The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: June, 2014

Making sense of Poland’s Congress of the New Right

The European election in Poland saw the sudden emergence of a new anti-establishment challenger party led by a veteran eccentric of the political scene. In spite of its leader’s numerous controversial statements, the Congress emerged as the most effective vehicle for protest voters, mobilising the frustrated Polish intelligentsia and younger voters around a programme of radical economic liberalism and hostility to the EU. Its election success will provide the party with political momentum over the next few months but its controversial leader is too wilfully provocative, and support base almost certainly too unstable, for it to be anything more than a fleetingly successful but short-lived protest party.

A controversial political veteran

The Congress of the New Right (KPN) appeared to come from nowhere to finish fourth in Poland’s May European Parliament (EP) election with 7.2% of votes and win 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs. Formed in March 2011, the Congress is the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene who has contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989. Many prominent members of other parties – including Civic Platform (PO), the centrist grouping led by prime minister Donald Tusk that has been the main governing party since 2007 – began their political careers as members of the Real Politics Union (UPR), Mr Korwin-Mikke’s first political party in which he played a leading role until resigning in 2009. Some commentators have quipped that if everyone who had ever been a member of the Real Politics Union joined the same party it would probably be the largest in Poland, and if all those who ever voted for Mr Korwin-Mikke did so at the same election then he would easily win!

In fact, until the recent EP poll, he only had one brief stint in the Polish parliament; at the beginning of the 1990s before the 5% electoral threshold for securing representation was introduced. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke’s fortunes began to look up in the June/July 2010 presidential election when, although only securing 2.5% of the votes, he finished fourth ahead of Waldemar Pawlak, the then deputy prime minister and leader of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner since 2007.

Mr Korwin-Mikke is one of the most controversial figures in Polish politics. Right-wing conservative politicians, particularly those from the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, have often fallen foul of the West European liberal cultural and political establishment, but Mr Korwin-Mikke goes way beyond this and is in a league of his own as far as political incorrectness is concerned. During the EP campaign, for example, he appeared to: agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government; claim that there was no proof that Adolf Hitler was aware of the Holocaust; and argue that the difference between rape and consensual sex was very subtle, implying that some apparent victims actually wanted to have intercourse.

Previously, he questioned whether women should vote in elections given that they were less interested in politics and supported higher welfare spending; although his supporters argued that, as a declared monarchist, Mr Korwin-Mikke was actually in favour depriving every one of the right to vote! On another occasion, criticising the Paralympics he argued that, in order for humanity to flourish, people needed to watch ‘healthy, beautiful, strong, honest and intelligent people’ on the TV rather than invalids.

A repository for ‘Generation Y’ protest voters?

However, this string of controversial statements did not appear to harm the Congress’s electoral prospects in the EP poll. Indeed, if anything it re-inforced Mr Korwin-Mikke’s credentials as a ‘political outsider’ and helped his party to emerge as the most attractive repository for protest voters looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment. Such voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections, such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections, and Mr Korwin-Mikke was thus able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following (some commentators earlier doubted whether they would actually come out to vote). In the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland – the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections – these voters provided the Congress with the basis for a respectable EP election result.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke is 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, it secured 28.5% of 18-to-25-year-old voters, more than any other party, and these comprised half of the party’s supporters (overall three-quarters of the Congress’s voters were under 40-years-of-age). Although more data and empirical analysis is required before more definitive judgements can be made about the party’s demographic profile, some sociologists have argued that many of these voters are drawn from what social commentators sometimes refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities.

These young people often face a choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fall well short of their abilities and aspirations or remaining in a country which they feel offers them few prospects for the future. The fact that these younger voters spend much of their time on the Internet, which is their main source of political information rather than the traditional broadcast and print media, also helped to give the Congress a very strong on-line presence; Mr Korwin-Mikke’s Facebook page, for example, has nearly 400,000 ‘likes’.

More broadly, the Congress of the New Right appeared to tap into what some sociologists have termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’: fairly well-educated Poles, sometimes running small businesses, who blame the deadweight of excessive state regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism for blocking individual freedom and initiative, thus preventing them from realising their professional and career ambitions. For example, 16.6% of managers and specialists and 13.4% of private entrepreneurs voted for the Congress in the EP poll. Moreover, many of these voters also see the EU increasingly as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession to the Union.

Radical economic liberalism is the core

The Congress is an economically libertarian and socially conservative party but the core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, is its radical economic liberalism. It opposes all but the most minimal form of state intervention in, and regulation of, the economy, which, it argues, stifles opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society. Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party supports the abolition of income tax and slashing other tax rates, together with radical and far-reaching privatisation and government expenditure cuts, leaving only a residual and massively slimmed-down public sector.

The party combines this with a traditionalist conservative stance on some social and moral-cultural issues, for example: favouring a tough approach to law and order and the restoration of capital punishment, while opposing same-sex marriage. However, the Congress also supports some social libertarian policies, such as the legalisation of cannabis, and does not have the same high profile commitment to Christian values and promoting policies rooted explicitly in the Catholic Church’s moral and social teaching, which has, to a greater or lesser extent, been the hallmark of almost every other Polish centre-right party.

Rather, the party argues more generally that Polish laws should be underpinned by the norms and principles of ‘Latin civilisation’. Interestingly, 20% of those who voted for the Palikot Movement (RP) – a liberal, but also strongly anti-clerical, protest party that came from nowhere to win 10% of the vote and finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election – switched to the Congress of the New Right in the 2014 EP poll. The Congress is also a radically Eurosceptic party, with Mr Korwin-Mikke arguing that half of the current EU commissioners should be arrested, and promising to ‘blow up the EU from within’ and turn the European institutions into a brothel!

A flash-in-the-pan?

As far as the Congress’s future prospects are concerned, the party’s relatively strong EP election showing will certainly give it a higher media profile over the next few months that could carry it through to relative success in the summer 2015 presidential and autumn 2015 parliamentary elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke will use his new EP platform to continue to make controversial statements and outspoken attacks on the EU that will no doubt delight his most dedicated supporters and get thousands of ‘hits’ on Internet sites like YouTube.

However, although, at the time of writing, it is unclear which of the Eurosceptic European party groupings the Congress will choose to align itself with, Mr Korwin-Mikke will also be an extremely marginal, maverick voice in the EP. His often-wilfully outrageous statements will limit his ability to attract the support beyond the party’s core that it needs to make a real breakthrough, and he may eventually also prove too much for all but his most committed supporters. In addition to straightforward rebuttal and trying to contextualise his remarks, these are often forced to defend Mr Korwin-Mikke’s more controversial claims by (not very convincingly) distinguishing between their leader’s personal opinions and the party’s official stance.

Moreover, the Congress’s anti-establishment protest electorate is an impulsive and unstable one. Even if the party is able to retain this support for a period, it could evaporate very quickly. While it will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its EP success, there is, therefore, every chance that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party could prove yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.

An earlier version of this post was published at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/06/10/the-congress-of-the-new-right-is-the-latest-anti-establishment-party-to-have-success-in-poland-but-it-may-struggle-to-secure-long-term-support/.

Ruling party finishes narrowly ahead in Polish European election

Last month saw the centrist Polish ruling party secure an unexpected victory over the right-wing opposition in the country’s European Parliament election. The poll also saw the rise of a new radical Eurosceptic force led by a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene.

Ukraine transformed the election campaign

The victory of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk, represented an extraordinary turnaround in the party’s fortunes. Until a couple of months ago, it was running around 5-10% behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor – in opinion polls. Most commentators assumed that the Polish European Parliament (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 against an un-popular incumbent. Only the scale of the opposition’s victory appeared to be in doubt.

However, the dynamics of the EP election were transformed by the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis which was to dominate the campaign. Mr Tusk responded very swiftly to events in Poland’s Eastern neighbour, seizing upon the issue of Polish and European security to turn around Civic Platform’s electoral fortunes by successfully portraying his government as being fully in control and playing a key role in shaping the European and international response. The prime minister used Ukrainian developments to highlight his claim that, in contrast to its Law and Justice predecessor, 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. In a campaign fronted almost exclusively by Mr Tusk and based on the slogan ‘A strong Poland in a secure Europe’, all of the Civic Platform leader’s campaign visits and speeches focused relentlessly on promoting the party’s ‘security agenda’. Mr Tusk also contrasted Civic Platform’s strong pro-EU stance with Mr Kaczyński’s party’s apparent Euroscepticism, arguing that Poland’s security depended upon its position within a politically and economically integrated EU that was capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats. He 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.

Law and Justice 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 meetings with European and world leaders, while the opposition lacked the instruments to respond effectively to this.Mr Kaczyński’s party 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. Law and Justice also argued that Mr Tusk’s administration was itself partly responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, contrasting what they claimed was their accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with the government’s apparently naïve and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. However, although it succeeded in stalling Civic Platform’s momentum, Mr Kaczyński’s party never fully regained the initiative nor developed a really effective response to Civic Platform’s ‘security’ narrative.

Good results for the governing coalition

In the event, Civic Platform finished narrowly ahead securing 32.1% of the votes with Law and Justice on 31.8%; although, with only 24,000 votes separating the two main parties (out of more than seven million cast) and both winning 19 MEPs, the result was effectively a tie. Given the dire position that Mr Tusk’s party found itself in for much of the past year, even a very narrow victory was arguably a major success for an un-popular incumbent after nearly seven years in office. It was also a disappointment for Law and Justice which had hoped to end its run of six consecutive defeats at the hands of Civic Platform in local, European, parliamentary and presidential elections since 2006. Kicking off an electoral marathon that will encompass autumn local elections, a summer 2015 presidential election and culminating in the 2015 parliamentary poll, Civic Platform’s EP election victory thus provides the party with valuable political momentum.

Another piece of encouraging news for the government was the relatively strong result achieved by the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner, which won 6.8% of the votes and held on to its 4 MEP seats. The EP poll was the first major electoral test for deputy prime minister and Peasant Party leader Janusz Piechociński and a strong showing was needed to quell the widespread unease over his apparent failure to make an impact since he was elected at the end of 2012. Had Mr Piechociński’s party failed to cross the 5% threshold required to secure parliamentary representation, or even not matched the 7% share of the vote and seats that it secured in the previous 2009 EP poll, then he would have come under intense pressure and possibly even faced a leadership challenge. EP elections are traditionally difficult ones for the Peasant Party as turnout is generally lower in rural areas where the party picks up most of its support (this time turnout was only 18.7% in the countryside compared with the 22.7% national average and 33.6% in cities) and it once again struggled to make its voice heard in a pre-election debate dominated by the two main parties. However, Mr Piechociński fought a fairly good campaign (the CBOS polling agency found that his personal approval ratings increased by 6% during the last month) and the party’s relatively strong result stabilised both his own personal position and that of the governing coalition.

Battle on the left resolved?

Third place was secured by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) with 9.4% of the votes. The party and its leader, former prime minister Leszek Miller, were hoping for nearer 15% (they won 12.3% in 2009), and were disappointed to finish so far behind the main parties, losing two of its seven MEPs. However, the Alliance strengthened its position as the third force in Polish politics and appeared to have won the battle for hegemony on the Polish centre-left with Janusz Palikot’s liberal-left ‘Your Movement’ (TR) party. The Democratic Left Alliance and Mr Miller now look well placed to emerge as the kingmakers after the 2015 parliamentary election, with a two- or three-party Civic Platform-led coalition looking like a strong possibility even if Law and Justice emerges as the largest party.

Mr Palikot’s grouping – which, in its previous incarnation as the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP), emerged as the third largest party in the 2011 parliamentary election with 10% of the votes – contested the election as part of the ‘Europa Plus Your Movement’ (EPTR) electoral coalition, nominally headed up by former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Mr Kwaśniewski was very popular throughout his two presidential terms (1995-2005) and one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. However, he was unable to translate this into support for ‘Europa Plus Your Movement’ which ended up finishing a disastrous seventh securing only 3.6% of the votes. In fact, Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement in the initiative was, from the outset, half-hearted to say the least and during the campaign he was mired in controversy over his business links with Ukrainian oligarchs. Even Mr Palikot acknowledged that the former President’s ability to sway Polish voters was now very limited. Europa Plus, which looks like Mr Kwaśniewski’s last major intervention in Polish domestic politics, fell apart in the wake of its electoral drubbing and, unless he can think of a way of once-again radically re-inventing himself, the EP election also appeared to mark the beginning of the end for the controversial and flamboyant Mr Palikot as a major actor on the Polish political scene.

The rise of Mr Korwin-Mikke’s New Right

Much of the media commentary surrounding the Polish EP election focused on the strong showing of the Congress of the New Right (KPN) party which came fourth securing 7.2% of the votes and 4 MEPs. The New Right is an economic libertarian-social conservative grouping led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene. The party is also radically Eurosceptic; during the campaign Mr Korwin-Mikke argued that the EP should be turned into a brothel! Indeed, its leader is notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. During the campaign, for example, Mr Korwin-Mikke appeared to: agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government; claim that there was no proof that Adolf Hitler was aware of the Holocaust; and imply that some apparent rape victims actually wanted to have sex.

However, in spite of this (or possibly because it re-inforced its political outsider status) the New Right emerged as the most attractive repository for protest voters looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment. Such voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections where turnout is traditionally much lower: this time, at 22.7%, it was only just above the 20.9% level in the 2004 EP poll, the lowest ever recorded in a Polish national election. Indeed, although Mr Korwin-Mikke’s core of supporters was small it was also extremely dedicated, especially among younger voters. An exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency found that 28.5% of 18-25 year-olds voted for the New Right compared with 21.5% for Law and Justice and only 19.3% for Civic Platform. These younger supporters also helped to give Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party a very strong Internet presence.

While Mr Korwin-Mikke will be an extremely marginal, maverick voice in the EP, he will no doubt use his new platform to continue to make controversial statements that will delight his most dedicated supporters. The New Right’s EP election success will also give it a higher media profile and political momentum that could carry it through to next year’s national elections. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke’s often wilfully outrageous statements will limit his ability to attract the support beyond his core that he needs to make a real breakthrough. They may eventually also prove too much for all but his most committed supporters. Indeed, his anti-establishment protest electorate is an impulsive and unstable one and, even if he is able to retain its support for a period, could evaporate very quickly.

Local elections are the next major test

Although its EP election victory provides Civic Platform with an important psychological boost, the narrowness of the result is also a wake-up call for Mr Tusk’s party. Arguably, given the extraordinarily favourable (and probably un-repeatable) circumstances surrounding the Ukrainian crisis, the ruling party should have had an even more convincing win. If the Ukraine issue fades from headlines, then it will become progressively more difficult for Mr Tusk to use his considerable persuasive skills to win back the many erstwhile Civic Platform voters disillusioned with the government’s overall performance. Moreover, the ruling party will face an arguably much more formidable test in the autumn local elections, likely to be held on November 16th; the outcome of which is, in many ways, even more important to party activists than the EP poll. Civic Platform currently controls fifteen out of Poland’s sixteen regional councils and a large number of appointments to local state agencies depend upon the party’s representation in these and other local authorities. If it performs badly, then the loss of access to this source of patronage could lead to increasing unease among party activists that the EP election success has appeared to quell, for the moment at least.