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

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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/