Can the Tusk government recover from the ‘tape affair’?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Last month the Polish political scene was dominated by a scandal involving highly embarrassing secret recordings of prominent public figures, the most serious to hit the current government since it came to power in 2007. The so-called ‘tape affair’ set off a political crisis that severely rattled the ruling party. Although it appears to have weathered the immediate storm, the revelations may end up seriously undermining what remaining trust many voters have in the government.

Secret tapes set off a political firestorm

Many commentators expected June to be a somewhat quieter month politically after the intensity of the May European Parliament (EP) election campaign. However, the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ set off a political firestorm when, on the weekend of June 14th-15th, it published the transcripts of secret tape recordings of private meetings involving current and former ministers, senior public officials and businessmen over the last eighteen months.

The most incendiary of these was a conversation last July between interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and the head of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) Marek Belka. Mr Sienkiewicz warned that the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party, could lose the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015, and that investors would flee Poland if the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, were to take power. In spite of the fact that the National Bank is required by the Polish constitution to be independent of the government, Mr Sienkiewicz called for Mr Belka’s help in stimulating the economy and financing the budget deficit. Mr Belka, who used swear words to describe the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee, replied that his condition for helping the government was the replacement of the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski. Mr Rostowski went on to lose his job in a government re-shuffle last November.

‘Wprost’ published further transcripts a week later. The most controversial of these, and one which attracted considerable international media attention, featured foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, seen by many as a contender for the job of EU foreign policy chief which will become vacant shortly. Mr Sikorski saidthat Poland’s foreign policy alliance with the USA was worthless, fostering a false sense of security and breeding conflict with Germany and Russia. He argued that Poles had very low self-esteem, a phenomenon that he described using the Polish word ‘murzyńskość’: which is derived from the word ‘murzyn’, a dark skinned person who works for someone else, and can be translated as ‘(thinking) like negroes’.

However, before the second set of revelations were published, the political crisis deepened as police and internal security agency (ABW) investigators searched the ‘Wprost’ editorial offices several times in order to remove evidence that they said would help identify the source of the illegally recorded conversations. The situation escalated ending in a violent struggle during which officers tried unsuccessfully to take away ‘Wprost’ editor Slywester Latkowski’s laptop but were forced to retreat amid protests from journalists from other newspapers. The raid caused uproar even among some of the Civic Platform-supporting media who said that freedom of speech was at stake, and, in an attempt to control the political damage, ministers tried to disassociate the government from the police actions.

Mr Tusk fights back

Prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk was initially wrong-footed by the revelations and particularly rattled by the dreadful publicity surrounding the ‘Wprost’ raid. However, as the crisis unfolded he quickly recovered his composure, particularly after the second wave of recordings had a lesser impact than many government supporters had feared. Firstly, Mr Tusk tried to ride out the storm without sacking any of the ministers concerned. Instead, he argued that Mr Sienkiewicz needed to remain in office in order to clear up the scandal, although the prime minister did not rule out his subsequent dismissal once the investigation was complete. Mr Tusk also tried to play down the significance of the recordings, saying that although he criticised some of the expletive-laden language in the tapes this was often part of the way that politics was conducted behind-the-scenes and he would not sack ministers for speaking crudely in private. Referring to Mr Belka and Mr Sienkiewciz’s conversation, the prime minister pointed out that it featured no violations of the law (which, critics argued, was not the same as acting within the spirit of the Polish constitution), and said that their remarks were taken out of context and motivated by a wish to secure the economic interests of the Polish state.

More broadly, the prime minister tried to regain the political initiative by focusing public attention away from the content of the tapes and instead to make the act of illegal bugging itself the issue. Mr Tusk argued that the recordings were part of an organised attempt to weaken and bring down the government by illegal means and that sacking officials would be allowing criminals to dictate who governs Poland. At the same time, an important factor in the prime minister’s calculations was also the fact that both Mr Sienkiewicz and Mr Sikorski were key figures in the Civic Platform-led administration – the interior minister, in particular, is one of Mr Tusk’s closest strategic advisers – and their dismissal would have struck a severe blow at the very heart of the government. Sacking them would also have set a dangerous precedent given that the Civic Platform leader did not know what further revelations might emerge and thus how far the process of government re-construction would have to go. In the event, Mr Tusk surprised his political opponents by calling a parliamentary vote of confidence which the government won comfortably by 237 votes to 203.

An early election looks unlikely

The government’s position was strengthened by the fact that the opposition was slow off the mark and deeply divided on how to respond to the crisis. Immediately after Mr Tusk secured parliamentary backing, Law and Justice filed a motion for a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in the Civic Platform-led administration proposing the appointment of an interim ‘government of experts’. Law and Justice argued that, although an early parliamentary election was necessary, it had to be overseen by a non-partisan government which would ensure that the poll was conducted in an honest fashion. However, the two smaller opposition parties – the liberal-left Your Movement (TR) grouping and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – made it clear that they would not support the Law and Justice nominee for interim prime minister, Piotr Gliński. Mr Gliński is a respected non-party sociology professor but Law and Justice had already nominated him unsuccessfully once before to head up a technocratic administration in March 2013.

However, the key to the government’s short-term survival is really the attitude of its junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) led by deputy prime minister Janusz Piechociński. Up until now the Peasant Party has been an unusually loyal governing partner and the current coalition is much more cohesive and stable than most of its predecessors. For the moment at least, Mr Piechociński appears to have broadly accepted Mr Tusk’s argument that the incumbent government should not be forced out by illegal means and that the priority is to identify the source of the wiretappings. However, he has not ruled a major government shake-up, and even an early election, if the scandal is not cleared up by the end of the summer vacation, or if further incriminating evidence emerges.

In fact, even if the crisis continues to damage the Tusk administration, the Peasant Party will be very reluctant to leave the coalition and thereby face the prospect of fighting an election without having the government’s administrative machinery at its disposal. Some commentators also argued that Mr Piechociński’s party was keen to avoid an early parliamentary election that might clash with the November local government polls. The Peasant Party always performs well in these local elections, given its strong grassroots organisational base, but is concerned that if voters focus on national rather than local issues then this could drag down the party’s support. Given that there is a substantial number of appointments linked to control of local authorities, these elections are extremely important for a primarily office-seeking grouping like the Peasant Party.

For sure, the political situation could always develop in an unpredictable way. However, an early election remains extremely unlikely given that a two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to dissolve the legislature, which is impossible without support from both Civic Platform and Law and Justice. In fact, there is probably little appetite in either of these two parties for an early poll. Civic Platform strategists believe that its needs as much time as possible to re-build public support. Paradoxically, although Law and Justice’s official position is to support an early election, party leaders may also feel that it is in their interests for Mr Tusk to remain in office for some time yet, hoping that further damaging revelations will make it easier for the opposition to win a more comprehensive victory.

The government’s reputation may not recover

It is clearly too early to tell how the ‘tape crisis’ will pan out and whether the ruling party will be able to recover from it. Ultimately, this is likely to depend on two factors. Firstly, how damaging any further revelations prove to be. Mr Tusk has shown a knack of getting his party out of trouble on numerous occasions and if nothing more substantial emerges then Civic Platform could regain control of the situation. However, unlike previous government crises, the ‘tape affair’ has a dangerously open-ended character: we do not know what further recordings may contain and which of them will be published. If more transcripts emerge discrediting other members of the government then this could prolong and escalate the crisis.

Secondly, a lot depends on how the public reacts. Politicians will be watching the opinion polls even more anxiously than usual over the next few weeks. If Civic Platform’s ratings appear to be entering a downward spiral – a fall below 20% support is often cited as the tipping point – then internal dissent and centrifugal forces are likely to emerge within the government and ruling party. Early indications suggest that the party’s poll dip is not catastrophic with Law and Justice pulling ahead by around 7-8%, broadly the lead that it enjoyed before the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in February which helped Civic Platform to recover and narrowly win the EP election.

At first sight, the ‘tape affair’ does not, therefore, appear to be as damaging to the ruling party as it initially appeared. Mr Tusk reacted to the crisis as well as he could in extremely difficult circumstances, faced down his opponents, and demonstrated that, for now, the coalition’s parliamentary support base is solid. Thanks to his political skills and relatively strong residual support in sections of the mainstream media, the prime minister appears to have weathered the initial storm and, unless new tapes bring more damaging revelations, the government does not face an immediate threat to its survival.

However, it is difficult to see the ruling party emerging from this crisis completely unscathed and fully recovering its severely damaged reputation. Although Mr Tusk tried to dismiss the unsavoury language used by ministers and public officials as a side-issue, and even though most Poles hold their political class in fairly low esteem anyway, the dissonance between their public image and how they conduct themselves and what policies they argue in private may still be shocking to many citizens. Although this may be a gradual process of unravelling that will take some time to become fully apparent, the long-term effect of the ‘tape crisis’ could still be to seriously undermine what remaining trust many voters have in the Tusk government.