The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: October, 2016

Is Poland’s Law and Justice government losing momentum

Although plunged immediately into a constitutional crisis that brought it into conflict with the European Commission, one year after its decisive parliamentary election victory Poland’s right-wing ruling party retains widespread support. It has come under fire recently over appointments to state-run companies and the abortion issue but the government’s fate depends upon its ability to deliver on the socio-economic policy promises that were the key to its electoral success.

No post-election honeymoon

Last October’s parliamentary election saw a stunning victory for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright parliamentary majority, and its deputy leader Beata Szydło became the country’s prime minister. This followed the party’s earlier success in the May 2015 presidential poll when its candidate Andrzej Duda defeated incumbent and odds-one favourite Bronisław Komorowski. However, the new government enjoyed no post-election honeymoon and was plunged immediately into a bitter conflict over the membership and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that determines the constitutionality of Polish laws. The opposition and legal establishment argued that the government’s actions represented a violation of judicial independence and bundled the issue up with a number of other measures to accuse Law and Justice of undermining democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles took part in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement.

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 who share their dislike of Law and Justice. In January, the European Commission initiated an unprecedented investigation under an EU monitoring mechanism to establish whether the rule of law in Poland was under ‘systemic threat’. Then, in July it moved to the next stage of the procedure, giving the government three months to comply with its ‘rule of law recommendation’ or risk a Commission proposal that the European Council impose sanctions on Poland; in the worst-case scenario suspending the country’s voting rights. 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, and the European Parliament.

Retaining widespread support

However, while Law and Justice did not secure the post-election ‘bounce’ that newly elected governing parties often enjoy, it retained widespread support among a large segment of the electorate. As the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows, the party has a clear lead in the polls averaging around 37% support compared with 19% for the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party and 18% for the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party between 2007 and 2015 when it was defeated in the parliamentary election, and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping. Why is this the case?

Firstly, the government’s supporters have robustly denied allegations that it is undermining democracy and defended its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of 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. Many Poles, therefore, agree with Law and Justice on the constitutional tribunal issue: a March-April survey for the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that although most respondents (45%) supported the tribunal a substantial minority (29%) backed the government (26% did not know).

Secondly, even among those who have misgivings about the government’s approach to the constitutional crisis, these kind of issues are often too abstract compared with more pressing social and economic concerns where Law and Justice is in tune with public opinion. For example, in April the government introduced its extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families. This flagship programme has provided a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s recent economic growth.

Thirdly, although Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly they are more divided over whether the Union’s institutions should become involved in the country’s internal affairs. For example, a June CBOS poll found that only a small majority (41% to 39%) felt that the Commission’s criticisms of Poland were an acceptable form of pressure, but also (by 41% to 38%) that its actions were motivated by a dislike of Law and Justice rather than concerns about the rule of law.

Fourthly, with no single, popular leader and lacking an alternative programme on the socio-economic issues that are most important to ordinary Poles, the divided liberal and centrist opposition has struggled to mount an effective challenge. Law and Justice’s victory last year reflected 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.

Allegations of cronyism

However, given the level of social transfers involved in the ‘500 plus’ programme arguably Law and Justice should be performing even better in the polls. Moreover, during the last couple of months a number of issues have put the party on the defensive. In September, the government faced one of its most serious public relations crises over the question of appointments to state-owned companies. The original focus of this was controversy surrounding 26-year-old Bartłomiej Misiewicz, a close advisor of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, following his appointment to the supervisory boards of two state-owned companies in spite of his lack of relevant qualifications. The opposition parties tried to make Mr Misiewicz a symbol of alleged Law and Justice cronyism publishing lists of apparently unqualified party nominees to state-owned company boards. Eventually Mr Misiewicz asked to be suspended following further allegations (which he denied vigorously) that he had offered a paid position in a state-owned company to an opposition councillor in exchange for them joining a local coalition with Law and Justice.

Then, treasury minister Dawid Jackiewicz lost his position, officially on the grounds that he had fulfilled his role of winding down a ministry that is due to be closed later this year. However, according to some commentators, the real reasons for his dismissal were: suspicions surrounding nominations to state-owned companies, and the awarding of lucrative marketing and consultancy services contracts to firms linked to Mr Jackiewicz’s one-time political allies.

Using state-owned companies and agencies as a source of patronage is a problem that all governing parties in post-communist Poland have encountered. However, the allegation that Law and Justice tolerated cronyism is particularly damaging, in many ways more so than the constitutional tribunal row, because it undermines the party’s claim to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state. An important element of Law and Justice’s appeal in last year’s elections was the fact that many voters saw the previous Civic Platform administration as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite tainted by scandals. Fortunately for Law and Justice, opinion survey evidence suggests that most Poles still feel that its predecessor undertook a more through-going purge of state-owned companies.

Retreating on abortion

The most embarrassing setback, however, came in October when Law and Justice was forced to back down on the issue of abortion. Poland already has a very restrictive abortion law with the procedure only permitted if: the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, puts the health of the mother at risk, or if the foetus is severely damaged. However, in September a draft law sponsored by a civic initiative was introduced in parliament to make abortion illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life is at risk. Although it was not government legislation and Law and Justice allowed its deputies a free vote, virtually all of them supported progressing the draft law to a parliamentary committee. However, as most Poles oppose both a liberalisation of the existing law and an outright ban on abortion, the party leadership was hoping that the draft bill would stall at this stage of the legislative process.

In fact, Law and Justice was taken aback by the scale of street protests in Polish cities against the anti-abortion bill. These were often organised by left-wing anti-Law and Justice activists who supported abortion on demand. However, by framing their opposition to the draft law in terms of ‘defending women’s rights’ and focusing on the fact that the draft law proposed prison sentences for pregnant women who ‘caused the death of a conceived child’, they attracted the support of a much broader group of young women who had not previously taken part in anti-government protests.

Sensing the groundswell of opposition, the vast majority of Law and Justice deputies then proceeded to vote down the civic anti-abortion initiative. However, although the abortion vote was Law and Justice’s biggest climb-down in the face of mass protests since taking office, and disappointed many of the party’s core supporters on the ‘religious right’, this tactical retreat has, for the moment at least, defused an emotive and potentially combustible issue.

Delivering on its promises

Ultimately, however, the government’s fate will depend upon its ability to implement the high-profile socio-economic policy pledges which were the key to Law and Justice’s electoral success. In fact, an August 2016 CBOS survey found that (by 53% to 37%) most Poles still felt that it was delivering on these promises. As well as introducing its flagship ‘500 plus’ programme, the government has promised to progress legislation reversing the previous administration’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men), by the end of the year. However, Law and Justice’s pledge to increase income tax allowances appears to have been subsumed within a broader, more opaque tax reform package which some commentators argue will hit middle-income earners and small businesses.

The government’s ambitious social spending programmes are also very costly. Law and Justice is pinning its hopes on a wide-ranging economic growth plan aimed at boosting innovation and investment developed by deputy prime minister and development minister Mateusz Morawiecki to ensure that the government has the funds to enact and sustain these programmes in the longer-term. At the end of September, Mr Morawiecki was given control of all the economy-related government departments, including the finance ministry, and will head up a new cabinet economic committee which, it is hoped, will give him the instruments to overcome departmental inertia and finally start to implement his ambitious plan.

Will Mrs Szydło survive?

However, by creating a strong alternative centre of power over economic policy Mr Morawiecki’s promotion also means that he has emerged as a serious rival to Mrs Szydło within the government. At the same time, although he does not hold any formal state positions, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński clearly exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and is constantly being called upon to resolve personnel and policy disputes. Some commentators argue that the best way to resolve this lack of transparency in decision-making would be for Mr Kaczyński to take over the running of the government himself.

However, although he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters, the Law and Justice leader is a polarising figure and one of the least trusted politicians among more moderate votes. Moreover, not only has the more emollient Mrs Szydło made no attempt to challenge Mr Kaczyński’s authority, as Poland’s second most popular politician (after Mr Duda) she remains an asset for the party and has, on more than one occasion during the last year, used her formidable communication skills to rescue the government’s reputation and image. So Mrs Szydło appears secure for the moment at least, although whether she can survive the full parliamentary term, or even long enough to celebrate the government’s second anniversary, remains an open question.

How will the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal affect Polish politics?

Polish politics this summer was dominated by a scandal involving irregularities in the return of Warsaw properties confiscated under communist rule. The so-called reprivatisation scandal is the most serious in the capital’s recent history and, given that the Warsaw mayor is a leading figure in the country’s main opposition party, has the capacity to shake up the national political scene.

Warsaw mayor under fire

Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz – who is a member of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – came under intense scrutiny during the summer months for alleged irregularities over the settlement of compensation claims for properties and businesses expropriated during the period of communist rule. After the Second World War the so-called Bierut Decree legalised the confiscation of almost all private land in the centre of Warsaw; justified by the need to speed up reconstruction but often without compensation for the owners. This legacy of expropriations has troubled Polish governments since the end of communist rule in 1989 and while many of the claims for restitution have been legitimate the so-called ‘reprivatisation’ process also created a lucrative business with the potential for abuse.

The Warsaw scandal broke when the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper published revelations of property restitutions carried out by lawyer Robert Nowaczyk. Allegations of impropriety initially surrounded one of the most expensive plots of land in the centre of Warsaw, with an approximate value of 160 million złoties, located at the pre-war 70 Chmielna Street address which was turned over incorrectly to Mr Nowaczyk when he bought the claims to it in 2012. A few weeks after issuing a decision to return the plot to Mr Nowaczyk, deputy director of the Warsaw Bureau of Land Management Jakub Rudnicki, who co-owned a property with the lawyer in the Southern Polish town of Zakopane, resigned from his job as the city hall official in charge of returning confiscated land. Meanwhile, finance ministry documents showed that the original Danish owner of the property had already been compensated for it years earlier.

Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz admitted that the transfer of the Chmielna Street plot was premature and promised to set up an independent audit and commission of inquiry to clear up the scandal and look into all restitutions dating back to 1990. However, she refused to resign claiming that she was unaware of the irregularities and attempting to shift the blame onto the finance ministry for failing to provide sufficient information. Her initial response was limited to dismissing three city hall officials involved in the process saying that they had not performed proper due diligence. Arguing that the whole Polish political class was responsible for not sorting out the reprivatisation issue and that malpractice had been occurring under her predecessors, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz called for the passage of a wide-ranging law regulating the compensation process introduced in parliament by Civic Platform in September.

However, although they did not accuse her of outright corruption, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s critics argued that she was politically responsible for the scandal, ignoring warnings from local civic organisations and the right-wing media and failing to take sufficient control over a process where millions of złoties were at stake. They said that it will be difficult to find an independent audit firm that has no conflicts of interest in the reprivatisation process and that the proposed commission of inquiry was simply a way of buying time. The mayor’s critics also pointed out that Civic Platform failed to introduce a comprehensive law regulating reprivatisation during its eight years in office. More broadly, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party tried to link the scandal to the well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, mafia-like elite networks which they argue have poisoned the relationship between business and politics in post-communist Poland. Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s situation was further complicated by the fact that her husband’s family were also beneficiaries of a controversial reprivatisation transaction.

Struggling to recover

The Warsaw reprivatisation scandal intensified the crisis faced by Civic Platform which has been struggling to recover from its defeat by Law and Justice in last October’s parliamentary election. Civic Platform saw its vote share fall by 15.1 percentage points 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 the May 2015 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, which many voters saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals.

In January, the party elected a new leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who was foreign minister in the outgoing government. At the same time, a significant challenger for the leadership of the opposition emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping formed in May 2015 by liberal economist Ryszard Petru. Mr Petru’s party won 7.6% of the vote in last October‘s 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. Modern’s greatest asset, however, was the fact that, in sharp contrast to the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform, it did not have the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office. Although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years Mr Schetyna was still associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited administration and  Mr Petru’s party started pulling ahead of Civic Platform in opinion polls.

However, Mr Petru’s party lost its initial momentum as the effect of this ‘newness’ began to wear off. Moreover, Civic Platform retained a number of important political assets, including: a large number of experienced parliamentarians, substantial access to state party funding, a relatively well-developed grassroots organisational network, and a local government base that includes control of most of Poland’s large cities and 14 out of 16 regional authorities, which play a key role in distributing EU funds and are a major source of local patronage. Although Mr Schetyna lacks charisma and dynamism, he is a good organiser and an experienced (and ruthless) political operator who has tried to restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. As a consequence, the two opposition groupings are now fairly evenly matched: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows support for Civic Platform at 20% and Modern at 19%, although both lag well behind Law and Justice on 38%.

Implications beyond the capital

Nonetheless, the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal is a serious problem for Civic Platform with political implications that go well beyond the capital. Along with the other large Polish cities that have provided the bedrock of the party’s electoral support, Warsaw is one of the Civic Platform’s strongholds. As one of the party’s deputy leaders, Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz is also among Civic Platform’s most prominent and high profile figures and her 2006 election victory was a key landmark in the party’s march to power. Although Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz had previously announced that she will not stand for re-election when her current term of office ends in autumn 2018, the Warsaw mayor clearly had her eye on other high profile positions, with some commentators even speculating that she might stand as Civic Platform candidate in the 2020 presidential election.

Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz was Mr Schetyna’s opponent in internal party power struggles, but the Civic Platform leader felt obliged to defend her (albeit without any great enthusiasm) partly because she holds such a powerful position within the party, but also to prevent Law and Justice from taking power in the capital. While her resignation might pave the way for a less compromised Civic Platform politician to take over as Warsaw mayor, finding a replacement would be difficult and there is no guarantee that the party would win the subsequent by-election. In the meantime, her resignation would allow the government to appoint a commissioner to run the city, possibly even until the next local elections in autumn 2018.

Instead, Mr Schetyna, who has spent much of the last nine months securing control of the party apparatus and marginalising his opponents, used the scandal to undermine Mrs Gronkiewicz-Watltz and strengthen his own position in the capital. He forced Mrs Gronkiewicz-Watltz to dismiss two of her deputy mayors – including right-hand man Jarosław Jóźwiak, who was responsible for overseeing the reprivatisation process – and replaced them with one of his own placemen: legal scholar and former parliamentary deputy Witold Pahl. The Civic Platform leader also persuaded Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz to stand down as head of the Warsaw party organisation and placed it under the direct control of one of his closest allies: regional party boss Andrzej Halicki.

At the same time, while it is clearly very tempting for Law and Justice to try and deprive Civic Platform of one of its most important power bases, replacing Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz with a government-appointed commissioner to run the city is, at this stage, very risky. Without a binding national administrative court verdict of malpractice against Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz there could, arguably, be no legal basis for such a move so it could be overturned judicially. Law and Justice will also be concerned that the liberal and centrist opposition could, as part of their ongoing critique of the ruling party that it is undermining democracy and the rule of law (a charge that the party denies vigorously), portray the appointment of a commissioner to run Warsaw until the next local elections as a centralising and authoritarian move.

There is a civic initiative underway for a recall referendum to oust Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz, although it could take time for this to gather the requisite number of signatures and even then it may not secure the turnout required to be valid (two-thirds of the number of who voted in the previous 2014 mayoral election). On the other hand, it could actually be in Law and Justice’s interests to keep a weakened Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz in office, for the moment at least. Although the ruling party secured a plurality of votes in Warsaw during last year’s parliamentary election, it currently lacks a local candidate able to appeal beyond its core electorate and secure the 50% support required to win a mayoral election, particularly in a city with a large number of better-off voters who are more likely to vote for liberal and centrist political groupings.

The stakes are high

No one can foresee the eventual legal and political consequences of the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal. The government is awaiting the outcome of investigations by the public prosecutor’s office and central anti-corruption bureau (CBA) before deciding on its next move, while Civic Platform is hoping that the issue will fade away or another scandal (preferably involving the ruling party) overshadows it. For sure, unless prominent Civic Platform politicians either have criminal charges brought against them or are linked more directly to the scandal it is unlikely to completely bury Mr Schetyna’s party. However, given that Warsaw is one of the party’s most high profile bastions of support, even if ongoing investigations simply confirm that Mrs Gronkiewicz-Waltz did not fulfill her oversight obligations it will be difficult for Civic Platform to convince voters that it does not bear any responsibility for the scandal. Similarly, a recall referendum would move the issue back to the top of the national political agenda, whatever its outcome. All of this could seriously damage Civic Platform’s attempts to re-build its support ahead of the 2018 local government and 2019 parliamentary elections. So the stakes are high and how Mr Schetyna deals with the issue could be one of the biggest tests of his leadership.