Does the Polish Peasant Party have a future?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.

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