Is the Kopacz government’s honeymoon over?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

January was the most difficult month for Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz since she came to office last autumn. A humiliating retreat following a show-down with striking coal miners, the resignation of three of her key advisers, and a slump in the government’s approval ratings meant that her political honeymoon appeared to be well and truly over.

The limits of folksiness

When she took office last September following her predecessor Donald Tusk’s appointment as President of the EU Council, Mrs Kopacz tried to re-build support for the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party by stressing that she 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. This home-spun, non-confrontational style appeared to strike a chord with many Poles and thanks to the ‘Kopacz effect’ Civic Platform received an opinion poll boost.

However, this ‘folksiness’ strategy appeared to have reached its limits when the results of the November local elections fell below the ruling party’s expectations. While opinion surveys conducted in the run up to the poll had shown Civic Platform enjoying a small lead, it was the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, that finished ahead, albeit extremely narrowly by 26.7% to 26.4%, in the vote for Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, the best indicator of national party support. This was significant as these were the first nationally contested elections since 2005 in which Civic Platform finished behind Law and Justice. Clearly, although many voters may have warmed to her leadership style, Mrs Kopacz’s personal popularity did not necessarily translate into electoral support for the ruling party.

2015 is a crucial year in Polish politics as there will be two major elections, the summer presidential poll and autumn parliamentary election, which will determine the shape of the political scene for several years. However, the Kopacz government started the year badly coming under increasing pressure for its alleged lack of ambition and strategic purpose, with even some sympathetic commentators saying that it had very few notable achievements to show for its three months in office. Mrs Kopacz was also criticised for her lightweight leadership style and lack of gravitas, an impression re-inforced by a disastrous interview with the glossy women’s magazine ‘Viva’, where her pictures were re-touched so that she was barely recognisable and showed her wearing high-end fashion clothing and surrounded by designer furniture, accompanied by an index of retailers which supplied the clothes and props.

Climb-down over coal re-structuring plans

It was partly in response to such criticisms of alleged government passivity that Mrs Kopacz chose last month to announce plans to re-structure the Polish coal industry, which turned out to be her most significant test as prime minister to date. Poland has Europe’s second largest deposits of coal with more than 100,000 people employed in the industry, but many of its ageing mines are uncompetitive due to falling global energy prices, inefficiency and environmental concerns. The government’s re-structuring plan involved phasing out operations at four of the fourteen mines run by the ailing state-owned Kompania Węglowa, Europe’s largest hard coal mining company which employees 50,000 workers, that were generating the biggest losses. The plan envisaged the laying off or transfer of around 5,000 of Kompania Węglowa’s employees.

To some degree, the government’s hand was forced by the fact that the industry was in substantial deficit and the lack of a re-structuring plan would have resulted in Kompania Węglowa’s imminent bankruptcy. However, Mrs Kopacz was also hoping to derive some political benefit from taking on what she assumed was an un-popular sectional interest and re-establishing her reformist credentials by overhauling a neglected, loss-making industrial sector. Polish governments have often been wary of confronting coal miners, who are a powerful and well organised group. Mr Tusk – who was also, in his time, often criticised for an over-cautious approach towards introducing reforms, which critics argued turned passivity and programmatic timidity into a governing philosophy – had failed to address the industry’s problems during his seven years in office. Indeed, in the run up to last May’s European Parliament elections, Mrs Kopacz’s predecessor promised that there would be no mine closures. However, coal miners are also a sectional interest group that attracts some resentment for their relatively generous employment benefits, including early retirement and high pay, and Mrs Kopacz was hoping that their cause would not generate widespread public support. Drawing analogies with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a figure widely admired in Poland who faced down striking miners in a year-long industrial dispute in the mid-1980s, some commentators even tried to portray Mrs Kopacz as the ‘Polish Iron Lady’.

However, the prime minister under-estimated the strength of the reaction to her plan and level of public support for the miners, especially in Silesia, Poland’s industrial heartland and a crucial electoral battleground region. An opinion poll conducted by the Millward Brown agency for the TVN ‘Fakty’ news programme found that 68% of respondents supported the miners while only 15% backed the government. Thousands of miners went on strike underground and took to the streets with their supporters to oppose the closure programme, while in the regional capital Katowice demonstrators disrupted rail travel. Fearful of the strikes and protests spreading to other sectors and regions in a double-election year – a general strike was planned for January 20th if an agreement was not reached – Mrs Kopacz was forced to retreat.

According to the compromise deal that ended the ten days of protests, the government announced a new plan that involved neither pit closures nor compulsory redundancies. Mrs Kopacz’s supporters defended the new proposal claiming that, for the first time, a Polish government had convinced the public and miners to contemplate reform of the coal industry and forced an acceptance from the unions that re-structuring was necessary. The government’s critics, on the other hand, argued that while it may have bought the government a few months of peace in the run-up to the elections, the compromise deal was opaque and incoherent, sweeping all the most difficult issues under the carpet. Mrs Kopacz’s climb-down also damaged her credibility and – together with the fact that, earlier in the month, the government gave in to doctors taking industrial action over new contracts – could encourage other sectional groups to make further demands.

Resignations and a poll slump

Mrs Kopacz suffered a further blow when three key members of her prime ministerial office were forced to resign. These included government spokesman Iwona Sulik who stood down following revelations by the ‘Fakt’ newspaper that she had conducted media training for opposition politicians last year while working for Mrs Kopacz when the prime minister was speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. Although widely disliked within Civic Platform and held responsible for Mrs Kopacz’s numerous public relations gaffes, Ms Sulik was a close personal friend of the prime minister and had had a decisive voice on political matters that went beyond her government communications brief. Ms Sulik’s resignation was followed swiftly by that of Adam Piechowicz – Mrs Kopacz’s chief public relations adviser, who was alleged to have also participated in the coaching sessions for opposition members – and, in an apparent gesture of solidarity with her colleagues, Jolanta Gruszka, the prime minister’s chief political adviser and another one of her long-standing collaborators.

Mrs Kopacz’s terrible month was capped by the publication of opinion polls showing a slump in her government’s approval ratings. A survey for the CBOS agency found that 30% of respondents said that they supported the government, a drop of 8% over the last month and down from 41% in November 2014. The number of government opponents stood at 25%, an increase of 9% over the last month. At the same time, the number who evaluated Mrs Kopacz’s performance are prime minister positively fell from 53% in November 2014 to only 39%, while the number who viewed her negatively increased from 22% to 38% over the same period.

All of this meant that the government was forced to deny speculation that party rivals were plotting to depose Mrs Kopacz even before the summer presidential election. In fact, for the moment at least, this remains an extremely unlikely prospect. For sure, national and local elites are bound to Civic Platform primarily by the access that it provides to state patronage and, beneath the surface, it is a deeply divided and factionalised party teeming with internal strife. However, the main factions are personality-based rather than ideological and by bringing their leaders into the government, Mrs Kopacz has so far managed to neutralise potential challenges to her authority. Although these conflicts will re-emerge very quickly if Civic Platform loses the next election or suffers a huge slump in the opinion polls, so far they have been frozen or confined to the local level. Moreover, the rival factions are deeply mistrustful of each other and, even if they can unite to remove Mr Kopacz, her departure would usher in an acrimonious leadership battle which would be extremely damaging to the party in a pre-election period.

All to play for but the honeymoon is over

In fact, the situation is far from hopeless for Mrs Kopacz and the ruling party. In spite of its slump in support, the government still has more supporters than opponents and the prime minister retains fairly high levels of personal popularity; CBOS found that, with an approval rating of at 49%, she remains Poland’s second most popular politician. The two main parties are still running neck-and-neck in the polls and many voters retain serious doubts about Law and Justice which appears to have a ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents its support from growing above a certain level. Civic Platform should also get a boost from the summer presidential election which Bronisław Komorowski – the extremely popular, Civic Platform-backed incumbent – looks almost certain to win comfortably. Moreover, even if Law and Justice emerges as the largest party after the parliamentary election, it is extremely unlikely to secure an overall majority and has no obvious potential coalition partners among the other parties that are likely to cross the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. So there is still all to play for for Civic Platform and Mrs Kopacz, and a very real chance that, even if the party ‘loses’ the parliamentary election, it could still end up remaining in power at the head of another coalition government.

Mrs Kopacz’s government has made a bad start to what will be a critical year in Polish politics. It is very difficult to see what her long-term political strategy is and what reserves she can draw upon as the initial popularity boost stemming from her ‘newness’ comes to an end and folksiness ceases to be a political asset. While they might warm to her personally, many voters appear to have serious doubts about Mrs Kopacz’s effectiveness in her role as prime minister. Indeed, the main source of the ruling party’s residual strength appears to be continued public wariness of the right-wing opposition. Although it is hard to tell how much long-term damage the events of the past month have done to the government, its honeymoon appears to be well and truly over.

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