The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: October, 2014

Will the ‘Kopacz effect’ save Poland’s ruling party?

The election of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council and appointment of Ewa Kopacz as his successor has shaken up the political scene in Poland. So far the ruling party appears to have responded effectively to the new political situation. It has used Mrs Kopacz’s appointment as an opportunity to re-define its appeal ahead of the year-long electoral marathon that will begin with local elections in November and culminate in next autumn’s parliamentary poll.

Regaining the political initiative

Mrs Kopacz, who took over from Mr Tusk in September, faces her first big test as prime minister in the local elections scheduled for November 16th (with second round run-offs two weeks later where mayoral candidates fail to secure at least 50% of the vote). In particular, the poll for Poland’s 16 regional authorities, which are fought on national party lines, will provide an important barometer of support for the main political groupings. However, not only does Mrs Kopacz lack her predecessor’s gravitas and charisma she also got off to a very shaky start in her new role. The new prime minister was accused of paying more attention to smoothing over divisions within Civic Platform (PO), the centrist main governing party, than the competence of the appointees when determining the composition of her government, and was widely criticised for her inept handling of the press conference where she introduced her new team.

However, although she lacked her own party power base, Mrs Kopacz damped down internal divisions within Civic Platform by bringing the leaders of its main warring factions into the new government. In particular, she appointed Grzegorz Schetyna – who was once deputy leader and retains significant support among the party grassroots, but was marginalized after he emerged as Mr Tusk’s main rival – to the post of foreign minister. Mrs Kopacz thereby ensured that her potentially most powerful critic was in the government rather than on the backbenches. Although it remains a deeply factionalised party, Civic Platform is now likely to retain its internal cohesion, in the short-term at least, unless its opinion poll ratings go into freefall, which currently looks unlikely. Moreover, taking advantage of the fact that expectations were low following her disastrous cabinet unveiling, Mrs Kopacz regained the political initiative when she set out her new government’s programme in a well-crafted inaugural parliamentary policy speech.

Re-inventing Mrs Kopacz

Mrs Kopacz has tried to use the opportunity afforded by her appointment and Mr Tusk’s departure to draw a line under the government’s recent difficulties. The most series of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’, a political scandal that began in June when the weekly news magazine Wprost published embarrassing transcripts of private meetings involving government ministers and other prominent public figures. Following the outbreak of the scandal, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister – opened up a lead of more than 10% in the opinion polls. Civic Platform political marketing strategists managed to take full advantage of the fact that – in spite of being speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, and before that health minister between 2007-11 – Mrs Kopacz was relatively unknown to most voters, in order to ‘re-invent’ her in her new role; what some commentators termed ‘Operation Kopacz’.

Interestingly, for someone whose political career depended almost entirely upon her unswerving loyalty towards Mr Tusk, Mrs Kopacz tried to re-build the ruling party’s credibility by distancing herself from her predecessor. Sensing that Civic Platform was perceived increasingly as a ‘party of power’ distant from the concerns of ordinary people, she identified her greatest challenges as re-building trust in the government and re-connecting the party with its disillusioned former supporters. Indeed, as, if not more, important than any policy initiatives was a change in the style of leadership that Mrs Kopacz claimed to represent. In a series of local campaign events titled ‘(Civic) Platform nearer the people’, the new prime minister tried to turn her ‘ordinariness’ into a political asset, portraying herself as being fully engaged in trying to solve the problems faced by ordinary Poles. Making a virtue of her roots as a family doctor from the provinces, Mr Kopacz tried to contrast her background and experiences with those of Warsaw politicians such as Mr Kaczyński who, she implied, were detached from the day-to-day realities that ordinary people had to face. The new prime minister also claimed that she would tackle the problem of citizens turning away from the political process by offering pragmatism, consensus and practical solutions to people’s everyday problems in place of argument, partisanship and ideological divisions.

Law and Justice wrong-footed

Law and Justice was wrong-footed by Mrs Kopacz’s ‘new opening’ and gave the impression of not having fully grasped the sea-change that has taken place in Polish politics over the last few weeks. The party’s problem was that for a long time it argued that Mr Tusk personified the shortcomings and pathologies of the Civic Platform administration, which it often referred to as the ‘Tusk system’. Finding it difficult to adjust its political strategy and message, the party’s response to the new political situation was somewhat chaotic and incoherent. When it became clear that Civic Platform would not simply implode following Mr Tusk’s departure, its strategy appeared to consist of dismissing Mrs Kopacz and questioning her competence. However, the problem with simply ignoring the new prime minister was that it allowed Mrs Kopacz and Civic Platform strategists to define her image, while making disparaging comments about her competence simply played to her narrative about the need for a less confrontational style of politics.

All of this appears to have paid dividends for the ruling party. Initially, Civic Platform was the beneficiary of the so-called ‘Tusk effect’, whereby the positive publicity surrounding the former prime minister’s election to the EU presidency seemed to wipe out the damage inflicted by the ‘tape affair’. Now this appears to have been sustained and boosted by the ‘Kopacz effect’ with most polls suggesting that the two main parties are running neck-and-neck, or even that Civic Platform enjoys a narrow lead. Moreover, a monthly tracking poll by the CBOS agency found that in October Mrs Kopacz’s approval rating had increased by 11% over the last month and a stunning 35% since August to 59%, making her Poland’s second most popular politician.

A month of crises and (apparent) European success

All of this was in spite of the fact that October was, in many ways, a difficult month for the government. First, agriculture minister Marek Sawicki – who is a member of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner – called Polish farmers affected by Russian sanctions, who chose to sell apples at a lower price rather than withdraw them from the market and seek compensation, ‘suckers’. Although he quickly apologised, Mr Sawicki’s remarks could lose the Peasant Party support among its core electorate in rural areas where it is in a fierce competition for votes with Law and Justice. With its strong grassroots organisational base, the Peasant Party always performs well in local elections and in 2010 secured 16% of the vote in the regional assemblies, twice its level of support in the subsequent 2011 parliamentary poll. However, polls suggest that it may struggle to do as well this time around, even before Mr Sawicki’s gaffe.

Then the US magazine Politico published quotes from Radosław Sikorski – who took up the role of Civic Platform-nominated Sejm speaker in September following seven years as Mr Tusk’s foreign minister – saying that, during a February 2008 visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin had suggested to Mr Tusk that Poland should take part in a partition of Ukraine with Russia. The Law and Justice opposition questioned why the Tusk government had continued to treat Russia as a normal negotiating partner when they knew for so long what kind of potential threat the Putin regime represented to European security. Mr Sikorski then cut short a press conference while being pressured to provide more details on the revelations, referring journalists to another interview that the gave to the website of the liberal pro-government Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

In contrast to Mr Tusk’s more patient approach to crisis management, Mrs Kopacz went swiftly on the attack expressing anger at the Politico interview and insisting that Mr Sikorski apologise to journalists. Apparently forgetting that the Sejm speaker was not constitutionally answerable to the prime minister, she pledged to reprimand Mr Sikorski, although decided not to call for his dismissal. According to some commentators, Mr Kopacz was persuaded by Mr Tusk that, in the run up to the local elections, this would be even more damaging than leaving him in office. Then, having initially said that the interview had not been ‘authorised’ and that his words were ‘over-interpreted’, in a humiliating about-turn Mr Sikorski claimed that his memory had failed him and there were no one-to-one meetings between Mr Tusk and Mr Putin during the Moscow visit; something which Mr Tusk later confirmed.

However, October ended with an apparent success for Mrs Kopacz at the Brussels EU summit which agreed a 40% reduction in the Union’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Poland’s economy relies on coal for 90% of its energy and Polish negotiators secured a series of concessions including being allowed to retain the country’s 40% free carbon dioxide emissions quota until 2030 (it was originally meant to expire in 2019), which Mrs Kopacz claimed would guarantee that Polish energy prices would not increase. Poland would also benefit from a special reserve fund for energy efficiency investments financed from 2% of the overall emissions allowance. Opposition politicians and commentators questioned whether the Brussels deal really was a success, arguing that it committed Poland to meeting very specific and costly obligations to reduce carbon emissions substantially, while the benefits from the compensation package were uncertain, with no guarantee that the country would secure all of the promised (relatively modest) investment funding. However, although the detail of what was agreed at the summit was difficult for ordinary Poles to grasp, the mainstream media generally accepted fairly un-critically Mrs Kopacz’s claim that she had achieved a successful outcome for Poland in her EU debut.

How long will the ‘Kopacz effect’ last?

With opinion polls showing the two main parties tied in the run up to November’s local elections, for Civic Platform – which, only a couple of months ago, looked like it was heading for a drubbing in the wake of the ‘tape affair’ – even a narrow defeat in the regional assemblies poll would represent a symbolic victory. But will the ‘Kopacz effect’ last much beyond that? Every new government benefits from a political honeymoon period and Mrs Kopacz’s administration is no exception. But sooner or later this will wear off. Indeed, most polls suggest both a great deal of uncertainty about the new administration (with large numbers of respondents expressing neutral or no opinions) and a somewhat lower initial popularity rating than most new governments in post-communist Poland have enjoyed. Moreover, critics argue that, for all her claims of spontaneity, Mrs Kopacz’s communication strategy is actually based on carefully choreographed events and trying to avoid occasions which could highlight her lack of competence. The real test remains how she will deal with a serious political crisis once the political honeymoon period is over. The ones that she faced last month did not put her under any real pressure as they affected either Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner or politicians who are no longer members of the government. It is precisely at this point that we shall see just how convincing and effective Mrs Kopacz really is in her new role.

Can the Kopacz government recover from its shaky start?

The departure of prime minister Donald Tusk and appointment of Ewa Kopacz as his replacement provide the Polish government with an opportunity for a fresh start. But Mrs Kopacz’s uncertain debut means that the ruling party continues to face a tough challenge over the coming year in the run up to next autumn’s parliamentary election.

The ‘Tusk effect’

Mrs Kopacz was previously the speaker of the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber, and the hand-picked successor of Mr Tusk, leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main governing party. Mr Tusk, whose party has been in office since 2007, stood down last month and will take over as the new President of the EU Council in December. His departure, and Mrs Kopacz’s appointment as his successor, gives the Civic Platform-led government an opportunity to draw a line under its recent difficulties. Although in 2011 Mr Tusk became the first incumbent Polish prime minister since the collapse of communism in 1989 to secure re-election, he found his second term much more problematic and support for the ruling party slumped as the government faced an accumulation of difficulties.

The most serious of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’, a political scandal that began in June when the weekly news magazine Wprost published transcripts of private meetings involving government ministers and other prominent public figures. These threatened the careers of a number of senior cabinet members, including interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and foreign minister Radosław Sikorski. Following the outbreak of the scandal, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister – opened up an opinion poll lead over Civic Platform of more than 10%.

Mr Kaczyński’s party attempted to portray Mr Tusk’s departure from the Polish political scene as ‘cutting and running’ ahead of an anticipated defeat in the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015. However, this message was overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive publicity that his appointment to the EU presidency received. Civic Platform was able to present it as a great success to a Polish public which is still overwhelmingly pro-EU and proud of the appointment of Poles to any senior European posts, however symbolic. The ruling party, therefore, received a short-term boost to its popularity which appears to have wiped out the negative effects of the ‘tape affair’. Polls conducted since Mr Tusk’s appointment have shown Civic Platform drawing level with – and, in some cases, even pulling slightly ahead of – Law and Justice.

However, the ‘Tusk effect’ may not last for very long and Civic Platform’s political prospects now depend mainly on how the public responds to the new Kopacz administration. Mrs Kopacz certainly has some political assets. Although she was health minister between 2007-11, Mrs Kopacz remained relatively unknown to most voters, providing party strategists with an opportunity to ‘re-invent’ her in her new role. Mrs Kopacz has made great play of the fact that being a woman (she is only Poland’s second female prime minister) and mother will inform the way that she governs, exemplified by her appointing Teresa Piotrowska as the country’s first-ever female interior affairs minister (getting rid of the politically toxic Mr Sienkiewicz in the process). Polls suggest that, for the moment at least, the public appear to be giving her the benefit of the doubt. For example, a tracking survey conducted by the CBOS agency found that during September Mrs Kopacz’s approval rating increased by 13% to 48%, making her Poland’s third most popular politician.

A shaky start

However, the new prime minister got off to a rather shaky start. Firstly, she was accused of paying more attention to smoothing over divisions within Civic Platform than the competence of the appointees when determining the composition of her new government. Civic Platform is a deeply divided and factionalised party and Mr Tusk’s departure has exposed these underlying tensions. In fact, although it encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of views, the party’s most serious internal divisions do not map on to ideological differences. Rather, national and local elites are bound to the party primarily by the access that it provides to state patronage, and the main factions are personality-based. Until Mr Tusk’s departure these coalesced around supporters of the outgoing prime minister and those of Grzegorz Schetyna, who was once Civic Platform deputy leader and retains significant support among the party grassroots, but was marginalized in recent years after he emerged as Mr Tusk’s main rival for the party leadership. Mr Kopacz was as one of Mr Tusk’s most unswerving and outspoken allies, but lacked her own power base within the party and was a controversial and divisive figure, disliked strongly by Mr Schetyna’s supporters.

Consequently, she had to compose a government that could neutralise and bind together the party’s various warring factions. In fact, Mrs Kopacz stuck largely with Mr Tusk’s outgoing cabinet, making no changes in any of the ministries responsible for social affairs and leaving the economic team largely untouched; except for the infrastructure and development ministry where she replaced Elżbieta Bieńkowska, who was appointed as Poland’s nominee to the EU Commission, with Maria Wasiak, a member of the PKP state-owned railway company board. Of the five new cabinet appointments the most eye-catching was Mr Schetyna to the post of foreign minister, seen as an attempt to both extend an olive-branch and ensure that Mrs Kopacz’s potentially most powerful critic was in the government rather than on the backbenches. Moreover, in an apparent gesture towards the popular Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski, Mrs Kopacz appointed defence minister Tomasz Siemoniak, rumoured to have been the President’s preferred choice as prime minister, as one of her two deputies.

However, critics argue that the appointment of Mr Schetyna – who lacks experience of foreign policy and was largely invisible in his previous role as chair of the Sejm foreign affairs commission  – together with that of Cezary Grabarczyk – informal leader of ‘the co-operative’, a non-ideological group of regional party bosses which played a key role in marginalising Mr Schetyna – as justice minister, shows that Mrs Kopacz’s main priority was neutralising potential challenges to her authority within the ruling party. Interestingly, immediately prior to his appointment Mr Schetyna back-tracked on his previous demand for an early party vote to determine the future Civic Platform leadership – as Mr Tusk’s deputy, Mrs Kopacz will take over from him automatically as acting leader – now arguing that it should be delayed after next year’s parliamentary election.

The one current of opinion clearly marginalised by Mrs Kopacz is Civic Platform’s socially conservative wing; not surprisingly given that she is very much associated with the party’s liberal faction. Justice minister Marek Biernacki, the conservatives’ most high profile government member, left the cabinet, as did his deputy Michał Królikowski, a Catholic legal expert who was something of a bogeyman for Poland’s liberal-left cultural and media establishment. Civic Platform conservatives have, in the past, mobilised up to 60 deputies in parliamentary votes on moral-cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex civil partnerships. But they are a fragmented group that only come together episodically and were greatly weakened by the departure of their informal leader, Jarosław Gowin, following an un-successful party leadership challenge last year.

Mrs Kopacz was also heavily criticised for a statement that she made when introducing her new government which appeared to soften Poland’s previously strong stance in support of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Mrs Kopacz argued that her cabinet would approach the conflict ‘like a reasonable Polish woman’ making security at home its top priority, and that Poland should follow the EU line rather than becoming participants in an armed conflict. Moreover, in an apparent sign of growing tension between Mrs Kopacz and her predecessor, Mr Tusk – who, apparently, opposed Mr Schetyna’s return to the government – was alleged to have said that the new prime minister was ‘heartbroken’ following the gaffes that she made while unveiling her cabinet.

Then Mr Kopacz was forced to block the treasury ministry’s controversial appointment of Igor Ostachowicz, a close associate of Mr Tusk’s and for seven years a minister in the prime minister’s chancellery responsible for public communication, to the management board of the state-owned PKN Orlen oil company. The appointment raised widespread criticism as a clear case of political nepotism, after it was reported that Mr Ostachowicz would be earning up to 2 million złoties (500,000 Euros) annually. There was also controversy over the 510,000 złoty (122,000 Euro) severance package received by Mrs Wasiak from PKP, which she ended up donating to charity.

An effective policy speech, but challenges remain

Mrs Kopacz made a more positive impact when she set out the new government’s programme in her inaugural parliamentary policy speech. Knowing that she had to strike a balance between continuity and change, while largely sticking with her predecessor’s policies Mr Kopacz tried to stamp her mark on the government, arguing that although ‘Poles do not want revolution, they do expect change’. The leitmotif of her speech was ‘security’ in its broadest sense, and Mrs Kopacz tried to present her government as practical, non-ideological and focused on helping ordinary Polish families in their everyday lives. Although her scope for introducing major initiatives was limited, she the rattled off a series of (fairly minor) new policies including pledges for increased childcare, day-care centres for the elderly, and free textbooks in primary schools. She also re-hashed Mr Tusk’s earlier promises to increase pensions and tax breaks for families, and pledged to speed up other existing reforms such as simplification of the tax system; although critics pointed out that many of her commitments (such a promise to increase defence spending) would not be implemented until after the next election. In a tactically astute move, Mrs Kopacz also argued that it was time to break with the personal animosity and ‘curse of hatred’ that had characterised relations between Mr Tusk and Mr Kaczyński, although the Law and Justice leader cleverly finessed this by publicly shaking hands with the outgoing prime minister after her speech.

However, while Mr Kopacz may have regained the initiative, and many of her early difficulties can be dismissed as short-term teething troubles, the challenges facing the new prime minister are still formidable. As there is unlikely to be a Civic Platform leadership election until after next year’s parliamentary election, Mrs Kopacz will lack the authority within the party that Mr Tusk enjoyed from having been directly elected in a membership ballot. More importantly, she lacks her predecessor’s gravitas and charisma, as well as his strategic foresight, formidable campaigning skills and instinctive ability to judge the mood of the Polish electorate. For all the government’s recent difficulties, Mr Tusk remained Civic Platform’s single greatest electoral asset and certainly its most effective campaigner who, in critical situations such as the outbreak of the ‘tape affair’, was able to defuse even the worst crisis. It is precisely at the point when the new government faces its first major political crisis that we shall see just how convincing and effective Mrs Kopacz really is in her new role.

A very short honeymoon?

Mr Tusk’s departure and Mrs Kopacz’s appointment as his successor, therefore, gives the Civic Platform-led government an opportunity for a fresh start. But the new prime minister’s uncertain debut means that the ruling party continues to face a tough challenge over the coming months and the boost that it has received from the ‘Tusk effect’ may prove to be short-lived. The first big test for the new administration will come very soon in the November local elections, especially the poll for Poland’s 16 regional authorities which are fought on national party lines. Mrs Kopacz’s political honeymoon, such as it is, could prove to be very short lived.