Does the Polish left have a future?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Struggling in the opinion polls, Poland’s left-wing parties have formed an electoral alliance to contest October’s parliamentary election. However, the as-yet-unnamed coalition faces formidable obstacles and there is still a real prospect that no left-wing groupings will be represented in parliament after the autumn poll, whose outcome could determine the shape of the Polish political scene for years to come.

The rise and fall of Mr Palikot

The Polish left is in deep crisis. For the last decade the political scene has been dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. Although it remains the main party on the left, the once-powerful communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed the country from 1993-97 and 2001-5, has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. At the most recent 2011 parliamentary poll the party suffered its worst ever defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote.

At the same time, a centre-left challenger emerged in the form of the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which was formed at the end of 2010 by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman and one-time Civic Platform parliamentarian, and came from nowhere to finish third in the 2011 election with just over 10% of the vote. However, Mr Palikot’s party failed to capitalise on its success, struggling with its political identity and finding it difficult to decide whether it was really a left-wing party at all or more of an economically and socially liberal centrist grouping. While Mr Palikot clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest, many Poles regarded him as an unpredictable maverick who used coarse, often brutal, rhetoric, and grew tired of his erratic behaviour and political zig-zags.

At the end of 2013, Mr Palikot tried to re-invent his party as ‘Your Movement’ (TR), promising to tone down the strong anti-clericalism and social liberalism on which his earlier electoral success was based while placing greater emphasis on free-market economics. He also tried to broaden out his party’s appeal by contesting the May 2014 European Parliament (EP) election as part of the centre-left ‘Europa Plus’ electoral coalition, hoping to benefit from the (at least nominal) sponsorship of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a very popular Democratic Left Alliance-backed two-term President of Poland (1995-2005) who many commentators saw as the one of the few politicians with the potential to transform the Polish left’s electoral fortunes. However, re-branding the party simply further confused its remaining supporters while Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement in ‘Europa Plus’ was half-hearted to say the least and on occasions he appeared more of a liability than an asset. In the event, the coalition finished seventh in the EP poll securing only 3.6% of the votes, while Your Movement’s parliamentary caucus imploded as most of its deputies defected to other parties.

Presidential election disaster

Meanwhile, Leszek Miller, who was previously party leader from 1997-2004, took over the leadership of the Democratic Left Alliance following its 2011 election drubbing. Mr Miller is a wily political operator who, in his heyday, led the party to victory in the 2001 parliamentary election and served as prime minister from 2001-2004, overseeing Poland’s accession to the EU. Nonetheless, in spite of seeing off the challenge from Mr Palikot and emerging once again as the main standard bearer of the left, the Alliance continued to lag well behind the two main parties in the polls, securing third place in the EP election but with only 9.4% of the vote (compared with 12.3% in 2009). There was worse to come in last November’s local elections when the party finished fourth in the regional assembly polls (the best indicator of national party support), seeing its vote share slump from 15.2% in 2010 to only 8.8%. Critics argued that Mr Miller looked increasingly like a figure from a by-gone era and lacked any clear strategic vision of how to expand the party’s support beyond its declining base of older voters linked to the previous communist regime.

Knowing that they faced almost-certain defeat, the Alliance struggled to find high profile, party-aligned figures willing to contest May’s presidential election and ended up selecting a political unknown, 35-year-old historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek, as its candidate. Ms Ogórek’s candidacy was designed to freshen-up the party’s image and open it up to a new generation of voters as she tried instead to position herself as an anti-establishment figure who could articulate the concerns of alienated Polish youth. However, although Ms Ogórek generated huge media interest much of this was due to her striking appearance and, lacking any real political experience, she ran a poor campaign that was dogged by controversy from the outset. Ms Ogórek was much derided for her reluctance to answer questions in press conferences and give extended national media interviews, and her policy statements included a controversial pledge to re-write Polish law from scratch. She also disorientated left-wing and socially liberal voters by appearing to champion free market economic policies and taking an ambiguous stance on moral-cultural issues such as abortion and the role of the Catholic Church in public life. Although happy to draw on the Alliance’s funds and local organisational structures, Ms Ogórek ran her campaign almost completely independently of the party and ended up distancing herself from the left by refusing to answer questions about whom she had voted for in the past.

In the event Ms Ogórek obtained a humiliating 2.4% of the vote, the party’s worst ever performance in a national election, although Mr Miller managed to see off a potential revolt against his leadership and forced his most high profile critic, former leader Grzegorz Napieralski, out of the party. Moreover, in spite of running a very energetic campaign Mr Palikot’s performance was even worse, finishing seventh with only 1.4%. Two former Palikot Movement deputies who stood as independent left-wing candidates – veteran feminist campaigner Wanda Nowicka, who was supported by the small Labour Union (UP), and Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first trans-sexual parliamentarian and candidate of the tiny Green party (Zieloni) – could not even collect the 100,000 signatures required to get on the ballot paper.

Searching for left unity

The presidential election catastrophe – together with polls suggesting that no left-wing grouping, not even the Democratic Left Alliance, would cross the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation – confirmed the sense of deep crisis on the left and appeared to convince many of its younger leaders that their only hope was to put aside their differences and contest the October 25th parliamentary election on a united ticket. The unity initiative was sponsored by the All-Poland Trade Union Agreement (OPZZ) federation, which has its origins in the previous regime, and culminated in the Democratic Left Alliance, Your Movement and the Greens (joined later by other, smaller left-wing groupings) forming an electoral coalition known provisionally as the ‘United Left’ (Zjednoczona Lewica) on the basis of a rather vague 15-point minimum programme whose details are not yet known.

However, the United Left still faces a number of formidable obstacles. Firstly, a number of smaller left-wing parties have disassociated themselves from the initiative. These include the ‘Red-and-Whites’ (Biało-Czerwoni) – a new grouping set up last month by Mr Napieralski and former Your Movement spokesman Andrzej Rozenek, who resigned from the party following allegations of financial irregularities against Mr Palikot – and the ‘Together’ (Razem) party formed by a number of young, radical left intellectuals and modelled on the Spanish ‘Podemos’ movement. Both groupings refuse to be associated with any unity initiatives sponsored by the Democratic Left Alliance whom they accuse of having discredited the left. Although organisationally and financially stronger than any other left-wing grouping, during its eight years in office the Alliance neglected many issues important to the left and lacks credibility among many potential centre-left voters who view the party as simply an unprincipled life raft for former communist regime functionaries.

Moreover, because its weakness is the consequence of many years of ideological and personal divisions, the Polish left is characterised by deep animosities between its main protagonists. Indeed, such unity initiatives have often foundered on competing ambitions and personal rivalries, and the really tough negotiations, over the composition of the candidate lists, are still to come. Even if this difficult issue can be resolved, the problem with contesting the election as an electoral alliance is, apart from the fact that the new grouping lacks name recognition among voters, that under Poland’s election rules a coalition needs to cross a higher 8% threshold to secure parliamentary representation. One way around this would be to register as a ‘civic’ electoral committee which would only be subject to a 5% threshold, but this would not be eligible for the generous state funding available to parties that secure more than 3% of the vote. Finally, even if it enters parliament, the left will still be a marginal actor; although, depending on how the battle between the two main parties plays out, it may emerge as a potential junior governing coalition partner.

More broadly, while various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as being on the left at around 25-30%, the bigger, over-arching electoral-strategic challenge is to develop an appeal that can bring together its two potential bases of support: socially liberal and economically leftist voters. The kind of socially liberal voters who tend to be younger and better-off, prioritise moral-cultural issues, and in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. They were at one time Mr Palikot’s core electorate and many of them still support Civic Platform; indeed, some analysts argue that the ruling party ‘borrowed’ many of these potential centre-left voters, who supported the grouping as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of office, and has no intention of giving them back!

The economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older and more culturally conservative; indeed, for this reason many of those who are nostalgic for the job security and guaranteed social minimum that they associate with the former communist regime often incline towards supporting right-wing parties such as Law and Justice. Arguably the only deep social roots that the Polish left, and Democratic Left Alliance in particular, have are among those steadily declining sections of the electorate that have some kind of sentiment towards, or interests linking them to, the previous regime, such as families connected to the military and former security services.

A new formula needed?

After a decade in the political wilderness, the Polish left is in dire straits and haunted by the spectre of an ‘Irish scenario’: where two centrist, broadly liberal-conservative parties dominate the political scene with the left a permanently marginalised third force. Indeed, there is a real possibility that there will be no left-wing parties represented in the Polish parliament after the October parliamentary election. The best that the Democratic Left Alliance, and Polish left more generally, can realistically hope for is that they recover enough ground to be a junior partner in a two or three-party Civic Platform-led coalition government. Indeed, some commenters argue that the demise of the Democratic Left Alliance and current left-wing elites is both inevitable and even desirable, and that the left needs to develop a completely new political formula and set of leaders – such as Barbara Nowacka, Your Movement’s media-friendly co-chair, who is tipped by many as a future leader of the Polish left – if it is renew itself and develop an effective long-term challenge to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly.

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