The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: January, 2015

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 5): How salient was the European issue?

This is the fifth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

For part 1, ‘Is the ruling party back in the game?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/polish-politics-in-2014-part-1-is-the-ruling-party-back-in-the-game/

For part 2, ‘Can Law and Justice break through the “glass ceiling”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/polish-politics-in-2014-part-2-can-law-and-justice-break-through-the-glass-ceiling/

For part 3, ‘Has the Peasant Party joined the “premier league”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/polish-politics-in-2014-part-3-has-the-peasant-party-joined-the-premier-league/

For part 4, ‘Has the left hit rock bottom?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/polish-politics-in-2014-part-4-has-the-left-hit-rock-bottom/

Given that foreign affairs rarely impact upon national politics, Europe had a surprisingly high profile in Polish politics last year. This was partly as a ‘valence’ issue where parties competed over which of them was the most competent to advance national interests within the EU. However, to some extent it also emerged as a substantial issue in its own right with parties presenting different visions of the future of the European integration project and Poland’s role within it. Whether Europe becomes a significant dimension of party competition in this year’s presidential and parliamentary election depends as much, if not more, upon developments on the international scene as on domestic factors.

An issue in its own right?

The issue of Poland-EU relations was highly contested in recent years by the two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. However, these divisions were often not over the future of the European integration project as such. Rather they were subsumed within domestic politics, with the two parties treating relations with the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU.

However, there was also some evidence that, particularly since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis, the Polish debate on Europe was becoming more about the substance of European integration than simply an extension of domestic politics by other means. While Civic Platform supported closer German-led integration within the EU, Law and Justice started to articulate a more fundamental, principled critique of the ruling party’s support for deeper European integration. For example, it increasingly gave the impression that the party could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the euro; although it is worth bearing in mind that when the party was in government in 2005-7 Law and Justice’s rhetorical Euroscepticism often gave way to a more integrationist approach.

A surprisingly ‘European’ EP election

Moreover, the May European Parliament (EP) election, the biggest political event during the first half of 2014, might also have been expected to raise the profile of the EU issue in Polish politics. However, although the EP election was part of a Europe-wide electoral process to an EU institution, experience suggested that, like all previous Polish elections, it would be dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter were framed as valence issues. Important as it would be as a test of party strength, most commentators assumed that the EP poll would simply be another typical ‘second order’ national election that voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote against the governing party which, at the start of 2014, was running around 5-10% behind Law and Justice in the polls.

In fact, the dynamics of the EP poll were transformed and it turned out to be a surprisingly ‘European’ election because of the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. This was to dominate the campaign and re-configure patterns of support for the two main parties, with Civic Platform finishing narrowly ahead on 32.1% of the vote and Law and Justice on 31.8%. To some extent, Europe was once again used as a valence issue with the two main parties competing over the shared objective of persuading the EU to develop a robust response to the crisis. Civic Platform leader and prime minister Donald Tusk quickly recognised that the threat of armed conflict on Poland’s border would change voters’ priorities radically and re-calibrated the Civic Platform EP campaign accordingly. The ruling party tried to use events in Ukraine to highlight its claim that, in contrast to its Law and Justice-led predecessor, the Civic Platform government’s approach of locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ was effective in promoting Poland’s interests at the international level. It tried to position the Tusk administration as a key player in determining the European and international response to the crisis, mobilising the EU and its allies to react to the Russian threat in a decisive manner.

The ruling party made a similar argument when, at the end of August, Mr Tusk was unexpectedly appointed as the next President of the EU Council, presenting it as a vindication of the government’s broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies. Indeed, for many commentators sympathetic to the government, Mr Tusk’s appointment was the crowning achievement of its attempts to project Poland as a ‘model’ European at the forefront of the EU integration project. For its part, while congratulating Mr Tusk on his appointment, Law and Justice argued that such symbolic triumphs were meaningless if they did not lead to concrete policy gains for Poland. However, Mr Tusk’s appointment received extremely positive publicity and Civic Platform was able to present it as a great success to a Polish public which was still overwhelmingly pro-EU (an October 2014 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 84% of respondents supported Polish EU membership while only 11% were against) and proud of the appointment of Poles to any senior European posts, however symbolic.

However, Civic Platform also tried to link its EP campaigning on the Ukrainian issue to more substantive debates on the future of the European integration project. The ruling party contrasted its own strongly pro-EU stance with Law and Justice’s apparent Euroscepticism, arguing that that the latter threatened Poland’s security which depended upon the country’s position within a politically and economically integrated EU that was capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats. It claimed that Eurosceptic parties like Law and Justice played into Russia’s hands by encouraging the major European powers to develop bi-lateral relations with Moscow based on their narrow, short-term national interests that often conflicted with Poland’s, rather than adopt a common EU stance.

Law and Justice counter-attacked by contrasting what it claimed was its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve, short-sighted and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. Law and Justice leaders pointed out that it had consistently warned of how dangerous Russian President Vladimir Putin was and argued that, rather than simply relying on developing close relations with the major EU powers, Poland had to develop a so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’: playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist states to counter Russian expansionism.

A radical Eurosceptic challenger emerges

The EP election also saw the sudden emergence of a new Eurosceptic challenger party, the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which came from nowhere to finish fourth securing 7.2% of votes and winning 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs. Formed in March 2011, the Congress was the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the political scene who contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989 and was notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. The core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, was its radical economic liberalism, but it was also a socially conservative and strongly Eurosceptic party. The party opposed Polish EU membership and, during the EP campaign, Mr Korwin-Mikke argued that half of the current European Commissioners should be arrested, and promised to ‘blow up the EU from within’ turning the European institutions into a brothel! Ironically, this was actually further evidence of the ‘Europeanisation’ of the EP poll, in the sense that the party sought to mobilise support on the basis of outright rejection of the EU project.

For sure, there were other factors at work here and, to some extent, this was simply a protest vote with the New Right emerging as the most attractive repository for those looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment, particularly among younger voters and what some sociologists termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’. Such protest voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke was able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following who, in the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland (the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections), provided the Congress with a respectable EP election result. However, attitudes towards the European project were definitely an element of the Congress’s appeal and its surge suggested that high levels of support for Polish EU membership might be more fragile than polls suggest. Many of the New Right’s supporters saw the EU as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke was 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, 28.5% of 18-25 year-olds voted for the New Right, more than for any other party, comprising half of its supporters. Some sociologists argued that many of these voters were drawn from what commentators refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities. One of the main reasons for continuing high levels of Polish support for the EU was the fact that membership of the Union gave Poles the opportunity to secure access to West European labour markets. However, many of this younger, post-enlargement generation either increasingly took this benefit of EU membership for granted or actually perceived it as a sign of failure, frustrated by what they saw as an invidious choice between moving to take jobs abroad that fell well short of their abilities and aspirations, or remaining in a country which they felt offered them few prospects for the future.

An election issue in 2015?

The extent to which Europe might be an issue in the two big electoral contests that will dominate Polish politics in 2015, the summer presidential and autumn parliamentary polls, depends largely on international developments. In 2014, it was the Ukrainian conflict, and later Mr Tusk’s appointment to the EU presidency, that, unusually, moved foreign affairs and Poland-EU relations to the top of the political agenda. It would require similarly extraordinary events to do the same in 2015, although it is quite possible that the Ukrainian conflict could escalate once again or the Eurozone crisis re-emerges as an issue.

There could also be domestic factors that move the European issue up the political agenda. Given the ongoing risk of Eurozone turbulence and increasing public hostility to Polish adoption of the single currency (an October 2014 CBOS survey found only 24% of respondents in favour and 68% against), the government has chosen to downplay the issue. However, Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski remains an enthusiastic supporter of Polish accession to the Eurozone, seeing it as essential for Poland to be part of the EU’s decision-making core, and he may decide to give the issue a higher profile in the presidential campaign. The presence of Mr Korwin-Mikke and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections also means that debates about the future of European integration might emerge as, at the very least, a secondary issue. However, if Europe is salient the most likely scenario is that it is, once again, likely to be a valence issue subsumed within domestic politics.

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 4): Has the left hit rock bottom?

This is the fourth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

For part 1, ‘Is the ruling party back in the game?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/polish-politics-in-2014-part-1-is-the-ruling-party-back-in-the-game/

For part 2, ‘Can Law and Justice break through the “glass ceiling”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/polish-politics-in-2014-part-2-can-law-and-justice-break-through-the-glass-ceiling/

For part 3, ‘Has the Peasant Party joined the “premier league”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/polish-politics-in-2014-part-3-has-the-peasant-party-joined-the-premier-league/

2014 was a disastrous year for the Polish left. After nearly a decade in the political wilderness, it entered 2015 in deep crisis and with a real chance that no left-wing parties will be elected to parliament in the autumn election.

The Democratic Left Alliance in the doldrums

For the last decade the Polish political scene has been dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the once-powerful communist successor party which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5, has been in the doldrums since support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following its involvement in a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. At the most recent 2011 parliamentary election the party suffered its worst ever defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote and there were question marks over its future survival. At the same time, a challenger emerged on the centre-left in the form of the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the vote. The Movement was formed at the end of 2010 by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman, and one-time Civic Platform parliamentarian.

However, when Leszek Miller, who was previously Democratic Left Alliance leader from 1997-2004, took over the leadership following its 2011 election drubbing he steadied nerves and restored some sense of discipline and purpose to the party. Mr Miller is a wily political operator who, in his heyday, led the party to victory in the 2001 parliamentary election and served as prime minister of Poland from 2001-2004, overseeing the country’s accession to the EU. By the start of 2014, the Alliance appeared to have recovered ground and emerged as the main left-wing challenger and ‘third force’ in Polish politics, with most polls suggesting that its support was hovering around the 10-15% mark. The party was looking to confirm this position in the May European Parliament (EP) election and possibly even to offer a serious challenge to the two main parties.

Mr Palikot’s star wanes

Meanwhile, Mr Palikot’s party failed to capitalise on its 2011 election success, struggling with its political identity and finding it difficult to decide whether it really was a left-wing party at all or more of an economically and socially liberal centrist grouping. While Mr Palikot clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest in his political initiatives, which had helped him to shake up the Polish political scene, many Poles still regarded him as an unpredictable maverick who used coarse, often brutal, rhetoric and whose political initiatives lacked consistency. At the end of 2013, Mr Palikot re-launched his party as ‘Your Movement’ (TR) and promised to tone down the strong anti-clericalism and social liberalism on which his earlier electoral success was based while placing greater emphasis on free-market economics. However, re-branding the party simply further confused its remaining supporters and it continued to bump along at around 5% in the polls, the threshold for parties to secure parliamentary representation.

Mr Palikot’s party had an even more miserable year in 2014. He tried to regain the political initiative and broaden out his party’s appeal by contesting the EP election as part of the broader centre-left ‘Europa Plus Your Movement’ (EPTR) electoral coalition. Mr Palikot originally hoped that Europa Plus would benefit from the (at least nominal) sponsorship of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a very popular Democratic Left Alliance-backed two-term President of Poland (1995-2005) and one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. Many commentators saw Mr Kwaśniewski as the one politician with the potential to transform the Polish left’s electoral fortunes.

In fact, Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement in the initiative was, from the outset, half-hearted to say the least and on occasions he appeared more of a liability than an asset; during much of the campaign he was mired in controversy over his business links with Ukrainian oligarchs. In the event, the EP election ended in disaster for Europa Plus which finished seventh securing only 3.6% of the votes. Even Mr Palikot acknowledged that the former President’s ability to sway Polish voters was actually very limited and Europa Plus, which was almost-certainly Mr Kwaśniewski’s last major intervention in Polish domestic politics, fell apart in the wake of its electoral drubbing. 2014 also saw Your Movement’s parliamentary group implode as 21 of its deputies defected to other parties and, by the end of the year, its caucus was reduced from the 40 parliamentarians who were elected from Mr Palikot’s party lists in 2011 to just 15 members.

The end in sight for Mr Miller’s party?

Nonetheless, in spite of seeing off the Palikot challenge and emerging as the main standard bearer of the left, the Democratic Left Alliance was not able to capitalise on this and continued to lag well behind the two main parties in the polls. Mr Miller’s party secured third place in the EP election but with only 9.4% of the vote, well short of the 15% that it was hoping for (the party won 12.3% in 2009), and lost two of its seven MEPs. Critics argued that there was a limit to how far the party could go under Mr Miller’s leadership and that he lacked any clear strategic vision of how to expand its base and move support up to the next level. Indeed, there was worse to come in the November local elections which were a disaster for the Democratic Left Alliance. In the elections to Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, the best indicator of national party support, the party finished fourth and saw its vote share fall from 15.2% in 2010 to only 8.8% and number of seats slashed from 85 to 28. It was scant consolation that Mr Palikot’s party was not even able to register candidate lists in all of the regions.

Like all the main parties, the Democratic Left Alliance, and Polish left more generally, faces two formidable electoral challenges in the coming year. The first of these is the summer presidential election. Knowing that it faces almost-certain defeat at the hands of the popular Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, the Alliance struggled to find a high profile, party-aligned figure willing to contest this election. This included Mr Miller who ruled himself out at an early stage knowing that a poor result would weaken his already precarious grip on the party leadership. In December, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the party to support the candidacy of Ryszard Kalisz, at one-time one of the Alliance’s most popular parliamentarians. Mr Kalisz faced hostility from regional party bosses who regarded him as a renegade following a flirtation with Mr Palikot which led to his expulsion from the Alliance in 2013; he went on to stand on the Europa Plus ticket in the EP election. (In the event, in January 2015 the party selected a political unknown, 35-year-old historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek, as its presidential candidate.) For his part, Mr Palikot also announced his intention to stand in what will almost certainly be his last hurrah. Unless he can think of a way of once-again radically re-inventing himself, Mr Palikot appears to be finished as a major actor on the Polish political scene.

The most important challenge will, of course, be the autumn parliamentary election, whose outcome will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for years to come. Assuming he survives the presidential election, the autumn poll will be ‘do or die’ for Mr Miller and possibly even for the Democratic Left Alliance itself. If the party can recover ground and get itself into a position where it could be a pivotal member of a two or three-party Civic Platform-led coalition government, then this could provide it with a lifeline and mean that Mr Miller can end his political career as deputy prime minister or possibly speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, the second most senior Polish state office. (Entering a governing coalition with Law and Justice is highly unlikely given that the two parties are bitter rivals but not totally inconceivable. Last November, in a hitherto unprecedented meeting of minds they joined forces to question the accuracy of the regional election results.) On the other hand, given its recent difficulties there is a real chance that the Alliance may not even cross the 5% threshold which would not just mean an ignominious end to Mr Miller’s career but could herald the demise of a party that was the dominant force in Polish politics for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The left’s electoral-strategic challenge

More broadly, while various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as being on the political left at around 25-30%, the bigger, over-arching electoral-strategic challenge faced by the Polish left is to develop an appeal that can bring together its two potential bases of support: socially liberal and economically leftist voters. Socially liberal voters tend to younger, better-off, prioritise moral-cultural issues such as reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in public life, and often quite economically liberal as well. They were at one time Mr Palikot’s core electorate and many of them still support Civic Platform. Indeed, some analysts argue that Civic Platform ‘borrowed’ many of these potential centre-left voters, who supported the party as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of office, but that it has no intention of giving them back! The economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older and more culturally conservative; indeed, for this reason even many of those who are nostalgic for the job security and guaranteed social minimum that they associate with the former communist regime often support right-wing parties such as Law and Justice. Arguably the only deep social roots that the Polish left, and Democratic Left Alliance in particular, have are among those steadily declining sections of the electorate that have some kind of interests linking them to the previous regime, such as families connected to the military and former security services.

The Polish left finished the year pretty close to rock bottom; indeed, some commenters argued that the demise of the Democratic Left Alliance and current crop of left-wing elites were inevitable and even desirable. The left, it is argued, needs to develop a completely new political formula and generation of left-wing leaders if it is renew itself and develop an effective long-term challenge to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly. For example, some are investing great hopes in figures like Robert Biedroń, a one-time Democratic Left Alliance activist who was elected from Mr Palikot’s party lists in 2011as Poland’s first openly homosexual parliamentarian. Last year, in a high profile contest that was one of the few rays of hope for the Polish left in the November local elections, standing as an independent Mr Biedroń ran a clever campaign based on grassroots ‘pavement politics’ to unexpectedly win election as mayor of the northern Polish city of Słupsk. However, at the moment he is more of a political celebrity with a knack for attracting publicity than potential future leader. The fact that it had to clutch at such rare and isolated examples of political success exemplifies the dire state that the Polish left found itself at the end of 2014.

For part 5, ‘How salient was the European issue?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/polish-politics-in-2014-part-5-how-salient-was-the-european-issue/

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 3): Has the Peasant Party joined the ‘premier league’?

This is the third of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

For part 1, ‘Is the ruling party back in the game?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/polish-politics-in-2014-part-1-is-the-ruling-party-back-in-the-game/

For part 2, ‘Can Law and Justice break through the “glass ceiling”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/polish-politics-in-2014-part-2-can-law-and-justice-break-through-the-glass-ceiling/

2014 was not an easy year for the junior governing coalition partner but ended with an apparently stunning success in the autumn local elections which led some of its leaders to claim that the party had joined the ‘premier league’ of Polish politics. However, question marks over the reliability of the regional assembly polls took some of the shine off the party’s triumph and its faces two formidable electoral challenges this year.

A make-or-break year for Mr Piechociński

The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) has been junior coalition partner in the government led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party since 2007. The party has been an unusually loyal governing partner and the current coalition is much more cohesive and stable than any of its predecessors. However, at the start of the year there was mounting pressure on party leader Janusz Piechociński arising from his apparent failure to make an impact since his election to the post at the end of 2012. Mr Piechociński defeated Waldemar Pawlak – who had led the party since 2005, and earlier between 1991-97 – in a closely fought race and many party activists remained loyal to his predecessor.

There were increasing concerns among Peasant Party deputies and members that it was being outmanoeuvred and marginalised within the coalition by prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk. There was also considerable unease about the fact that the party was not performing more strongly in opinion polls and hovering dangerously close the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. Mr Piechociński had persuaded many of the new generation of younger Peasant Party politicians to support his leadership bid on the grounds that he would expand the party’s electoral base.

Consequently, 2014 was a make-or-break year for Mr Piechociński and he was under a lot of pressure to deliver in the two nationally-contested elections: the May European Parliament (EP) poll and the November local elections. The latter contest, in particular, was extremely important for the party rank-and-file, given that the Peasant Party is a primarily office-seeking grouping and a substantial number of appointments to local state agencies are linked to representation in local councils. The party council, the most important statutory body between congresses, had, in the past, used its powers to remove incumbent leaders so Mr Piechociński needed a strong showing to quell internal party unrest.

Mr Pawlak’s challenge fizzles out

EP elections are traditionally difficult ones for the Peasant Party as turnout is generally lower in rural areas where it picks up most of its support. In the event, although the party did not achieve Mr Piechociński’s ambitious target of securing more than 10% of the votes (compared to 7% last time), and increasing its EP representation from four to six seats, it achieved a respectable 6.8% and held on to its share of MEPs.

In spite of this, Mr Piechociński soon came under pressure again as a result of the so-called ‘tape affair’, the most serious political scandal to hit the Civic Platform-led government since it came to power, when the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ published secret tape recordings of private meetings involving ministers and other prominent public figures linked to the ruling party. Mr Piechociński stood behind Civic Platform and appeared to accept Mr Tusk’s argument that an incumbent government should not be forced out by illegal means. Although the Peasant Party was very uneasy about the prospect of being damaged by association, it was also extremely reluctant to end the coalition over this issue.

However, the ‘tape affair’ also became entwined in internal Peasant Party politics and, at its height Mr Piechociński faced an open revolt from Mr Pawlak. In a dramatic parliamentary intervention, Mr Piechociński’s predecessor called for a delay in the vote of no-confidence in interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, who, according to the tapes, had called for the head of the National Bank of Poland to help stimulate the economy and finance the budget deficit in spite of the fact that it is constitutionally independent from the government. 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. However, when Mr Tusk made it clear that if Mr Sienkiewicz was sacked then he would end the coalition, the party’s caucus voted solidly against his dismissal (only Mr Pawlak abstained).

Fearing that Mr Pawlak enjoyed widespread backing from the party grassroots, Mr Piechociński backed away from an earlier promise to call a vote of confidence in his leadership at the July party council meeting, intended originally to evaluate the party’s EP election performance. 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. As it happened, Mr Pawlak’s challenge soon fizzled out as the ‘tape affair’ receded into the background, particularly following Mr Tusk’s appointment as President of the EU Council in August.

(Apparently) stunning local election results

The Peasant Party found itself on the back-foot again in the run up to the November local elections, when its agriculture minister Marek Sawicki (himself once a possible leadership contender) 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 were potentially extremely damaging among the party’s core electorate in rural areas where it was in fierce competition for votes with the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. Even before Mr Sawicki’s gaffe, polls suggested that the party would struggle to repeat its 2010 performance when it secured 16.3%, the third largest vote share, in elections to Poland’s regional assemblies, the best indicator of national party support. This was twice its level of support in the subsequent 2011 parliamentary poll (8.4%) and translated into a share of power, in coalition with Civic Platform, in every one of Poland’s 16 regional authorities (although they actually lost control of one of these in 2013).

In the event, the Peasant Party achieved a spectacular success, once again finishing third in the regional assembly poll but this time with a stunning 23.7% of the vote. This was the party’s best result in any post-1989 election and led one of its leaders to claim that it had joined the ‘premier league’ of Polish politics. The party always performed better in local elections than in national polls, partly due to its strong grassroots organisational base but also because there was a higher turnout in rural areas. Some commentators suggested that in this election it may also have benefited from distancing itself from the other main parties’ strong support for EU sanctions against Russia which were very unpopular in rural areas. Nonetheless, the party’s stunning performance exceeded its wildest expectations.

However, the Peasant Party’s triumph was marred somewhat by accusations of electoral irregularities which raised question marks over the reliability of the regional assembly results; indeed Law and Justice went so far as to claim that they were ‘falsified’. One reason for such claims was the fact that there were major discrepancies with the exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency which gave the Peasant Party 17%, under-estimating its support by almost 7%. This was the largest error ever recorded in a post-1989 Polish election exit poll and came in spite of the fact that such surveys have become increasingly accurate in recent years. At the same time, 17.9% of the votes cast in the regional poll were declared invalid, a record for a Polish election (in previous regional elections the numbers ranged between 12.1%-14.4%). Some commentators claimed that the party may have benefited from the design of the ballot paper in the regional polls, which took the form of a booklet containing one page for each party’s candidates rather than a single sheet (as was the case in previous local elections), with the Peasant Party’s candidates listed on the front page.

However, while the local election results may have exaggerated the level of the party’s support, they also suggested that recent changes in its political strategy appeared to be paying off. In addition to its long-standing appeal of projecting itself as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics, and its painstaking grassroots local campaigning, the party invested heavily in promoting a new generation of young, articulate party activists. At the same time, some commentators argued that the nature of the party’s bases of electoral support had changed, partly in response to developments in the Polish countryside. While it may have lost some support among peasant smallholders, previously its core electorate, to Law and Justice, the party attracted not just larger, more successful farmers who benefited from EU accession but also the local ‘rural intelligentsia’ – who, critics argue, developed powerful networks of local interests clustered around the party – and even established bridgeheads in some urban areas.

Formidable challenges ahead

In spite of the controversy surrounding voting irregularities, the local election results, together with the defection of six parliamentary deputies who were formers members of the liberal-left Your Movement (TR) party to the Peasant Party parliamentary caucus (bringing the total number of defectors recruited from this party to 10), meant that it ended the year on a high with Mr Piechociński’s leadership apparently strengthened. Although the recruitment of defectors from an anti-clerical grouping may have appeared problematic for a party that drew much of its support from religious and culturally conservative voters in rural areas, Mr Piechociński welcomed them as it meant that the Peasant Party’s 38-strong caucus was now the third largest in parliament.

Nonetheless, Mr Piechociński’s position is not as well-entrenched as it might appear and the party faces two formidable electoral challenges in the coming year. The first of these, the summer presidential election, will be a particularly difficult one for the Peasant Party, as this is the poll in which its supporters are least likely to vote; in the last two contests its candidates secured less than 2% of the vote. Party strategists are, not surprisingly, extremely concerned that a poor presidential election result will damage morale in the run up to the autumn parliamentary poll. The party even toyed with the idea of supporting the popular Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski instead of standing its own candidate, but has apparently decided that it is too risky to absent itself from an electoral process that will dominate the political scene for the first six months of the year.

The big test for Mr Piechociński’s party will, of course, be the parliamentary election, whose outcome will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for years. Talk of the Peasant Party joining the ‘premier league’ of Polish politics is exaggerated and it is likely to once again secure around 5-10% of the vote. Although Mr Piechociński has attempted to broaden out the party’s electoral appeal, it retains a clearly defined rural-agricultural electoral constituency. In terms of future coalition partners, this, in theory at least, makes it a pragmatic and flexible negotiating partner able to link up with whoever can meet its fairly narrow policy agenda and ensure it retains control of government posts and agencies, especially in the agricultural sector. However, accusations of ‘falsification’ in the local elections mean that the Peasant Party is extremely unlikely to form a coalition with Law and Justice with whom – unlike Civic Platform, which is primarily an urban party – it is competing directly for the same rural voters. The most likely scenario is, therefore, a repeat of the current coalition, even if Civic Platform ‘loses’ the election.

For part 4, ‘Has the left hit rock bottom?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/polish-politics-in-2014-part-4-has-the-left-hit-rock-bottom/

For part 5, ‘How salient was the European issue?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/polish-politics-in-2014-part-5-how-salient-was-the-european-issue/

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 2): Can Law and Justice break through the ‘glass ceiling’?

This is the second of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

For part 1, ‘Is the ruling party back in the game?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/polish-politics-in-2014-part-1-is-the-ruling-party-back-in-the-game/

2014 was a year of ups and downs for Poland’s right-wing opposition. By the end of it, although the main centre-right party had made some progress, serious question marks remained as to whether it could break through the ‘glass ceiling’ that appeared to prevent its support growing above a certain level. This is crucial because, given its lack of obvious coalition partners, the party could end up winning the autumn parliamentary election but still find itself in opposition.

Wrong-footed by the Ukrainian crisis

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main Polish opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, began the year with a clear lead in the opinion polls of around 5-10% ahead of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party led by the then prime minister Donald Tusk. Law and Justice had capitalised on the increasing unpopularity of the Tusk administration by simply but effectively criticising its apparent failures. At the same, it focused its core message on ‘bread and butter’ socio-economic issues rather than emotive ones such as the Smolensk tragedy: the plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest in western Russia. Although Smolensk was an effective means of mobilising and building strong emotional links with its core supporters, the party’s often aggressive rhetoric and willingness to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the tragedy sometimes made it appear obsessive and extreme.

As it entered the May 2014 European Parliament (EP) election campaign, most commentators assumed that this would be a typical ‘second-order’ election: a referendum on the performance of the government fought primarily over domestic policy issues which voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote. Only the scale of the Law and Justice victory appeared to be in doubt. However, the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis at the end of February transformed both the dynamics of the EP campaign and patterns of support for the two main parties.

Law and Justice’s initial response to the crisis was to present a united front with the government, but it was completely wrong-footed by Civic Platform’s skilful re-defining of the EP election debate around a ‘security’ narrative. As incumbent prime minister, Mr Tusk was able to project himself as an international statesman holding urgent meetings with European and world leaders, while Mr Kaczyński lacked the instruments to respond effectively to this. Once it realised that Civic Platform’s ‘Ukrainian strategy’ was a game-changer, Law and Justice counter-attacked by trying to link the issue with domestic socio-economic policy, arguing that only they could reform and re-build the country to ensure the prosperity and good governance that were necessary to guarantee national security. It also tried to undermine Civic Platform’s credibility as a security guarantor by claiming that Mr Tusk’s administration was itself partly responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, contrasting what it claimed was Law and Justice’s accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with the current government’s apparently naïve and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. However, Law and Justice never fully recovered its composure and lost the election narrowly, winning 31.8% of the votes compared to Civic Platform’s 32.1%.

Struggling to adjust to the post-Tusk era

Then, in the middle of June, Law and Justice regained the initiative following the outbreak of the so-called ‘tape affair’, the most serious political scandal to hit the Civic Platform-led government since it came to power, when the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ published secret tape recordings of private meetings involving ministers and other prominent public figures, that threatened the careers of senior cabinet members. Following the outbreak of the scandal, Mr Kaczyński’s party opened up an opinion poll lead of more than 10%. It also attempted to capitalise on this by signing a 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. Law and Justice was hoping to avoid a repeat of the EP election when these two smaller parties syphoned off more than 7% of the centre-right vote, thereby depriving it of victory.

However, the political situation was once again transformed at the end of August with Mr Tusk’s unexpected appointment as President of the EU Council. While congratulating the prime minister on his election, Law and Justice argued that such symbolic triumphs were meaningless if they did not lead to concrete policy gains for Poland. Mr Kaczyński’s party also attempted to portray Mr Tusk’s departure from the political scene as ‘cutting and running’ ahead of an anticipated defeat in the parliamentary election. However, this message was overshadowed by the hugely positive publicity that the appointment received and 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.

Mr Tusk was succeeded as prime minister and acting Civic Platform leader by Ewa Kopacz, the speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament. Although Mrs Kopacz lacked her predecessor’s gravitas and charisma, the ruling party used her appointment skilfully to try and re-build the government’s credibility. Law and Justice struggled to adjust its strategy and message to the new political situation given that, for a long time, it had argued that Mr Tusk personified the shortcomings and pathologies of the Civic Platform administration, which it often referred to as the ‘Tusk system’. The combined effects of Mr Tusk’s appointment and Mrs Kopacz’s ‘new opening’ was thus to wipe out the negative impact of the ‘tape affair’. Opinion polls in the run up to the November local elections, the other major electoral test that Polish parties faced last year, even started to show Civic Platform pulling slightly ahead of Law and Justice.

Challenging the regional election results

Nonetheless, in spite of this – and a relatively lacklustre campaign marred by the so-called ‘Madrid affair’, an expenses scandal that the led to the expulsion of three of the party’s parliamentarians including its national spokesman – Law and Justice finished narrowly ahead of Civic Platform by 26.7% to 26.4% in the elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support. This was an important symbolic victory as the first nationally contested elections since 2005 in which Law and Justice had won the largest share of the vote following seven successive defeats in local, parliamentary, presidential and European polls. However, the apportioning system meant that Mr Kaczyński’s party actually won fewer regional assembly seats across the country, 171 to Civic Platform’s 179, and – because of its lack of coalition potential and the unexpectedly high vote for the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), the ruling party’s junior governing partner (a stunning 23.7% of the votes) – failed to secure control of all but one of the 16 regional authorities.

All of this was overshadowed by a major controversy over the reliability of the regional election results, which Mr Kaczyński went as far as to claim were ‘falsified’. There were certainly major discrepancies with the exit poll that over-estimated Mr Kaczyński’s party’s vote share by nearly 5% (giving it a more substantial 4% lead over Civic Platform) and under-estimated the Peasant Party by almost 7%; the largest divergence ever recorded in a post-1989 Polish election exit poll. At the same time, 17.9% of the votes cast in the regional poll were declared invalid, a record for a Polish election; in previous regional elections the numbers ranged between 12.1%-14.4%. As well as challenging the results in court, Law and Justice staged a national protest on December 13th, a highly symbolic date when the party traditionally leads a march to commemorate the anniversary of the declaration of martial law by the communist regime in 1981.

However, notwithstanding the question of whether there was any tangible evidence of falsification, while many voters may have had concerns about the conduct of the regional elections opinion polls suggested that 60-65% of respondents felt that they were conducted fairly and only 25-30% said that they were not. As in the case of the Smolensk tragedy, while the electoral irregularities issue may have fired up the party’s base, it appeared to alienate more centrist voters. However, commentators sympathetic to Law and Justice argued that, given that the reliability of the electoral process is such a fundamental issue affecting one of the basic procedures that lie at the heart of any democracy, the party had to protest the results whatever the political costs; if did not, it could end up the victim of malpractices in future elections when the stakes would be even higher.

A Pyrrhic victory in prospect?

2015 will be a crucial ‘year of two elections’ for Law and Justice, as it will for all of Poland’s parties. The first major test comes in the summer presidential election, which will be an extremely difficult one for Mr Kaczyński’s party given that it faces a popular Civic Platform-backed incumbent. Mr Kaczyński decided not to contest the election given that he was very unlikely to repeat his relatively good 2010 result when, benefiting from a wave of sympathy following the Smolensk tragedy, he lost fairly narrowly to Bronisław Komorowski securing 47% in a second round run-off. A presidential election defeat for the party’s leader would clearly be a serious psychological blow in the run-up to the autumn parliamentary poll. Instead, the party decided to stand Andrzej Duda, a likeable and well-respected MEP but who is also relatively unknown and un-tested in such a high profile contest. Initial polls showed Mr Duda with around 15-20% support compared to 50-55% for Mr Komorowski, so a good result for him will be to force a second run-off and then secure at least 40% of the vote.

The big challenge will, of course, be the parliamentary election whose outcome will determine the shape of Polish politics for several years to come. Although Law and Justice is currently running neck-and-neck with Civic Platform in the polls, even if it wins the largest share of the vote the party has no obvious potential coalition partners among the main parliamentary groupings. At the same time, Mr Kaczyński’s party is extremely unlikely to win an outright majority which no political grouping has achieved in post-1989 Poland. This would probably require around 45% of the vote and polls suggest that, even when performing strongly, Law and Justice struggles to break through a ‘glass ceiling’ of around 35%.

While Law and Justice has sometimes been fairly effective at scoring points off the Civic Platform-led government, its successes have largely been the product of discontent with the current administration and the party has struggled to move beyond this and craft an attractive and convincing alternative. In particular, it has failed to pursue a consistent strategy and oscillated between, on the one hand, toning down its more aggressive rhetoric to appeal to the centre ground and then reverting back to a more confrontational tone to mobislise its core electorate. As a consequence, serious doubts remain as to whether Poles are ready to vote the party back into office. As things stand, there is a strong chance that Law and Justice could, as in the regional assembly poll, win a Pyrrhic victory: emerging as the largest single party but facing the prospect of four more years in opposition if, as seems likely, it fails to secure an overall majority.

For part 3, ‘Has the Peasant Party joined the “premier league”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/polish-politics-in-2014-part-3-has-the-peasant-party-joined-the-premier-league/

For part 4, ‘Has the left hit rock bottom?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/polish-politics-in-2014-part-4-has-the-left-hit-rock-bottom/

For part 5, ‘How salient was the European issue?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/polish-politics-in-2014-part-5-how-salient-was-the-european-issue/

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 1): Is the ruling party back in the game?

This is the first of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

2014 was a roller coaster year for Poland’s ruling party during which two political game-changers turned around its electoral fortunes. The party came from behind to narrowly win the May European election, was then rocked by a major scandal, only to recover again following the prime minister’s appointment as European Council President. It enters 2015 with a realistic chance of retaining power even if it does not necessarily emerge as the largest party in this autumn’s parliamentary election.

Ukraine transforms the EP election

Although prime minister and leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party, Donald Tusk had been in office since 2007, and in 2011 became the first incumbent Polish premier since the collapse of communism in 1989 to secure re-election, he found his second term much more problematic. Civic Platform was severely weakened by a series of political crises and scandals accompanied by a growing sense of government exhaustion and drift as support for the ruling party slumped. At the same time, divisions and tensions within the party, and a feeling that it was absorbed with its own internal difficulties rather than trying to improve the situation of ordinary Poles, both contributed to, and were exacerbated by, the sense of crisis.

Civic Platform began the year around 5-10% behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister – in opinion polls. A January 2014 poll by the CBOS agency found that only 26% and 28% of respondents respectively were satisfied with the government’s performance and Mr Tusk as prime minister compared to 62% and 58% who were dissatisfied. Another January 2014 CBOS poll found that only 34% said that they trusted Mr Tusk compared with 47% who did not. Most commentators, therefore, assumed that the May European Parliament (EP) poll would be a typical ‘second-order’ election: a referendum on the performance of the government fought primarily over domestic policy issues which voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote. Only the scale of the opposition’s victory appeared to be in doubt.

However, Civic Platform’s fortunes were transformed by the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis at the end of February which moved the issue of international security to the top of the political agenda and altered the dynamics of the EP campaign. Mr Tusk responded very swiftly to events in Poland’s Eastern neighbour, seizing upon the issue of Polish and European security to turn around Civic Platform’s electoral fortunes by skilfully portraying his government as being fully in control and playing a key role in determining the international response to the crisis. As incumbent prime minister, Mr Tusk was able to project himself as an international statesman holding urgent meetings with European and world leaders, while the opposition lacked the instruments to respond effectively to this. In the event, Civic Platform secured 32.1% of the votes with Law and Justice on 31.8% and, given the dire position that Mr Tusk’s party found itself in for much of the previous year, even such a narrow victory was arguably a major success.

Mr Tusk’s appointment overshadows the ‘tape affair’

Then, in the middle of June, catastrophe struck with the outbreak of the so-called ‘tape affair’, the most serious political scandal to hit the Civic Platform-led government since it came to power, when the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ published secret tape recordings of private meetings involving government ministers and other prominent public figures. The most incendiary of these was a conversation between interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and the head of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) Marek Belka where, in spite of the fact that the 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 replied that his condition for helping the government was the replacement of the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski. Further revelations included a recording of foreign minister Radosław Sikorski saying that Poland’s alliance with the USA was worthless and fostered a false sense of security, breeding conflict with Germany and Russia.

Following the outbreak of the scandal, Law and Justice opened up a lead of more than 10% over Civic Platform in the polls. However, the ruling party’s fortunes were once again revived by a further twist of fate when, at the end of August, Mr Tusk was unexpectedly elected as the next President of the EU Council, an appointment that received extremely positive publicity in Poland. Civic Platform was able to present this 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 boost to its popularity which appeared to wipe out the damage inflicted by the ‘tape affair’.

The ‘Kopacz effect’

Mr Tusk was succeeded as prime minister and acting Civic Platform leader by one of his most unswervingly loyal party allies: Ewa Kopacz, the speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament. Mrs Kopacz lacked her predecessor’s gravitas and charisma and got off to a very shaky start. Nonetheless, Civic Platform strategists took full advantage of the fact that, in spite of holding the second most senior state office and having been health minister between 2007-11, Mrs Kopacz was relatively unknown to most voters to ‘re-invent’ her in her new role. In what some commentators termed ‘Operation Kopacz’, the ruling party tried to re-build the government’s credibility by stressing that the new prime minister represented a change of leadership style. Making a virtue of her roots as a family doctor from the provinces, Mrs Kopacz contrasted her background and experiences with those of Warsaw politicians who, she implied, were detached from the day-to-day realities faced by ordinary Poles. Indeed, in an almost apolitical appeal, Mrs Kopacz claimed that she offered pragmatism, consensus and practical solutions to people’s everyday problems in place of ideological divisions.

Polls suggested that voters warmed to Mrs Kopacz’s leadership style. For example, a December 2014 CBOS tracking survey found that 58% of respondents said that they trusted her, the second highest approval rating of any Polish politician. Another December 2014 CBOS poll found that 49% were satisfied with her performance as prime minister and only 29% were dissatisfied, while 40% said that they supported the Kopacz government and only 16% were opposed. The ‘Kopacz effect’ thus appeared to sustain the earlier boost to Civic Platform’s popularity provided by Mr Tusk’s EU presidency appointment, and polls began to show the ruling party drawing level with – and, in some cases, pulling ahead of – Law and Justice.

However, the results of the November local elections, the other major electoral test that Civic Platform faced last year, fell below the party’s expectations. For sure, in the regional assemblies, the only local government tier where elections are fought on national party lines, the ruling party won the largest number of seats: 179 to Law and Justice’s 171. Moreover, given Law and Justice’s lack of coalition potential – and the extraordinary un-expected success of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior government coalition partner, which secured 23.7% of the vote – Mrs Kopacz’s party retained control of 15 out of the 16 regional assemblies. However, while opinion surveys conducted in the run up to the poll had shown Civic Platform enjoying a small lead, it was Law and Justice that finished ahead in the regional vote, albeit extremely narrowly by 26.7% to 26.4%. This was significant as these were the first nationally contested elections since 2005 in which Civic Platform finished behind Mr Kaczyński’s party. Moreover, the regional poll was over-shadowed by allegations that the results were unreliable given large numbers of invalid ballot papers and major discrepancies with exit poll findings that predicted a significantly higher vote for Law and Justice and lower share for the Peasant Party.

Clearly Mrs Kopacz’s personal popularity did not necessarily translate into electoral support for the ruling party. Some commentators and party strategists argued that her policy of down-playing partisanship may have actually dis-orientated Civic Platform’s more passive supporters. In the past, Mr Tusk mobilised the party’s base by constantly attacking Law and Justice for its alleged radicalism and arguing that Mr Kaczyński’s return to office would lead to political turmoil. Following the local elections, Mrs Kopacz came under pressure to sharpen her rhetoric and adopt a more confrontational approach towards the right-wing opposition.

Two crucial elections

However, this could be a problem for the ruling party as its first electoral test in 2015 will be the summer presidential election. The Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski is extremely popular: December 2014 CBOS polls found that he enjoyed a 79% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, and that 73% of respondents were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties. Other surveys suggested that Mr Komorowski is odds-on favourite to secure re-election, possibly even in the first round of voting; a second round run-off is required if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote. However, Mr Komorowski’s political strategy is based on presenting himself (opposition parties argue, disingenuously) as a non-partisan ‘President of all Poles’. This will make it difficult for Civic Platform to adopt a more confrontational tone with Law and Justice, at least until the presidential election is over, and also limit the momentum that the ruling party might derive from his victory. Moreover, given that Mr Komorowski enters the campaign with such high expectations, failure to secure victory in the first round or win decisively in the second (with at least 60% of the vote) will also detract from the positive impact of his re-election for Civic Platform’s prospects.

The most crucial electoral test for the ruling party in 2015 will, of course, be the autumn parliamentary election, whose outcome will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for several years to come. Although Civic Platform enters 2015 in a much weaker state than a few years ago, with polls showing the party running neck-and-neck with Law and Justice it is still very much in the electoral game. Moreover, given Law and Justice’s lack of coalition potential – and the fact that, even if it wins, the party is extremely unlikely to secure an outright majority – there is still a very real chance that, as in the regional assembly polls, Civic Platform could ‘lose’ the parliamentary election but end up remaining in power at the head of another coalition government.

However, electoral defeat could bring to the fore the underling tensions in what is, beneath the surface, a deeply divided and factionalised party. National and local elites are bound to Civic Platform primarily by the access that it provides to state patronage and the main factions are personality-based rather than ideological. One of these comprises supporters of Grzegorz Schetyna, formerly Mr Tusk’s main rival for the party leadership whom Mrs Kopacz appointed as her foreign minister in an attempt to both extend an olive-branch and ensure that her potentially most powerful critic was in the government rather than on the backbenches. This appointment, 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, neutralised potential challenges to Mrs Kopacz’s authority within the ruling party in the short-term. However, such challenges will re-emerge very quickly if Civic Platform loses the next election, possibly even leading to its eventual implosion.

For part 2, ‘Can Law and Justice break through the “glass ceiling”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/polish-politics-in-2014-part-2-can-law-and-justice-break-through-the-glass-ceiling/

For part 3, ‘Has the Peasant Party joined the “premier league”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/polish-politics-in-2014-part-3-has-the-peasant-party-joined-the-premier-league/

For part 4, ‘Has the left hit rock bottom?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/polish-politics-in-2014-part-4-has-the-left-hit-rock-bottom/

For part 5, ‘How salient was the European issue?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/polish-politics-in-2014-part-5-how-salient-was-the-european-issue/