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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/