Is Paweł Kukiz a spent force?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

A former rock star looked set to shake up the Polish political scene and challenge the country’s dominant two-party duopoly in October’s parliamentary election following his sensational result in May’s presidential poll. But he has squandered this political capital and there is now a chance that his fledgling movement will not even make it into parliament at all.

Opening up the political system

Standing as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate, charismatic social activist and former rock star Paweł Kukiz came from nowhere to finish third in the first round of May’s presidential election, securing a stunning 20.9% of the votes. This was in spite of being a political novice with no party or organised grouping supporting his candidacy. Mr Kukiz’s background was as a rebellious rock singer who performed in a band called ‘The Breasts’ although in recent years his recordings have increasingly emphasised national-patriotic themes. Describing himself ‘a right-winger with a left-wing heart’, Mr Kukiz has a very eclectic approach towards moral-cultural and socio-economic issues, enjoying close links with both prominent free-marketeers and trade union leaders and social activists.

In fact, Mr Kukiz supported the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping in the 2005 and 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections, although he now refers to it as a ‘party of swindlers’ following its failure to introduce UK-style single member electoral constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), at one time a key element of the party’s programme. Indeed, Mr Kukiz’s strong support for the replacement of the current list-based proportional electoral system with first-past-the-post, which he sees as the key to renewing Polish politics, is his signature issue and main focus of his social activism.

According to Mr Kukiz, as a consequence of the proportional electoral system Poland is governed by a ‘partocracy’: a cartel of hierarchical political parties dominated by leaders who dictate which candidates appear on electoral lists. This has created a closed political system in which the electoral process is a pure formality, leaving the country weakened and vulnerable to manipulation by external forces. The aim of introducing single member constituencies is to create a system in which citizens by-pass these leaders by voting for individual candidates rather than parties, thereby holding their elected representatives directly accountable. In fact, although Mr Kukiz sees the introduction of single member constituencies, together with the abolition of state party funding, as critical for changing the relationship between the government and its citizens, it is really a slogan around which he can mobilise a broad movement to open up the political system more generally.

One crisis after another

Opinion polls conducted immediately after the presidential election showed Mr Kukiz to be Poland’s most trusted politician and his as-yet-unnamed grouping in second place with 15-20% support, behind the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, but ahead of Civic Platform. However, since then he has encountered one crisis after another. Having fallen out with and publicly attacked many of the local government and civic activists who had formed the backbone of his presidential campaign team, Mr Kukiz has come to rely increasingly upon the support of small radical right-wing parties such as the nationalist National Movement (RN), and economically libertarian and socially conservative Congress of the New Right (KNP). Given his reluctance to register a formal political party, Mr Kukiz needs their grassroots organisation to collect the signatures required for his ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee to register candidate lists for the October 25th parliamentary poll.

Moreover, instead of broadening out his political vision, Mr Kukiz declared that he had no intention of unveiling more well-defined policies arguing that party programmes were one of the ‘biggest lies’ in politics. One of the reasons why Mr Kukiz is so reluctant to develop a detailed programme is because his electorate is so ideologically diverse. On most issues there is little to distinguish his supporters’ views from those of the average voter, although they are notably pessimistic about the way that democracy and the state function in Poland. Rather, they supported Mr Kukiz because they saw him as trustworthy, authentic and above the political fray. Lacking any clear ideological or social base, his movement is a multi-faceted rebellion, united only by its hostility towards the ‘falseness’ of official politics.

The only distinguishing demographic feature of the Kukiz electorate is its relative youth: in the presidential election he won the largest share of the vote, 41.4%, among younger electors compared with only 3.8% among the over-60s. Many young Poles are frustrated at the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities, and often face an invidious choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fall well short of their abilities and aspirations or remaining in a country which they feel offers them few prospects for the future. Mr Kukiz was able to tap into this frustration; indeed, one of his arguments for single member constituencies is that it could facilitate the kind of state action required to prevent millions of Poles being forced to emigrate in order to find work.

Mr Kukiz’s popularity thus stemmed from his ability to articulate, albeit in a rather chaotic way, real issues of concern to many Poles. However, he underestimated the sheer inertia of the political system and the difficulties of turning a one-off explosion of protest into a lasting movement. Mr Kukiz also too put too much faith in his political instincts and belief that, as an ‘anti-system’ activist, he could express himself in a very emotional and often incoherent way forgetting that such carelessness alienated more moderate voters and made him easy prey for his political opponents.

No boost from the referendum

At the same time, an electoral reform referendum scheduled for September 6th has not provided the boost for Mr Kukiz that many expected. In an effort to win over Mr Kukiz’s supporters following his shock first round presidential election result – when, in spite of having been well ahead in every poll during the campaign, the Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski finished behind Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda – the President initiated a national referendum on introducing single-member electoral constituencies and abolishing state party funding. In the event, Mr Komorowski lost the election but set up a plebiscite on two of Mr Kukiz’s signature issues, apparently helping to ensure that electoral reform would dominate the summer pre-election period.

However, the referendum has to failed to make an impact with the public and turnout is almost certain to fall well short of the 50% required to make it constitutionally valid. Mr Kukiz’s attempt to mobilise support through a summer concert tour was overshadowed by his ongoing political difficulties and he was squeezed out of the debate as the conflict between the two major parties re-asserted itself as the main axis of competition. Ironically, instead of the electoral reform issue dominating the election campaign, it was the parliamentary poll that overshadowed the referendum. Indeed, Law and Justice stole the initiative by calling for supplementary referendum questions on: lowering the retirement age, the minimum age for children to start school, and restrictions on the sale of state-owned forests. (In the event, following his inauguration as President, Mr Duda proposed holding an additional referendum on these issues on the same day as the parliamentary election; although, this still requires approval by the Senate where Civic Platform has a majority.)

Kukiz the kingmaker?

Not surprisingly, then, support for Mr Kukiz has fallen dramatically to around 5-10%. This is important because of his role as potential kingmaker in the new parliament. Even if Law and Justice wins the election, which now appears increasingly probable, it is extremely unlikely to secure an outright majority and currently has no obvious potential coalition partners among the main parliamentary groupings. However, if a substantial ‘anti-system’ right-wing bloc clustered around Mr Kukiz enters the new parliament this would create a potential pathway to power for Law and Justice.

Given how important Mr Kukiz’s result could be for future coalition configurations, he has come under relentless attack from the pro-government media. This has included accusations of anti-semitisim (which he denies vehemently), xenophobia (based on his opposition to Muslim immigration) and political megalomania (the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ daily dubbed him the ‘Polish Chavez’ after the Venezuelan political strongman). The Kukiz electorate was also seen by the ruling party as a ‘soft’ target and relatively easy to prize away. Indeed, a May survey by the CBOS agency found that 44% of Mr Kukiz’s presidential election voters had actually supported Civic Platform in the previous 2011 parliamentary election, while 30% of them identified with the political centre, 25% with the left and only 17% with the right. Some commentators argue that Mr Kukiz expressing a preference for Law and Justice as his partner in the new parliament is one of the main reasons for his movement’s slump in support.

A critical moment

Although there are still nearly two months left until the election, this is a critical moment for Mr Kukiz. The next few weeks could be his last chance to regain the political initiative and will determine whether his support goes into freefall or solidifies enough for ‘Kukiz ‘15’ to cross the 5% threshold required for parliamentary representation and return a decent-sized caucus. In fact, while his recent difficulties may have damaged Mr Kukiz’s credibility among centrist voters, many of his potential supporters are immune to the kind of gaffes that would be fatal for other, more mainstream politicians and will continue to support him as long as he remains a credible fighter against ‘the system’. Hostility towards the political establishment has been a noticeable feature of Polish politics in recent months, especially among younger voters. Ironically, for some of his supporters Mr Kukiz’s lack of a coherent (or even any) political programme could actually be seen as further evidence of his ‘anti-systemness’ while his conflict with the mainstream media might help to burnish his anti-establishment credentials.

However, Mr Kukiz is struggling to regain the momentum that gave him his astonishing presidential election result and is vital for such charismatic protest movements. He is the latest in a long line of anti-establishment candidates and parties in post-1989 Poland who have garnered the backing of protest voters but found it difficult to maintain their support. Sooner-or-later all of them faded from the political scene. As recent weeks have shown, Mr Kukiz’s supporters are also fickle and liable to change their political allegiances very quickly.

Indeed, even if Mr Kukiz does, in the end, secure parliamentary representation this will just be the beginning of the political challenges that his movement faces. The real test for anti-establishment political movements is whether they can hold on to their protest electorate if they ever happen to find themselves in power. There is every chance that Mr Kukiz’s parliamentary caucus will fragment as it is forced to confront issues that bring its ideological incoherence to the fore, with many deputies defecting to other parties.

Tired and frustrated?

Mr Kukiz is finding that building a lasting political grouping with a positive message is much more difficult than mobilising an amorphous, heterogeneous and ideologically eclectic movement based on frustration and negation. There is little to suggest that he has the institution-building skills required to go beyond simply mobilising and channelling protest; indeed, he sometimes gives the impression of being tired and frustrated with his own political project. As things currently stand, it is difficult to see a long-term future for such an ephemeral political construct as the Kukiz movement. While the broader social trends that it has tapped into and formed the basis for its success are likely to remain a feature of the Polish political scene, it appears increasingly likely that the ‘Kukiz phenomenon’ will fizzle out like previous anti-establishment challenges.