Can Poland’s opposition mount an effective challenge?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the right-wing government’s opponents. However, even if protests against the ruling party can sustain their momentum, the divided opposition will struggle to mount an effective challenge unless it can also address Poles’ broader concerns and recognise that they do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

The constitutional crisis is the catalyst

The Polish political scene has been deeply polarised since the government led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took office last autumn following its decisive victory in the October parliamentary election. The catalyst and main focus of this has been a bitter political and legal struggle over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws. The opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its narrative that the government’s actions represent an attempt to interfere in the independence of the judiciary. This has provided government opponents with a highly emotive touchstone issue which they have bundled up with a number of other measures, such as a new law that they claim politicises public broadcasting, to accuse Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law.

For their part, the government’s supporters deny these charges vigorously and defend its actions as necessary 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, they argue that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Nonetheless, the opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission initiated an unprecedented preliminary investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. The government’s constitutional tribunal reforms were also criticised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog.

Mr Schetyna lacks an effective strategy

With 138 deputies in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, the main opposition grouping is the centrist Civic Platform (PO) which was the main governing party between 2007-15. Civic Platform has a large number of experienced parliamentarians, considerable financial resources, a relatively well developed grassroots organisational network, and controls 14 out Poland’s 16 regional authorities. In January, the party elected a new leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who was foreign minister in the outgoing Civic Platform government led by the then party leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz, having being previously marginalised by her predecessor Donald Tusk. However, although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years, Mr Schetyna is still associated with the previous, discredited government which many Poles see as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals.

Mr Schetyna also lacks charisma and, most importantly, does not, as yet, appear to have an effective strategy for re-building the party’s support. His approach, dubbed ‘total opposition’, seems to comprise: presenting himself as the most uncompromising opponent of the government; trying to outflank it on social spending pledges by, for example, arguing that the government’s flagship ‘500 plus’ subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families should be extended to include every child; and using Civic Platform’s international contacts to attack the ruling party in European forums. However, although experience suggests that Polish voters often prefer hard-line rather than more nuanced opposition parties, Mr Schetyna’s approach often comes across as opportunist and overly negative. Civic Platform is unlikely to win the backing of those voters favouring greater social welfare spending, for whom Law and Justice will always be more credible, and is in danger of simply damaging its hard-won fiscal credibility among the party’s one-time core liberal electorate. Moreover, while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, Civic Platform could appear to be weakening the country’s international standing by drawing European institutions into domestic political disputes.

In electing Mr Schetyna as leader Civic Platform members hoped that, as an experienced political operator, he would restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. However, Mr Schetyna often gives the impression that his main priority is shoring up his own leadership and exacting revenge on those who once helped to marginalise him within the party. This has started to produce a backlash, one consequence of which was that, following a purge of Mr Schetyna’s opponents which led to the defection of a number of Civic Platform councillors, the party lost control of the regional authority in Lower Silesia, once his local power base.

Mr Petru’s ‘newness’ begins to wear off

Meanwhile, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, formed last May by financial sector economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote in the October election to emerge as the fourth largest grouping in the Sejm, picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. However, it was the constitutional crisis that provided ‘Modern’ with an opportunity to broaden its image from being simply a technocratic pro-business liberal party. While Mr Petru is a reasonably effective parliamentary and media performer he is not a hugely charismatic figure and his party’s greatest asset was its ‘newness’, which stood in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. Without the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office, Mr Petru’s harsh criticisms of the Law and Justice government appeared more authentic and credible and, as a consequence, ‘Modern’ started pulling ahead of Civic Platform in opinion polls, and in some even ran neck-and-neck with Law and Justice.

However, as the effect of this ‘newness’ began to wear off Mr Petru’s party lost some of its initial momentum and the two main opposition groupings are now fairly evenly matched in the polls, and both are lagging well behind Law and Justice. For example, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows support for ‘Modern’ at 19% compared with 17% for Civic Platform and 38% for the ruling party. Part of the problem is that Mr Petru’s party lacks both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small 29-member parliamentary caucus. Moreover, none of its other leaders have the same public profile as Mr Petru, whose novelty value has declined as a series of gaffes have allowed the party’s opponents to portray him as an over-promoted political lightweight: most notoriously when he sent a Twitter message implying that he was defending Poland’s historical Constitution of May 3rd 1791, when it was only in force for a little over a year!

‘Modern’s’ biggest weakness, however, lies in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal. Experience suggests that the social base for a purely economically liberal party in Poland is relatively small, a problem exacerbated by Mr Petru’s 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. Initially, the polarisation of the political scene helped Mr Petru’s party neutralise this weakness by presenting itself as the ‘defender of democracy’ rather than simply a narrowly focused liberal grouping. The party’s leap in support was, therefore, the product of a very specific political conjuncture and this began to change as voters started to once again evaluate ‘Modern’ through the prism of its relatively unpopular liberal socio-economic policies.

A coalition of opposition parties appears unlikely

In fact, the main focus for mobilising opposition to the government has been the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), formed last November to protest against the constitutional tribunal reforms but subsequently broadened out into a more general anti-Law and Justice civic movement. Government supporters argue that the Committee’s activities are orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. For sure, many of those who identify with the Committee represent the post-1989 business, cultural and political establishment, and its protest rallies have frequently been addressed by opposition party leaders. However, the Committee has been able to project itself successfully, both domestically and internationally, as a large, bottom-up movement of ordinary citizens genuinely concerned about the apparent risk to democracy, civic freedoms and the rule of law in Poland.

Thousands of Poles have participated in the Committee’s street demonstrations, the largest of which was held in Warsaw at the beginning of the May around the slogan ‘We are and will remain in Europe’, conflating the government’s apparent undermining of democracy with the danger that the country could leave the EU (although Law and Justice supporters argue that the government remains fully committed to Polish EU membership). This demonstration was, according to the (Civic Platform-controlled) Warsaw city council, attended by some 240,000 people (a figure picked up by the international media); although Law and Justice strongly contests this claim, citing police estimates (which opposition supporters, in turn, argue are biased in favour of the government) of the number present being only 45,000. In fact, even if one accepts the lower figure as more accurate, there is clearly a substantial number of Poles who feel (rightly or wrongly) sufficiently concerned that the government represents a threat to democracy to join the anti-Law and Justice protests.

In May, knowing that only a more formal political grouping is capable of ousting Law and Justice from office in an election, the Committee also launched a new coalition of opposition parties called ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ (Wolność, Równość, Demokracja) with the stated aim of ‘protecting European values and the constitutional order’. Interestingly, a survey conducted by the TNS polling agency found that 38% of respondents said that they would vote for a united opposition coalition compared with only 33% supporting Law and Justice. However, although Mr Petru appeared to endorse the idea of such an alliance, Mr Schetyna (while careful not to rule it out in principle) prevented Civic Platform from joining the ‘Liberty, Equality, Democracy’ coalition. Even assuming that the anti-government protests can sustain their momentum beyond the summer break, with no single leader and lacking even a minimal common programme on the socio-economic issues that are likely to be most important to voters, the prospect of a coalition of opposition parties contesting the next election currently looks unlikely (although this could change as the next parliamentary poll is not due for three-and-a-half years).

Little prospect of an effective challenge

While the ongoing constitutional crisis has galvanised the government’s opponents and given them a sense of energy and purpose, it is questionable whether, as things stand, the divided opposition can mount an effective challenge to Law and Justice. The party’s victory last year reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, so most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo. The government’s opponents are, however, spending much of their time focusing on (arguably too abstract) constitutional issues and failing to address ordinary citizens’ more pressing social and economic concerns. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ruling party retains a clear opinion poll lead, which could solidify when voters start to feel the full impact of its generous (but costly) social spending programmes, such as ‘500 plus’.

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