Why do the minor parties matter in the Polish election?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing opposition looks increasingly likely to emerge as the largest party in this month’s parliamentary election. However, if it falls short of an overall majority then the minor parties will determine whether it can form a government or if the current ruling party can cobble together a weak and unstable coalition.

The left’s marriage of convenience

On October 25th Poland will hold a parliamentary election whose outcome could determine the future shape of the political scene for years to come. Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, has a clear lead of around 10% over the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) and is almost certain to emerge as the largest in the new parliament. However, it is unclear if Law and Justice will secure an overall majority; no party has yet achieved such a result in post-communist Poland. If it does not, then the party will need to find coalition partners, which means that the performance of the minor political groupings, particularly which ones cross the minimum vote threshold required to secure parliamentary representation (5% for individual parties and 8% for electoral coalitions), will be crucial in determining the shape of the next government.

None of the current parliamentary groupings appear willing to join a Law and Justice-led coalition. These include the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and liberal-left ‘Your Movement’ (TR), which have joined forces with a number of smaller left-wing groupings to form the United Left (ZL) electoral coalition. The once-powerful Alliance governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 election. In 2011 the party suffered its worst ever parliamentary election defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote. It appeared to recover somewhat when Leszek Miller – a wily political operator who, in his heyday, served as prime minister from 2001-2004 overseeing Poland’s accession to the EU – took over the party leadership. Nonetheless, in spite of 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 and a series of disappointing mid-term election results culminated in a disastrous showing in May’s presidential poll when its candidate finished fifth with a humiliating 2.4% of the vote.

Your Movement emerged from the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which was formed 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 and while he clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest Poles grew tired of his erratic behaviour and political zig-zags. An attempt to re-invent his party as Your Movement, 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, failed to turn Mr Palikot’s fortunes around and, following a series of defections, he finished seventh in the presidential election with a derisory 1.4% of the vote.

The United Left is, therefore, a marriage of convenience driven by its two main components’ fear that they would not cross the 5% threshold. Its campaign has been moderately successful in the sense that programmatic and personal divisions – notably between Mr Miller and Mr Palikot, who are known for their strong personal antipathy – have been contained. The main impetus has come from the parties’ younger activists, such as Your Movement’s media-friendly joint leader Barbara Nowacka who has emerged as the United Left’s main spokesman. However, while its leaders were hoping for a sizeable ‘unity premium’, United Left has struggled to develop a distinctive appeal and is still hovering around the 8% threshold for electoral coalitions. If it can secure parliamentary representation, the coalition’s long-term future depends on whether the younger generation of left-wing activists can persuade their colleagues that the time has come for a new force to emerge on the Polish left that can transcend old rivalries.

The Peasant Party struggles

The other minor party represented in the outgoing parliament is the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition since 2007. The party has been an unusually loyal governing partner and the outgoing coalition has been much more cohesive and stable than any of its predecessors. It has tried to make a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously projected an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics. In November 2014 the party achieved its best result in any post-1989 poll when it finished third in the regional elections with 23.7% of the vote; although this success was marred by accusations of electoral irregularities. However, it had a disastrous presidential election when the party’s candidate, deputy leader Adam Jarubas, finished sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. The party has also struggled in this election, with a low national media profile and bad publicity surrounding a corruption scandal linked to parliamentary caucus leader Jan Bury, and its support is hovering around 5%. Nonetheless, the party’s greatest asset remains its extensive local grassroots organisation and much of its campaigning takes place below the national media radar, so polls often under-estimate its true levels of support.

In terms of future coalition partners, the fact that it is primarily an office-seeking party with a clearly defined rural-agricultural electoral constituency makes it a pragmatic and flexible negotiating partner able, in theory, to link up with whoever can meet its fairly narrow policy agenda and ensure it retains control of government posts and agencies. However, unlike Civic Platform – which is primarily an urban grouping, and therefore has a complementary base of support – Law and Justice is a direct electoral threat to the Peasant Party competing for the same rural voters. Relations between the two also reached a low ebb when Law and Justice accused the Peasant Party of electoral malpractice in last year’s regional polls. Another, complicating factor is the uncertainty hanging over Peasant Party leader Janusz Piechociński who has never really established unquestioned authority within the party and faces opposition from activists loyal to former leader Waldemar Pawlak, whom he ousted in a closely-fought contest three years ago.

A new liberal challenger

One political newcomer that is even less likely to form a coalition with Law and Justice is the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru. Advocating policies such as a ‘flat tax’ of 16%, Mr Petru’s party is appealing to the younger, well-educated and better-off urban voters and entrepreneurs who, attracted by the economically liberal policies once associated with Civic Platform, at one time formed the ruling party’s core electorate. Civic Platform has alienated many of these voters who feel that it has drifted away from its free market roots.

Although it got off to a slow start, Mr Petru’s party appears to have steadily consolidated its support, with polls suggesting that it has a reasonable chance of crossing the 5% threshold. Having been received critically by the pro-government media, which saw it as having the capacity to damage Civic Platform but too narrow a support base to get into parliament, some commentators now see Mr Petru as a ‘safe’ repository for anti-government protest votes that could deprive Law and Justice of a parliamentary majority. However, Mr Petru will also be keen to keep his reformist credentials intact – and, therefore, wary of propping up a government led by Civic Platform, a party which he has criticised harshly during the campaign and that, in all likelihood, will emerge as the main election ‘loser’.

Law and Justice’s potential partners

Law and Justice’s most likely potential coalition partner appears to be the ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee, a right-wing ‘anti-system’ grouping led by the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Standing as an independent, Mr Kukiz came from nowhere to finish third and pick up more than one-fifth of the vote in the May presidential election. His signature issue, and main focus of his earlier social activism, was strong support for the replacement of Poland’s current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), which he sees as the key to renewing Polish politics. Opinion polls conducted immediately after the presidential election showed Mr Kukiz to be Poland’s most trusted politician and his (then as-yet-unnamed) grouping running in second place, behind Law and Justice but ahead of Civic Platform.

However, Mr Kukiz squandered his political capital with a series of bitter rows and splits within his movement which caused his electoral support to plummet. These political blunders overshadowed attempts to mobilise support for the September electoral reform referendum which was supposed to provide Mr Kukiz with a major boost but ended in fiasco with a derisory turnout of only 7.8%. Moreover, having fallen out with and publicly attacked many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his presidential campaign, Mr Kukiz came to rely increasingly upon the grassroots organisational support of small radical right-wing parties. However, the slump in support appears to have bottomed out and Kukiz ’15 is currently just over the 5% threshold in most polls, suggesting that he has a hard core of potential voters immune to the kind of gaffes that would be fatal for more mainstream politicians, and willing to support him as long as he remains a credible fighter against ‘the system’.

Mr Kukiz would be a potentially difficult partner for Law and Justice, and has indicated that he does not wish to join any formal coalition. However, his eclectic candidates list is likely to produce an unstable parliamentary caucus that could fragment rapidly as it is forced to confront issues that bring its ideological incoherence to the fore. There is, therefore, every chance that Law and Justice could peel away enough individual Kukiz ’15 deputies to provide it with a working majority.

Another possible (and equally unpredictable) Law and Justice ally is the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic Freedom and Hope (KORWiN), the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene. The core of Mr Koriwn-Mikke’s political ideology has always been radical economic liberalism, social conservatism and Euroscepticism, but in this year’s election his party’s main campaign theme is opposition to the Islamisation of Poland. At the moment, polls suggest that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party’s support is just under the 5% mark, although the European migration crisis could pull it over the threshold. 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; although Law and Justice’s tough anti-immigration stance has limited Mr Korwin-Mikke’s scope to mobilise around this issue.

Law and Justice or chaos?

If Law and Justice falls short of an outright majority and the ‘anti-system’ right-wing parties fail to win enough seats to help it secure one, then Civic Platform could still cobble together an ‘everyone against Law and Justice’ coalition government. However, as well as containing several partners with very different policy agendas, such a construct would also have to co-habit with hostile Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda and almost certainly lack the three-fifths majority required to over-turn his veto. It is likely to be weak, unstable and probably very short-lived.