Ruling party finishes narrowly ahead in Polish European election

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.