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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.