What are the prospects for Poland’s opposition?
by Aleks Szczerbiak
Poland’s previous ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in last October’s parliamentary election. But the polarisation of politics during the first few weeks of the new right-wing administration have integrated the opposition and allowed it to mobilise support around the claim that the government is undermining democracy; a charge its supporters deny vigorously. However, the opposition remains divided and it is questionable how effective a challenge the liberal newcomer that has emerged as the main anti-government grouping can mount.
Polarisation galvanises the opposition
After eight years in office Poland’s previous ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping, led by the then prime minister Ewa Kopacz, suffered a crushing defeat in the last October’s parliamentary election at the hands of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Civic Platform saw its vote share fall by 15.1% to 24.1% and number of seats held in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, decline from 207 to only 138. Earlier, in May’s presidential election Civic Platform-backed incumbent and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski lost to Law and Justice challenger Andrzej Duda. Much of the widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and strong prevailing mood that it was time for change was directed against Civic Platform. Many voters saw the party as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. The most notorious of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’ which drew popular anger at the cynicism when discussing state matters and crude language revealed in secret recordings of senior government ministers and public figures dining in high-end Warsaw restaurants at the taxpayers’ expense. Moreover, Civic Platform’s previously highly successful strategy of mobilising the ‘politics of fear’ – which involved positioning itself as the best guarantor of stability against the allegedly confrontational and authoritarian style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associated with Law and Justice – was not effective this time.
Immediately after its parliamentary election defeat, Civic Platform was plunged into a leadership contest but Mrs Kopacz was forced to withdraw from the race after being defeated unexpectedly by regional party boss Sławomir Neumann in the election for the grouping’s parliamentary caucus chair. Her main leadership challenger was Grzegorz Schetyna, a former party deputy leader who was marginalised by Mrs Kopacz’s predecessor Donald Tusk (who resigned as prime minister at the end of 2014 to become EU Council President) but retained a significant following among the party grassroots and started to re-build his influence after she brought him back into the government as foreign minister. Most of Mrs Kopacz’s backers (and, informally, Mr Tusk) switched their support to former defence minister Tomasz Siemoniak but he also pulled out at the end of December a few days before the launch of the party-wide members ballot, clearing the way for Mr Schetyna to run unopposed.
However, the rapid polarisation of the political scene during the first few weeks of the new government, which prompted the most serious crisis in Poland for many years, integrated the opposition and gave it a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Initially, the main focus was a bitter struggle over the membership and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws, but in January attention shifted to a controversial new media law. The opposition was extremely successful in promoting its narrative that these government actions represented attempts to interfere in the independence of the judiciary and place public broadcasting under direct government control, thereby undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy. This provided government opponents with a highly emotive, touchstone issue around which they could attack the Law and Justice administration on several fronts. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new opposition-backed civic movement, and its narrative was picked up by large sections of the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and who share their dislike of Law and Justice. For their part, the government’s supporters denied these charges vigorously and defended its actions as necessary measures to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the previous governing party. More broadly, Law and Justice supporters argue that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and claim that opposition to the government is being orchestrated by vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the state and introduce sweeping socio-economic reforms.
The rise of Mr Petru
However, while the political crisis has mobilised – and, to some degree, united – the opposition, it is unclear who will emerge as its leading force. Civic Platform struggled to respond effectively, being absorbed in an internal leadership contest at a crucial point when the crisis was starting to gather pace; exemplified by its tactically disastrous decision to walk out of, rather than participate in, a key Sejm debate on the constitutional tribunal. At the same time, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, a new party formed last May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote and 28 seats in October’s election to emerge as the fourth largest grouping in the new Sejm. ‘Modern’ picked up support among the younger, well-educated and better-off urban voters and entrepreneurs – at one time, Civic Platform’s core electorate – by advocating the economically liberal policies once associated with the former ruling party. Many of these voters felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots and turned to Mr Petru as a more credible liberal alternative.
Mr Petru’s apparent economic competence was of crucial importance to his party’s core electorate, but it was the political crisis that provided ‘Modern’ with an opportunity to broaden its image from being simply a technocratic pro-business party. While Mr Petru is not a hugely charismatic figure, he is a reasonably effective, and rapidly improving, parliamentary and media performer and his small parliamentary caucus quickly found its feet, promoting its most articulate and competent members. Moreover, although Mr Petru was active on the political scene for several years, his party’s greatest asset was its ‘newness’, which stood in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. The fact that Mr Petru’s grouping did not have the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office also made its harsh criticisms of the Law and Justice government appear more authentic and credible. The polarisation of the political scene, therefore, worked in Mr Petru’s favour allowing his party to steal Civic Platform’s mantle of being a repository for the broad swathes of voters opposed to Law and Justice. Moreover, the party positioned itself cleverly so that its criticisms of the previous administration were sufficiently nuanced that they did not alienate those who once saw Civic Platform as the most effective defender of the status quo; indeed, some of the former ruling party’s erstwhile backers in the liberal-left media already appear to have shifted their sympathies towards ‘Modern’. Consequently, in a very short space of time Mr Petru’s party pulled ahead of Civic Platform in the opinion polls and is currently running neck-and-neck with (and, in some surveys, even slightly ahead of) Law and Justice.
In fact, ‘Modern’ remains an unknown quantity and it is questionable how effective a challenge it can mount once the novelty of its ‘newness’ begins to wear off. The party lacks both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small and relatively youthful parliamentary caucus. Moreover, given that experience suggests that the social base for a purely liberal party in Poland is relatively small, its biggest weakness lies in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal. Civic Platform’s relatively weak ideological underpinnings gave the party much greater reach across the political spectrum and helped it to garner the support of a very broad coalition of voters united mainly by their dislike of Law and Justice. Initially, it had attempted to profile itself as representing a modernising form of pro-market, right-wing liberalism focusing on the economy, and subsequently also incorporated a moderate form of social conservatism. However, particularly after it took office in 2007, Civic Platform adopted a deliberate strategy of diluting its ideological profile and projecting itself as a somewhat amorphous centrist ‘catch-all’ party, albeit with an increasingly state interventionist and socially liberal tilt; what its critics dubbed a ‘post-political’ party of power.
Mr Petru’s party clearly benefited from the high level of polarisation that has characterised the Polish political scene in the last couple of months, because this has meant that the criteria by which the public evaluate politicians have been somewhat different to those that might apply in calmer, more ‘normal’ times. This has both distracted attention from the relative narrowness of its programmatic appeal and helped Mr Petru’s party to neutralise this weakness by presenting itself as the ‘defender of democracy’ rather than simply a liberal grouping focused primarily on the economy. The party’s leap in support was, therefore, the product of a very specific political conjuncture. However, this could change rapidly if the situation stabilises and Poland sees a return to more ‘normal’ patterns of politics with voters starting to once again evaluate Mr Petru’s party through the prism of its relatively unpopular liberal socio-economic policies. Mr Petru’s political opponents are also sure to remind voters of his links with the large banking corporations which, for many Poles, symbolise the hated political-business nexus (often referred to disparagingly as ‘banksters’) that motivated many of them to vote for anti-establishment parties like Law and Justice.
Can Civic Platform recover?
It is too early to write Civic Platform off. With the leadership question resolved, the party is finally starting to wake up to the threat posed by Mr Petru and retains many advantages over its liberal challenger. These include: a large number of experienced parliamentarians, greater financial assets, more developed grassroots organisation, large numbers of local councillors, and control of 15 out of 16 of Poland’s regional authorities, which play a key role in distributing EU funds and are a major source of local party patronage. Mr Schetyna is an experienced political operator and good organiser who will work hard to restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party and, in the short-term at least, it is likely to rally around him. However, he also lacks charisma and dynamism and, although he has not been in the party’s inner circle for a number of years, is associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration. Mr Petru’s party could still go the way of a number of recent Polish challenger parties that enjoyed early surges of support but eventually collapsed. But Mr Schetyna will have to move very quickly and regain the initiative if he is to see off Mr Petru’s challenge and prevent Civic Platform from descending into a fatal downward spiral.