Can Civic Platform recover?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

An unexpected presidential election defeat plunged Poland’s ruling party into a serious crisis, deepened by the return of a wiretapping scandal that it had hoped would fade away but ended up forcing a government re-shuffle. While it is too early to write the ruling party off, it is struggling to respond effectively to a strong public backlash against the current political elite.

A shock presidential election defeat

In the run-up to the May presidential election, the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) had been running neck-and-neck in opinion polls with the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, and some even showed it pulling slightly ahead. A key element of Civic Platform leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz’s political strategy was using the widely-predicted resounding victory of the ruling party-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, possibly even in the first round of voting, to create a wave of popular enthusiasm that would carry her party through to victory in the more important autumn parliamentary election. However, Mr Komorowski’s shock defeat by Andrzej Duda, the Law and Justice-backed candidate, left the ruling party’s strategy in tatters and have changed the dynamics of the parliamentary poll, leading to an upsurge in support for the right-wing opposition which most polls now put ahead by around 10%.

The presidential election result also suggested that Civic Platform could no longer rely on its previously successful strategy of mobilising reluctant supporters by generating fear of an opposition victory. The ruling party’s claim to a better guarantor of stability than the confrontational and allegedly authoritarian style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associate with Law and Justice and its combative leader Jarosław Kaczyński was a key element in all of its recent, successful election campaigns but was not effective this time around.

At the same time, the equally surprising presidential election success of charismatic former rock star Paweł Kukiz – who, standing as an ‘anti-system’ candidate, secured more than one-fifth of the first round votes – could radically alter future coalition configurations. Up until now, Law and Justice appeared to have no obvious coalition partners among the main parliamentary groupings which meant that, even if it ‘won’ the parliamentary election, Civic Platform could still end up remaining in office. The possible entry into parliament of a substantial ‘anti-system’ right-wing bloc clustered around Mr Kukiz opens up a potential pathway to power for Mr Kaczyński’s party. Post-presidential election polls show support for Mr Kukiz’s (as yet un-named) grouping, which sees the replacement of the country’s proportional electoral system with one based on single-member constituencies as the key to renewing Polish politics, at around 15-20%.

Civic Platform also faces another potential electoral threat with the formation at the end of May of a new liberal grouping, ‘ModernPL’ (NowoczesnaPL). ModernPL – led by economist Ryszard Petru, an associate of Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Poland’s 1990s transition to a capitalist market economy – is appealing to the kind of younger, well-educated urban voters and entrepreneurs, attracted by the economically liberal policies once associated with Civic Platform. The ruling party has alienated many of these voters who feel that it has drifted away from its free market roots, exemplified the government’s reluctance to reduce taxes and scrap pension privileges for various sectoral groups, and it’s dismantling of the obligatory OFE private pension fund scheme. Mr Petru lacks Mr Kukiz’s charisma and ModernPL’s social base is too narrow for it to attract widespread support; most polls show the new grouping hovering around the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. Nonetheless, along with Mr Kukiz’s movement it could still peel away some support from what should be Civic Platform’s natural electoral base.

The ‘tape affair’ returns

Even worse, no sooner had the ruling party started to recover its composure after the presidential election defeat than the government found itself dogged by allegations of corruption and sleaze when controversial businessman and anti-establishment activist Zbigniew Stonoga published thousands of pages of classified documents on the Internet from the ongoing public prosecutor’s investigation into the so-called ‘tape affair’. This scandal, the most serious to hit the Civic Platform-led government since it came to power in 2007, erupted a year ago when the weekly news magazine ‘Wprost’ published secret tape recordings of private meetings involving senior government ministers and other prominent public figures in high-end Warsaw restaurants. Although they did not appear to reveal any illegal actions, the transcripts prompted a criminal investigation by Poland’s prosecutor general to identify their source, and drew popular anger at the crude language used by public figures while discussing state matters over expensive meals paid for by the taxpayer. In retrospect, Civic Platform was lulled into a false sense of security following the unexpected election last autumn of the then prime minister and party leader Donald Tusk as EU Council President which, together with Mrs Kopacz’s appointment as his successor, appeared to wipe out the damage to the ruling party inflicted by the scandal.

Although the latest set of leaks did not appear to contain anything substantially new or damaging for the government, the re-appearance of the scandal put Civic Platform back on the defensive. Fearing the prospect of further embarrassing revelations in the months leading up to the election, in an extraordinary political purge Mrs Kopacz forced the resignations of the treasury, health and sports ministers together with three deputy ministers and other senior officials including Radosław Sikorski the speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament – her chief policy adviser, and the co-ordinator of the state security services. Most of those sacked had featured in the tapes, although Mrs Kopacz also appeared to use the leak as a pretext to get rid of some unpopular officials who were not connected to the scandal, such as health minister Bartosz Arłukowicz. As replacements she nominated famous cardio-surgeon and Civic Platform regional councillor Professor Marian Zembala as health minister, world champion and Olympic gold medallist rower Adam Korol as sports minister, and Andrzej Czerwiński, a second-rank Civic Platform politician, as treasury minister.

However, the re-shuffle was poorly handled, with a five day gap between the announcement of the resignations and new appointments, and came across as a panic move forced by the leaks to stem the government’s falling popularity rather than a genuine desire to atone for the ‘tape affair’. It was followed quickly by a Civic Platform programmatic convention which was promised as a ’turning point’ in the ruling party’s fortunes but proved to be a damp squib. No new major policies were announced and Mrs Kopacz simply unveiled a special team that would draw up a new programme to be published in September, shortly ahead of the election.

Mrs Szydło steals the show

Moreover, Civic Platform’s rather anaemic convention was over-shadowed by Law and Justice’s decision to hold a rival event on the same day and then steal the ruling party’s thunder by announcing that its emollient deputy leader Beata Szydło, who was Mr Duda’s election campaign manager, and not Mr Kaczyński would be the party’s prime ministerial nominee in the parliamentary poll. Civic Platform strategists were banking on the fact that with Mr Kaczyński as the focus its negative campaigning would be more effective than it was during the presidential campaign when the Law and Justice leader kept a low profile. Mr Kaczyński has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters but is a polarising figure and one of the country’s least trusted politicians among more moderate voters.

For sure, Mrs Szydło is untested in such a high profile role. Civic Platform strategists have also tried to claim that she is just an acceptable front to make Law and Justice more palatable and will be steered by Mr Kaczyński from behind-the-scenes. Moreover, having a prime minister who is not party leader may also cause serious problems in the longer term. Indeed, Law and Justice’s opponents have suggested that Mrs Szydło might just be a temporary stand-in and drew analogies with the situation after the party’s first election victory in 2005 when Mr Kaczyński, whose twin brother Lech was elected President at the same time, appointed second-rank politician Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz as prime minister to avoid the controversy of twins filling Poland’s two highest state offices, only for Mr Kaczyński to replace him a few months later. However, Mrs Szydło’s appointment has given Law and Justice a valuable short-term boost and there is every chance it can carry this momentum through to polling day, leaving difficult questions about the long-term sustainability of the arrangement until after the election.

Is Mrs Kopacz up to it?

Civic Platform has clearly undergone a serious political crisis. Hostility towards the political establishment has been a noticeable feature of Polish politics in recent months and is being directed almost exclusively at the ruling party, whom much of the electorate, especially younger voters, see as representing an out-of-touch elite. As the presidential election showed, voters are now much more cynical about Civic Platform’s moves to win back lost support, which they often perceive as panicky and inauthentic. Moreover, large sections of the ruling party are now too inwardly focused on sharing out the spoils of office and used to the idea that Civic Platform can win elections by simply tapping into the ‘politics of fear’.

There are also serious question marks over whether Mrs Kopacz has the leadership skills to turn the party’s fortunes around. The evidence so far suggests that she has proved to be a reasonably efficient party manager and political tactician, skilled at balancing various factions and controlling the political situation through effective short-term manoeuvring. However, Mr Kopacz lacks gravitas and charisma, and, most importantly, it is unclear if she has the capacity for strategic political thinking that can help Civic Platform to develop an effective response to the changes in societal attitudes that have eroded support for the ruling party in recent months.

Nonetheless, however uncomfortable Civic Platform members may feel about her leadership, and in spite of the fact that faith in her ability to win the election has diminished radically over the last few months, there is little appetite within the party for a leadership challenge with a broad consensus that such a contest will only de-stabilise and weaken it further. Moreover, none of Mrs Kopacz’s potential challengers, such as foreign minister Grzegorz Schetyna, are particularly keen to take over when the party is in such a precarious state and would prefer to see her take responsibility for an electoral defeat that appears increasingly likely. Nonetheless, while Mrs Kopacz has managed to neutralise potential challenges to her authority in the short-term, these will re-emerge very quickly if Civic Platform loses the election, and possibly even lead to the party’s eventual implosion.

Down but not out?

It is still too early to write Civic Platform off. Although the party is severely weakened, it retains considerable assets, including the backing of most of the cultural and media establishment. In spite of its slump in the polls, there has not, as yet, been a total meltdown in the party’s support below the 20% threshold which keeps it in the electoral game. Civic Platform has both the capacity to develop a more effective counter-attack and access to the instruments of government which provide it with opportunities to ‘make the political weather’. However, as things currently stand, it is Law and Justice that has the momentum and, unless Mr Kaczyński’s grouping becomes complacent and starts to make major unforced errors, the ruling party will need to come up with a much more convincing response if it is to regain the political initiative.