Has the Polish government put the ‘tape affair’ behind it?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Although speculation over whether the Polish prime minister might become the next President of the European Council attracted a great deal of media attention, it was fall-out from the so-called ‘tape affair’ that dominated the political scene in July. While opposition parties attempted to keep public attention focused on the scandal, with political news stories moving increasingly onto the back-burner the government tried to put the issue behind it. However, although the ruling party’s position may have stabilised, the true extent of the damage that the scandal has inflicted upon it may only become apparent in the longer term.

The government appeared to contain the political fall-out

The ‘tape affair’ was the most serious political scandal to hit the current government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, since it came to power in 2007. It began in mid-June when the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ published the transcripts of secret tape recordings of private meetings involving prominent public figures over the previous 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 Civic Platform 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, calling for Mr Belka’s help in stimulating the economy and financing the budget deficit. Further revelations included a recording of foreign minister Radosław Sikorski – seen, until recently, as a contender for the job of EU foreign policy chief – saying that Poland’s alliance with the USA was worthless and fostered a false sense of security, breeding conflict with Germany and Russia.

However, prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk regained the political initiative by focusing public attention away from the content of the tapes and making 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.

Last month, Law and Justice tried to keep public attention focused on the ‘tape affair’ by proposing a so-called ‘constructive motion of no-confidence’ in the government and attempting to oust Mr Sienkiewicz. However, only 155 deputies from Law and Justice and the smaller right-wing opposition parties voted to replace Mr Tusk’s administration with an interim ‘government of experts’ headed up by its nominee Piotr Gliński, while 236 voted against (60 abstained). Although Mr Gliński is a respected non-party sociology professor, the two smaller left-wing opposition parties – the liberal-left Your Movement (TR) and communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – made it clear that they would not support him, given that he had already been nominated unsuccessfully by Law and Justice once before to head up a technocratic administration in March 2013. The vote to dismiss Mr Sienkiewicz was closer but also defeated with 213 voting in favour and 235 against.

Divisions emerge within the Peasant Party

The key to the government’s ability to contain the short-term political damage from the ‘tape affair’ was the fact that the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner, stood firmly behind the main governing party. Peasant Party leader and deputy prime minister Janusz Piechociński, appeared to accept Mr Tusk’s argument that the incumbent administration should not be forced out by illegal means and that the priority was to identify the source of the wiretappings. Up until now, the current governing coalition has been much more cohesive and stable than most of its predecessors. Although Mr Piechociński’s party was very uneasy about the prospect of being damaged by association with the ‘tape affair’, and particularly uncomfortable about having to defend Mr Sienkiewicz, it was also extremely reluctant to leave the coalition and face the prospect of fighting an election without having the government’s administrative machinery at its disposal.

However, although the coalition remained solid, the ‘tape affair’ also became entwined in internal Peasant Party politics. In a dramatic parliamentary, intervention former leader Waldemar Pawlak, who is still bitter at being ousted by Mr Piechociński in November 2012, tried to use the scandal to strengthen his position within the party by calling for the vote of no-confidence in Mr Sienkiewicz to be delayed. Mr Pawlak argued that the vote should not have taken place while the central anti-corruption agency (CBA) was investigating a case involving Peasant Party politicians and demanded an explanation as to why it had raided the offices and home of the party’s parliamentary caucus leader Jan Bury. When Mr Tusk made it clear that if Mr Sienkiewicz was dismissed then he would force the Peasant Party out of the coalition and call an early election, the party’s parliamentary caucus rejected this proposal and voted solidly against Mr Sienkiewicz’s dismissal (only Mr Pawlak abstained). Nonetheless, Mr Pawlak’s intervention undermined Mr Piechociński’s credibility by suggesting that, in apparent contrast to the period when he was leader, the party was being marginalised within the ruling coalition and his successor was unable to stand up for its members’ interests.

Fearing that Mr Pawlak enjoyed widespread backing from the party grassroots, Mr Piechociński reneged on an earlier promise to call a vote of confidence in his leadership at the party council meeting at the end of the month; intended originally to evaluate the party’s performance in the May European Parliament (EP) election, when it broadly held on to its share of the vote. The Peasant Party leader defended his volte face on the grounds that Polish democracy was ‘not mature enough’ to cope with these kinds of internal party debates. In fact, many activists felt that Mr Pawlak’s actions threatened party unity during a difficult period for the coalition and, had the vote gone ahead, Mr Piechociński would probably have won comfortably. Nonetheless, Mr Pawlak made it clear that he did not intend to let the matter rest and would continue to try and re-build his influence within the party, which could further damage the coalition and even place a question mark over its survival.

The political consequences could be long-term

As far as the longer-term political consequences of the ‘tape affair’ are concerned, a lot will depend on how the public reacts. Opinion polls published at the start of July showed that Law and Justice had pulled ahead of Civic Platform but only by around the 6-7% lead that it enjoyed before the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in February which helped Mr Tusk’s party to recover and narrowly win the EP election. However, later surveys suggested that Law and Justice’s lead had increased to as much as 12-15%. According to the CBOS polling agency, there was also a slump in the government and prime minister’s approval ratings, although with a score of 37% Mr Tusk still remained more popular than Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice leader and his predecessor as prime minister, on 30%. The biggest drop in support was recorded by Mr Sikorski, previously one of Poland’s most popular politicians, who saw his approval rating fall by a spectacular 15% last month.

For sure, Civic Platform’s poll ratings remained above the psychologically important 20% threshold, below which centrifugal forces could start to emerge within the ruling party. Moreover, experience of previous scandals during Civic Platform’s seven years in office have taught Mr Tusk that public emotions can burn themselves out quickly and the ruling party make up ground fairly rapidly. With over a year to go until the parliamentary election, Mr Tusk’s party still has time to re-build its support providing that no further compromising tapes emerge. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see Civic Platform emerging completely unscathed from this crisis and fully recovering its severely damaged reputation.

We should get a somewhat clearer idea of the political impact of the ‘tape affair’ after the three Senate by-elections scheduled for September 7th. Law and Justice is defending all three seats although one of them, the Rybnik constituency in Silesia, was an April 2013 by-election gain from Civic Platform which heralded a series of local election victories for Mr Kaczyński’s party last year. Even more important will be the November local elections, especially the contests for Poland’s sixteen regional authorities which are fought on national party lines. Given that local authorities are a key source of Polish party patronage, a heavy defeat for Civic Platform in these elections could change the political situation dramatically.

Unity on the left and right?

Finally, one side-effect of the ‘tape affair’ was to encourage parliamentary co-operation and electoral alliances on both the political left and right. At the start of July, Your Movement and the Democratic Left Alliance announced a co-operation pact dubbed the ‘Agreement of the 61’ (after the number of deputies in the two parliamentary caucuses). The two parties had been bitter rivals for the leadership of the Polish left since the 2011 parliamentary election, with the Democratic Left Alliance apparently coming out on top (although failing to make any broader impact on the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly) after some extremely harsh words were exchanged between their leaders. While the level of mutual mistrust remains high, and co-operation between the two parties is limited to the ‘tape affair’, there are hopes that the alliance can be broadened out to include joint candidate lists in the November local elections.

Later in the month, Law and Justice signed an apparently more wide-ranging co-operation agreement with two smaller right-wing breakaway parties: Solidaristic Poland (SP), led by former Law and Justice deputy leader Zbigniew Ziobro, and Poland Together (PR), headed up by one-time Civic Platform leadership challenger Jarosław Gowin. Although earlier talks between the three leaders ended in failure, they eventually concluded an alliance that involves the two smaller parties running candidates on the Law and Justice electoral lists in both the local and parliamentary elections, and a joint (but as yet unspecified) candidate in next summer’s presidential poll.

Law and Justice will be hoping not just to pick up the votes of the two smaller parties (which together won more than 7% in the EP election) but also secure an added ‘unity premium’ as a reward from voters for presenting a united front. In fact, the dynamic effect of the ‘unity premium’ is something that is difficult to capture in opinion polls and those conducted last month sent mixed signals. Indeed, some suggested that a joint right-wing slate would not win as much support as the combined vote of the three parties; and one, by the Millward Brown agency for the ‘300polityka.pl’ website, even showed it scoring less than Law and Justice standing on its own! There is certainly a danger that, for example, with Mr Gowin having positioned his party as a free market conservative alternative to Law and Justice, Poland Together voters could switch to the economically libertarian and socially conservative Congress of the New Right (KPN), which is currently polling around 5-10% following its surprise fourth place in the EP election, rather than vote for Mr Kaczyński’s party.

So although the left and right-wing opposition parties are clearly trying to capitalise on the government’s recent difficulties by presenting united fronts, it is too early to tell just how successful these unity initiatives will prove to be. The first major tests of this will be the September Senate by-elections and November local polls which should provide clearer evidence of whether the opposition can get its much-hoped-for ‘unity premium’ or if, instead, the ruling party can draw a line under the ‘tape affair’ and put the scandal behind it.