlier, ambitious promises. Civic Platform could well have reached the limits of its ‘Ukrainian strategy’; indeed, in some ways Mr Tusk’s party may have been disappointed not to have opened up a more decisive opinion poll lead. There was also evidence that, following a substantial increase in March to their highest levels since the start of 2013, Mr Tusk and the government’s approval ratings had returned to their earlier, pre-Ukrainian crisis levels.

Turnout could be the key

Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that Civic Platform does not appear to have a ‘post-Ukrainian crisis’ strategy, it is questionable how much longer the security issue will benefit the ruling party. This obviously depends both on how events in Ukraine play out during the next few weeks and whether or not voters believe that Mr Tusk’s party can actually deliver on its ‘security agenda’. In fact, at the time of writing, the Ukrainian crisis has not shown any signs of abating with every indication that the situation in Poland’s Eastern neighbour could be tense and unpredictable right up until polling day. If international security remains the dominant campaign issue, then a disciplined and focused Civic Platform campaign could help the ruling party pull-off an unexpected EP election victory.

A lot could depend on turnout. Poland has one of the lowest electoral participation rates in Europe and turnout in the previous 2009 EP poll out was only 24.5%, the second lowest in the EU. Polls suggest that it will once again be extremely low which is generally thought to favour Law and Justice whose core voters are regarded as more highly motivated and easier to mobilise than Civic Platform’s. However, there is also evidence that the kind of voters who tend to vote in EP elections – well-educated, better off and living in larger towns and cities – are more likely to support the ruling party than Mr Kaczyński’s grouping.

A colourful side-show

Apart from the contest between the two main parties, one of the other questions in the election is whether any of the pack of smaller right-wing challenger parties will cross the 5% threshold required for securing EP representation? A number of polls conducted last month appeared to suggest that that the economic libertarian-social conservative and radically Eurosceptic Congress of the New Right (KNP) led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene, could be set to do just that. Mr Korwin-Mikke is notorious for having articulated some of the most radical views in Polish politics including appearing to agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the Kiev demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government.

However, in many ways Mr Korwin-Mikke is the ideal repository for the protest votes that often play a disproportionately large role in ‘second order’ elections. Given that the other right-wing challenger parties are largely Civic Platform and Law and Justice breakaways, the Congress of the New Right appears to have emerged as the most attractive alternative for those protest voters looking for a ‘real alternative’ to the political establishment. Moreover, in spite of his many controversial statements, Mr Korwin-Mikke remains popular among a small but extremely dedicated core of supporters, especially among some younger voters who have helped to give the Congress a strong Internet presence.

Nonetheless, Mr Kowin-Mikke’s electorate is an impulsive and unstable one and his success is unlikely to have any major long-term political consequences. Even if he is able to retain his support until polling day and cross the 5% threshold – no doubt attracting considerable domestic (and possibly even international) media commentary along the way – this could evaporate quickly leaving Mr Korwin-Mikke as a lone and extremely marginal maverick voice in the EP. He remains a colourful side-show in an EP campaign where the most important questions remain: which of the two main parties will emerge as the winner on May 25th and what will be its margin of victory?