The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: September, 2015

How will the European migration crisis affect the Polish election?

The European migration crisis has dominated news headlines and emerged as an important issue dividing Poland’s parties in the run-up to October’s parliamentary election. Although the outcome is likely to be determined by domestic factors, the migration issue could make an important difference at the margins: possibly helping the right-wing opposition to secure an overall majority or boosting support for anti-immigration fringe parties.

Walking a political tightrope

The migration issue has polarised the Polish political scene, provoking disagreements between the two major parties in the run up to the October 25th parliamentary election which have grown shaper as the crisis has intensified. The ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) and its leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz have been walking a political tightrope trying to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, the ruling party was concerned to be seen to be responding to popular anxieties and defending Polish interests against EU institutions trying to impose migrants upon the country. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with very few ethnic minorities, and virtually none who are non-European, which has had little experience of the modern migrations that have transformed Western Europe. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

On the other hand, the Kopacz government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU member states – to do more to help alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. Civic Platform’s EU strategy has been to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting it as a reliable and stable member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. So it was also keen to be seen to be playing a positive role in helping to resolve the migration crisis.

Civic Platform flip-flops

As a consequence, the Civic Platform-led government has flip-flopped on the migration issue. Initially, along with the three other Central European ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia), Warsaw opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states and only reluctantly accepted the 2,000 envisaged for Poland under the Union’s original plan. However, the further wave of migration over the summer led Brussels to increase the number that Poland was expected to admit to 12,000 under a revised EU scheme encompassing 120,000 migrants in total. At this point the Kopacz administration began to change its rhetoric, saying that it was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. Calling for what she termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, Mrs Kopacz described Poland’s proposed quota as ‘symbolic’, comparing it to the numbers who attend a Legia Warsaw football match every week.

In the event, at the September European Council meeting Poland went against its Central European allies voting for a distribution plan involving 66,000 asylum seekers initially (increasing to 120,000 next year) and agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (around 7,000 in total). Civic Platform defended its about-turn on the grounds that the crisis had to be tackled urgently in order to prevent the collapse of free movement of labour across the EU Single Market zone, and because Poland had too few potential allies to form a blocking minority within the Council. However, the party was also concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media, coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight.

Moreover, even though Poland ‘voluntarily’ accepted the same proportion of migrants as envisaged in the Commission’s original plan, Civic Platform argued that, because the EU relocation scheme was not being determined by a mandatory ‘automatic’ algorithm based on population size and wealth, the Council had avoided setting a precedent on how future migrant distributions would be determined. It also pointed out that the EU had accepted Polish negotiating demands on strengthening the Union’s external borders, a clearer division between genuine refugees and economic migrants, and giving Poland full control in vetting and excluding migrants if they represented a security threat; although critics argued that these provisions were either unrealistic or already in the pipeline, so hardly a triumph for Polish negotiators.

Law and Justice warns of migration consequences

On the other hand, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, has argued that the government should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish concerns. The party warned that there was a serious danger of making the same mistakes as many West European countries, whereby a large number of migrants who do not respect Polish laws and customs end up imposing their way of life so that Poles become ‘guests in their own country’. It cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claimed that such a scenario was already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the region.

While it supports Polish EU membership Law and Justice is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) party committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty, especially in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. The party has argued that the Civic Platform government needs to be more robust in advancing Polish national interests within the EU rather than simply following European mainstream politics which it sees as being driven by Germany.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Law and Justice accused the Kopacz government of betraying its Central European allies and violating national sovereignty by taking decisions under EU pressure that might undermine Polish culture and security without the agreement of the nation. The party argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals. It also said that it was naïve to believe that the quota that Poland had accepted voluntarily would not be used as a precedent to force it to take in additional migrants in the future.

Re-igniting the ‘politics of fear’

Civic Platform has hit back by arguing that it is Poland’s duty to take in people fleeing for their lives and accusing Law and Justice of being anti-European and promoting xenophobia, warning that its approach could lead to the country’s isolation within the EU. A key element of Civic Platform’s strategy in previous election campaigns has been mobilising its supporters through generating fear of a Law and Justice victory. Although this did not appear to be working as successfully as before, party strategists were banking on the fact, that with Law and Justice’s combative leader Jarosław Kaczyński as the focus of its parliamentary campaign, Civic Platform’s negative campaigning would be more effective this time. 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. Law and Justice has, therefore, tried to finesse this by making the party’s emollient deputy leader Beata Szydło its prime ministerial nominee rather than Mr Kaczyński. However, the migration crisis appears to have, for the moment at least, drawn Mr Kaczyński back into the political fray: he made the party’s keynote speech during September’s highly-charged parliamentary debate on the issue.

In fact, Civic Platform’s attempts to use the crisis to re-ignite the ‘politics of fear’ may lead many Poles to interpret the ruling party’s stance as supporting a, potentially very unpopular, ‘open door’ migration policy. It is difficult to get to the grips with what Poles really think about migration from opinion polls because political correctness is likely to prevent respondents answering truthfully and a lot depends on how the question is phrased. For example, a September survey conducted by the Millward Brown agency found that 53% of respondents felt that Poland had a ‘moral duty’ to accept refugees from the Middle East and Africa while only 44% disagreed. However, only 36% of respondents were prepared to accept more than 1,000 migrants, while more than two-thirds felt that immigration would lead to religious and cultural conflicts, an increase in crime, and abuse of Poland’s welfare system, and three-fifths feared the creation of migrant ghettos in Polish towns and an increased threat of terrorism. Interestingly, a more recent Millward Brown survey for the TVN broadcaster suggested that negative attitudes were hardening with 56% against accepting migrants from these countries and only 38% in favour.

A boost for radical parties?

The migration issue could also boost support for some radical groupings campaigning on an anti-immigration platform. At the moment, the party that has focused most on this issue is the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic Freedom and Hope (KORWiN). This is the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke: a veteran eccentric of the political scene who has contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989 and is notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. Mr Korwin-Mikke was elected to the European Parliament in May 2014 as leader of the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which finished fourth securing 7.2% of the votes, but he broke away from his previous party to form a new grouping in January 2015. The core of his political ideology has always been radical economic liberalism, social conservatism and Euroscepticism, but in this election his party’s main campaign theme is opposition to the Islamisation of Poland.

Opinion polls suggest that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party is currently just under the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. It could possibly emerge as the main ‘anti-system’ grouping in this election, a mantle that, at one stage, appeared destined for the ‘Kukiz ‘15’ election committee formed by charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Mr Kukiz came from nowhere to pick up more than one-fifth of the vote in the first round of the May presidential election but his electoral prospects have plummeted since then, although he too has started to take a greater interest in the migration issue. However, Law and Justice’s tough anti-immigration stance will probably limit the potential scope for fringe parties to mobilise around this issue.

A marginal (but potentially significant) impact?

Although the migration crisis has dominated Polish news headlines in recent weeks it does not, as yet, appear to have had any significant impact on levels of party support. Opinion polls continue to show Law and Justice clearly ahead of Civic Platform by around 10% but this is largely due to more general disillusionment with and hostility towards the political establishment which appears to be directed primarily against the ruling party. However, even if, as appears increasingly likely, Law and Justice emerges as the largest grouping in the new parliament, it is unclear if it will win an overall majority, something that no party has achieved in post-communist Poland. The composition of the next government could, therefore, depend on the performance of the minor parties and none of the current ones in parliament appear likely to want to form a coalition with Law and Justice. In this situation, even if the migration issue only affects party support at the margins, it could still have a significant impact on the election outcome, possibly giving Law and Justice enough of a boost to win a majority or helping a potential right-wing coalition partner campaigning on an anti-immigration platform to secure parliamentary representation.

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Who won Poland’s ‘referendum war’ and how will it affect the October election?

An electoral reform referendum called by the ruling party that was supposed to benefit a charismatic ‘anti-system’ political independent ended in fiasco with fewer than one-in-ten Poles turning out to vote. Instead, helped by Poland’s popular new right-wing President, the opposition successfully re-focused debate onto socio-economic issues, particularly the government’s deeply unpopular pension reforms.

Mr Komorowski’s unwanted legacy

Former President Bronisław Komorowski, who was backed the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, initiated the September 6th referendum as a panic move following his shock defeat in the first round of May’s presidential election. In spite of having been well ahead in every poll during the campaign, Mr Komorowski finished behind Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. The referendum would ask Poles whether they: supported introducing single-member electoral constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’) to the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower chamber of parliament; and were in favour of maintaining the current system of funding political parties from the state budget and introducing a presumption in favour of the taxpayer in disputes over taxation law.

Mr Komorowski called the referendum in an effort to win over supporters of the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz, who came from nowhere to finish third with more than 20% of the votes in the first round. Mr Kukiz’s signature issue and main focus of his earlier social activism was his strong support for the replacement of the current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member electoral constituencies, which he saw as the key to renewing Polish politics. Running as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate Mr Kukiz had peeled away many disillusioned Civic Platform voters. In the event, Mr Komorowski lost the election to Mr Duda but the left the September referendum as his unwanted political legacy.

No boost for Mr Kukiz

It was assumed initially that Mr Kukiz would be the greatest beneficiary from the referendum as it would ensure that his signature issue of electoral reform, which opinion surveys suggested Poles supported overwhelmingly, became the main focus of political debate during the summer thus providing him with momentum in the run-up to the October 25th parliamentary election. It was also felt that the referendum could help Civic Platform which had always supported single-member constituencies and, along with the majority of Poles, opposed state party funding. Indeed, introducing first-past-the-post was, at one time, a key element of the party’s programme and it was largely due to this issue that Mr Kukiz had supported Civic Platform in the 2005 and 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections; although he now refers to it as a ‘party of swindlers’ following its subsequent failure to introduce electoral reform for the Sejm. At the same time, it was assumed that Mr Komorowski’s referendum would be problematic for Law and Justice, which was out of step with public opinion in both opposing single-member constituencies and supporting state party funding.

In fact, the September referendum did not provide Mr Kukiz with the boost that many commentators expected. He had a disastrous summer with a series of political blunders and endless rows within his camp overshadowing attempts to mobilise support for the referendum through a concert tour. Mr Kukiz was also squeezed out of the wider political 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.

Re-defining the debate

Moreover, Law and Justice managed to re-define the terms of the referendum debate by calling for additional questions to be added on: reversing the government’s controversial decisions to raise the retirement age and lower the compulsory school starting age from 7 to 6; and on restricting the sale of state-owned forest land. Law and Justice tried to contrast the way that it wanted to broaden out the referendum to include matters of interest to ordinary Poles – exemplified by the fact that six million people signed petitions calling for referendums on these issues, but had been ignored by the government – with Mr Komorowski’s panicky manoeuvre of calling referenda on abstract, systemic questions for purely short-term tactical reasons. An August IBRiS poll for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that 67% of respondents wanted the September poll extended to include additional questions on these subjects while only 30% were against. The Civic Platform-led government’s deeply unpopular 2012 pension reform increasing in the retirement age to 67 (from 65 for men and 60 for women) was a particularly salient issue, and Law and Justice’s promise to reverse it one of the party’s main election pledges.

Law and Justice’s call to widen the referendum became one of the main topics of political debate during the summer. Indeed, in his first major initiative following his inauguration as President on August 6th, Mr Duda proposed an additional referendum on these three subjects to be held on the same day as the parliamentary election. (Although, interestingly, his proposed question on lowering the retirement age linked this to the number of years that entitlements had been accrued and did not specify that it should be returned to 65 and 60, although this specific pledge remained one of Law and Justice’s campaign promises). In the event, the Senate – Poland’s second parliamentary chamber, which had to approve Mr Duda’s proposal and where the ruling party has a majority – voted down the initiative by 53 votes to 35. Civic Platform representatives accused the President of failing to present the legal and financial consequences of his proposals, and argued that the questions were both too general and failed to meet the criteria set out in the Polish Constitution of being issues of major state importance. They also claimed that holding the referendum and parliamentary election simultaneously would create numerous logistical problems. Moreover, prime minister and Civic Platform leader Ewa Kopacz accused Mr Duda of being a partisan President who, by calling a referendum only on those issues proposed by one political option, was failing to represent the interests of all Poles. She urged him to undertake consultations with other parties and consider expanding the range of questions to include topics that were problematic for Law and Justice such as Church-state relations.

However, by blocking Mr Duda’s referendum Civic Platform left itself open to charges of hypocrisy and scuppering civic initiatives supported by millions of Polish citizens. Law and Justice pointed out that virtually all of the arguments used by the ruling party against the President’s referendum proposal had been dismissed by them when Mr Komorowski’s initiative was being considered in spite of the fact that it was so obviously an electoral ruse. They claimed that the decision to call the additional referendum was a show of respect for widely-supported civic initiatives by an active and engaged head of state, dubbing the ruling party the ‘Anti-civic Platform’. On the other hand, had the Senate agreed to Mr Duda’s referendum then the political costs for Civic Platform would have been even greater, forcing the party to spend much of the rest of the election campaign defending its extremely unpopular pension reforms.

An expensive opinion poll

In fact, the September referendum turned into a fiasco and was scuppered by a miniscule turnout of only 7.8%. Although only one of the four nationwide referendums held in post-communist Poland has secured the 50% constitutional turnout threshold to be valid (the 2003 EU accession referendum), this was spectacularly low even by Polish standards; one member of the Polish Electoral Commission described it as ‘one of the most expensive public opinion polls in Europe’! Although the overwhelming majority of those who turned out to vote supported single-member electoral constituencies (79%) and opposed state party funding (83%), these kind of issues are clearly too esoteric to generate any real interest among most Poles.

There was also no public information campaign trying to inform citizens what the referendum was about and encouraging them to vote; an August survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that nearly half of respondents did not even know what questions were to going be asked. Moreover, the proximity of the parliamentary election meant that parties were reluctant to spend their campaign funds on mobilising supporters to participate in a referendum which none of them, except for Mr Kukiz’s movement, really had much of an interest in. While Civic Platform felt obliged to, formally at least, support its former President’s initiative, the party lacked enthusiasm for the referendum and, in the end, almost completely gave up promoting it fearing that if it was too closely associated then low turnout would be interpreted as snub for the ruling party.

Mr Duda is the key?

The ‘referendum war’ did not, therefore, turn out the way that many commentators expected. Instead of providing Mr Kukiz with an opportunity to run a high profile mobilisation of his supporters on his signature issue, it was a wasted opportunity for the rock-star-cum-politician coming at a critical time when he is trying to regain momentum after a disastrous summer. Although Mr Kukiz could conceivably still use the 1.8 million voters who turned out to support single-member electoral constituencies as a potential base on which to build support for his ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee, recent events suggests that he lacks the political skills to do this effectively.

The September referendum outcome was also problematic for Civic Platform. Although it attempted to attempted to blame Mr Kukiz for the disastrously low turnout, it was a Civic Platform-backed President who proposed the referendum and party-dominated Senate that approved it so, whether it liked it or not, the ruling party was associated with an expensive fiasco foisted on the nation purely as an (at it turned out, unsuccessful) electoral tactic. However, while rejecting Mr Duda’s additional referendum proposal left the ruling party open to charges of ‘anti-civicness’, closing down the issue at the beginning of September in the hope that voters will move on to other matters was clearly the lesser evil. More broadly, the ‘referendum war’ exemplifies way that Civic Platform has been constantly on the back foot throughout the campaign and, in particular, failed to develop an effective strategy to deal with Mr Duda: on the one hand, arguing that he deserves respect as the democratically elected head of state but also, sensing the danger that he poses to the party’s electoral prospects, constantly sniping at him.

In contrast, Law and Justice retained the political initiative: defusing a potentially extremely problematic electoral reform referendum by re-focusing the debate onto socio-economic issues where it had a clear advantage over the ruling party. Moreover, although, Mr Duda acted in a partisan way when proposing an additional referendum, his actions could be defended as flowing logically from his election pledge to be an active President supporting civic initiatives. While this inevitably meant that he attracted controversy and criticism from his political opponents, for the moment at least Mr Duda is enjoying something of a political honeymoon and the public appears willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Whether he retains his popularity, and how he and Law and Justice draw upon it during the remainder of the campaign, could well be the key to determining the election outcome.