Can the Kopacz government recover from its shaky start?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.