The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: August, 2016

Does the Polish Peasant Party have a future?

Following its severe battering in last year’s elections, Poland’s agrarian party faces an existential struggle to hang on to what is left of its electorate. Although it retains considerable assets and is still the greatest potential electoral threat to the ruling party in rural areas, it cannot simply rely on possible voter disillusionment with the government to recover its support.

A victim of the anti-incumbent backlash

The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was formed in 1990 as the organisational successor to the former communist satellite United Peasant Party (ZSL), although it attempted to legitimise itself by claiming to have roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the Nineteenth Century. Peasant parties were prominent in inter-war Polish politics and the movement provided the main political opposition to the communist takeover in the late 1940s. In the 1990s it was estimated that 25% of Poles were employed in the farming sector, mostly in peasant smallholdings that survived as an independent economic sphere throughout the communist period. This provided the Peasant Party with a substantial segment of the electorate that it could appeal to on the basis of a clear socio-economic interest and collective identity. Consequently, the party was junior coalition partner in the governments led by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) between 1993-97, with its leader Waldemar Pawlak prime minister from 1993-95, and 2001-3. Its support peaked in the 1993 election when it secured 15.4% of the vote and 132 seats in the 460-member Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower chamber of parliament.

The party returned to office in 2007 when it became the junior governing partner of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), a coalition that lasted two terms until last October’s parliamentary election when it was ousted by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The Peasant Party was an unusually loyal governing partner and the coalition was much more cohesive and stable than any of its predecessors; helped by the fact that, given that Civic Platform was a primarily urban grouping, the two parties had complementary bases of support. The party tried to make a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously projected an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics.

A change of leadership at the end of 2012 – when, promising to broaden the party’s electoral base of support beyond its rural-agricultural core, challenger Janusz Piechociński narrowly defeated Mr Pawlak, and then took over from him as deputy prime minister and economy minister – did not really change the dynamics between the two governing parties. In November 2014, the Peasant Party achieved its best result in any post-1989 poll when it finished third in the regional elections with a stunning 23.7% of the vote and, in coalition with Civic Platform, retained control of 15 out of 16 regional assemblies; although this success was marred by accusations of electoral irregularities. However, the party performed disastrously in the May 2015 presidential election when its candidate, deputy leader Adam Jarubas, finished sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. It went on to struggle in the October parliamentary election and only just scraped over the 5% threshold for representation securing 5.1% of the vote and 16 seats in the Sejm, its worst result in any post-1989 poll.

The Peasant Party was a victim of the anti-incumbent backlash that was the main leitmotif of the election, and blamed specifically for failing to prevent the government’s perceived neglect of rural areas and the agricultural sector. Moreover, Mr Piechociński was felt to be less effective than his predecessor and never really established unquestioned authority within the party, facing opposition from activists loyal to Mr Pawlak. Although the party established bridgeheads in some urban areas, it failed to hold on to much of its previous core rural-agricultural electorate: securing support from only 18.6% of farmers and 9.4% of voters living in the countryside, compared with 52.3% and 45.4% respectively for Law and Justice. The Peasant Party only held on to 57% of its voters in the previous 2011 election while 20% switched to Law and Justice.

Struggling to recover

In the aftermath of the election, Law and Justice’s initial reaction was to try and scoop up the remainder of the Peasant Party’s rural-agricultural electorate by marginalising it within parliament and excluding its supporters from key positions in government-controlled agricultural agencies. However, at the same time the ruling party began to realise that there could be some advantages to co-operating with its agrarian rival. For example, Law and Justice has been trying to persuade the Peasant Party to break ranks with Civic Platform at the local level so that the ruling party can take a share of power in at least some of Poland’s 16 regional authorities. These are important bodies because they play a key role in disbursing EU funds and are a major source of local party patronage; and Law and Justice currently only controls one of them. Although the ruling grouping is a direct electoral threat to the Peasant Party because it is competing for the same rural-agricultural voters, the agrarians are also primarily an office-seeking grouping. Indeed, critics argue that the party has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level. This makes it a pragmatic and flexible negotiating partner that could, in theory at least, link up with Law and Justice if, for example, this could help it to regain some influence in government-run agricultural agencies.

Following its election defeat, the Peasant Party decided to make a radical break with its old guard and elected as its new leader 34-year-old Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, employment minister in the outgoing government and one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists. Under Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s leadership the party has tried to project itself as a constructive opposition by, for example, abstaining in the initial parliamentary vote of confidence in the new administration. However, this has proved a challenge because since the election the political scene has been polarised sharply by a bitter political dispute over the membership and competencies of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body which rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new anti-Law and Justice civic movement, has mobilised thousands of Poles in street demonstrations protesting against the government’s alleged violations of judicial independence and accused it of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. Law and Justice supporters, on the other hand, place the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the outgoing government and defend the new administration’s actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, arguing that opposition to the party is being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Although it supported the largest anti-government demonstrations, the Peasant Party has also tried to distance itself from the Committee and the other liberal and centrist opposition parties. For example, in May Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz attended a meeting organised by Law and Justice, but boycotted by other opposition leaders, to try (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) and find a compromise solution to the constitutional crisis. This distancing stemmed partly from the fact that the Peasant Party is concerned that the Committee has developed an increasingly liberal-leftist ideological profile on moral-cultural issues which is likely to be off-putting to its small-town traditionalist, socially conservative voters. Moreover, not only has the party found itself marginalised by other opposition groupings in a debate where it has few specialists, but the constitutional tribunal issue is simply not a particularly salient one for its core electorate.

The party is, therefore, much more comfortable talking about socio-economic issues, particularly those that affect rural-agricultural communities. It has, for example, criticised the government for: introducing a new law which the party says has made it difficult for farmers to purchase land; delays in EU agricultural subsidy payments and aid for rural areas; failing to offset the effects of falls in the price of agricultural products; and introducing measures which, it claims, will damage the interests of farmers such as a proposed new water tax. The government has responded by arguing that it was the outgoing coalition and the officials whom they appointed that were responsible for many of the problems that the new administration is now trying to tackle, and denies that its measures will have the negative effects that the Peasant Party claims. For example, the administration says that its new agricultural land trade law will protect Polish farmers from speculators now that Poland’s exemption from EU laws which allow the sale of land to foreigners has come to an end.

However, so far the party has made little impact with all of this. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz is competent and energetic but lacks gravitas and charisma, while the party’s parliamentary caucus contains many inexperienced deputies and few striking personalities or notable policy specialists, which means that it has almost completely disappeared from national media debates. Moreover, the majority of rural-agricultural voters still appear to be giving Law and Justice the benefit of the doubt. The ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys currently shows the Peasant Party’s support averaging at only 3.2%.

Some commentators argue that this is due to the influence of the clergy given the higher levels of religiosity in rural areas: 59% of Poles who live in the countryside attend Catholic Mass at least once a week compared with 31% of those in towns. For sure, most clergymen in rural areas are clearly sympathetic to Law and Justice, and the political right more generally, but this has always been the case. More significant is probably the fact that the government has delivered on its flagship election promise to pay a 500 złoties monthly subsidy for every second and subsequent child in all families as well as for the first children of poorer households. The so-called ‘500 plus’ programme, which came into effect in April, is simple and easy to grasp and has provided a direct, clearly identifiable and significant boost to low income families living beyond large urban centres who have felt frustrated that they have not shared sufficiently in the country’s recent economic growth.

Still a threat to Law and Justice?

The Peasant Party continues to face an existential struggle to hang on to what is left of its core rural-agricultural electorate against the challenge from Law and Justice. But it is still in the game and, in spite of this, also remains potentially the greatest electoral threat to the ruling party in rural areas. The party’s most important asset is its extensive local organisational base of 140,000 members, thousands of local councillors and a share of control in 15 out of 16 regional authorities. For a party previously wracked by internal divisions it is, for the moment at least, also displaying a surprising degree of unity around Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s leadership. The party is fortunate that its first major electoral test (but a crucial one) will be the autumn 2018 local government elections, a poll in which the agrarian grouping always performs better than in national opinion surveys. This is partly due to its strong grassroots organisation but also because there is generally a higher turnout in rural areas in local elections.

There is a chance that rural-agricultural voters will quickly take for granted the boost in incomes provided by ‘500 plus’ and eventually become disillusioned with Law and Justice if the party is not able to deliver in other areas for this electorate. But the Peasant Party does seem to be realising slowly that it still has a long way to go, cannot simply spend the next two-and-half years until the local elections hoping that something will turn up, and has to continue to be more pro-active and distinctive if it is to survive and recover its support.

Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.

Is there an end in sight to Poland’s constitutional crisis?

Poland’s constitutional tribunal crisis escalated last month when the European Commission initiated the next stage of its rule of law procedure calling upon the country’s government to take action or face possible sanctions. But while the crisis is forcing the ruling party to expend political capital defending its position, it does not show any signs of backing down.

An escalating crisis

The row over the tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws, is the most serious constitutional crisis to affect the country since the collapse of communism in 1989. It began when, immediately following its victory in last October’s parliamentary election, the new government led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member tribunal. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda did not accept their oaths of office. The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment who accused the government of violating judicial independence. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents.

However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work, although he subsequently allowed two of them to do so.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse in December by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen; thereby hoping to oblige Mr Rzepliński to accept the judges appointed by the new parliament. The so-called ‘repair law’ also increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority, making the votes of these new appointees more significant, and stipulated that cases would be considered in the order they were received rather than at the tribunal’s discretion.

The government’s opponents claimed that that these changes would paralyse the tribunal and accused Law and Justice of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new anti-government civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, defended its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party. More broadly, they claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

In March, the crisis escalated when the tribunal decided that it was empowered by the Constitution to ignore the changes introduced in the ‘repair law’ and rule on its legality under the old procedural rules, and declared the December amendments unconstitutional. At the same time, the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, issued a critical report which said that the December amendments were a threat to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. For its part, the government played down the report’s significance, argued that the tribunal had no power to review the ‘repair law’ (as the Constitution stipulates that its rules are regulated by parliamentary statute), and refused to publish the judgement in the official gazette, a necessary step for tribunal rulings to become legally binding.

Compromise or cosmetic changes?

The opposition’s narrative was picked up by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission decided to undertake an unprecedented investigation of Poland under the EU’s rule of law monitoring mechanism. The Union adopted the instrument to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario suspending their voting rights. The Commission agreed to the first step under the framework: undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether there were clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

In response, the Law and Justice government strongly opposed Commission interference in what it insisted was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature. However, it also tried to de-escalate the dispute by saying that it was open to dialogue with the Commission and consultations with opposition leaders to find a compromise solution. As a consequence, another constitutional tribunal bill was introduced in June and signed into law at the end of July. This removed the two-thirds majority threshold and lowered the quorum for tribunal rulings in the most important cases from thirteen to eleven. It also allowed the tribunal president to determine the order in which cases were considered if this was necessary to defend civic rights and freedoms, state security or the constitutional order.

However, the main opposition parties argued that the government was simply buying time until Mr Rzepliński’s term of office expires in December, hoping that he will be replaced as tribunal president by someone more amenable. The new law, they said, made only cosmetic changes and in some ways actually restricted the tribunal even further. Although the government agreed to publish all of the tribunal’s recent rulings, the law failed to recognise its key March judgement that invalidated the December ‘repair law’. It also required the tribunal president to allow the three un-recognised Law and Justice-nominated judges to take part in its proceedings and introduced a new veto mechanism allowing four judges to postpone a case for up to six months. Mr Rzepliński made it clear that he considered the new law unconstitutional and the tribunal could well strike it down.

According to some commentators, the law was rushed through parliament in an attempt to re-assure the US administration ahead of the NATO summit held in Warsaw at the start of July. Law and Justice is much more sensitive to pressure from the USA, which it considers Poland’s most important foreign policy ally, than EU criticisms. Although some government critics suggested that that the constitutional crisis could lead to the summit being downgraded or ending in humiliation for Poland, it proved to be a success with an agreement to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. However, US President Barack Obama did express concerns about the constitutional impasse arguing that ‘more work needs to be done’. Government supporters responded by saying that he also praised the parliament’s efforts to end the dispute and that these comments were marginal to the summit discussions.

EU pressure is unlikely to resolve the crisis

Law and Justice hoped that EU institutions would be so absorbed by the fallout from the June UK referendum vote to leave the Union that they would not return to the Polish crisis until the autumn. However, at its July meeting the Commission decided that Warsaw’s efforts did not go far enough and moved to the next stage of the procedure, issuing an official ‘rule of law recommendation’ urging the Polish government to: swear in the judges elected by the previous parliament; publish and fully implement all tribunal rulings; screen the latest tribunal law for compliance with the Venice Commission; and report on progress within three months. Having started the procedure it is difficult for the Commission to back down and it may be using the Polish crisis to signal that it retains a sense of purpose in spite of the Brexit imbroglio. Law and Justice responded by questioning the Commission’s sincerity and arguing that it should concentrate on dealing with the more serious problems that the EU faced rather than interfering in Poland’s internal affairs.

The constitutional crisis is forcing Law and Justice to expend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its reputation. Its escalation could overshadow the government’s attempts to implement its flagship social spending pledges, notably the costly but extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme. A March-April survey for the CBOS polling agency found that 45% of respondents supported the tribunal compared with only 29% who backed the government (26% did not know). The crisis is also spilling over into other parts of the political and legal system as the tribunal rules on the basis of old procedures while the government refuses to recognise these judgements, forcing the courts and public bodies to decide whether or not to apply the challenged legislation.

However, with the stakes so high the government does not show any signs of backing down as a result of EU pressure, particularly as this would involve agreeing to actions that it had previously deemed illegal. Law and Justice is also clearly willing to pay a high political price for measures it feels are necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. At the same time, while many protesters and activists genuinely believe the government’s actions are undermining Polish democracy, it is clearly in the opposition’s interests not to reach a compromise and thereby keep public attention focused on a highly emotive touchstone issue around which it can mobilise both domestic and international support.

Moreover, for the moment at least the crisis and ongoing row with the Commission are too abstract for, and do not affect the day-to-day lives of, most ordinary Poles who are mainly concerned with socio-economic issues where the government is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opposition critics. While Law and Justice has a significant number of vocal and well-organised opponents, it also retains widespread support among a large segment of the population. A June-July CBOS survey found that 37% of respondents supported the government while 30% were opposed (29% were neutral). Other surveys show that the ruling party retains a clear opinion poll lead over the divided opposition, and this support could solidify when voters start to feel the full impact of social spending programmes such as ‘500 plus’.

Indeed, the Commission’s intervention is something of a double-edged sword: while Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, they are more divided over whether the Union should become involved in Polish domestic affairs. While a June CBOS poll found that, by 42% to 34%, respondents felt that the Commission’s criticisms of the Polish government were justified, only a small majority (41% to 39%) agreed that its actions were an acceptable form of pressure. Moreover, only 38% felt that the Commission’s actions were motivated by concern about the rule of law while 41% said that dislike of the Law and Justice government was the more significant factor.

Will there be sanctions?

If the Commission considers that its recommendations have not been implemented then it can propose a motion for sanctions under Article 7. However, as the framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations, such penalties require unanimity in the EU Council in one of the three stages of voting. The Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures and could be joined by other countries concerned about possible Commission over-reach. Law and Justice has also questioned the legality of the Commission procedure, saying that it is based on non-treaty practices invented by officials, and could challenge it in the European Court of Justice dragging the process out even further. Poland’s constitutional crisis shows no sign of ending any time soon.