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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/