Can Poland’s opposition recover?

January was a dismal month for Poland’s opposition as it was hit by a series of leadership crises and ended its parliamentary sit-in without extracting any further concessions from the government. Although they retain considerable assets and should not be written off, the government’s opponents will struggle to mount an effective challenge until they recognise that most Poles do not want a return to the status quo ante, and can offer a convincing alternative on the social and economic issues that are their most pressing concerns.

Sit-in without an exit strategy

Last month saw deputies from Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition parties end their month-long sit-in protest in the main plenary chamber of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. The crisis began on the final day of the December 2016 parliamentary sitting when Michał Szczerba – a deputy from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping – was excluded by Sejm speaker Marek Kuchciński, from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party which has been in office since autumn 2015. Mr Szczerba tried to use a debate on the 2017 budget to raise parliamentary media access reforms proposed by Mr Kuchciński and ignored his instructions to leave the rostrum. A number of Civic Platform deputies then occupied the area around the podium demanding that Mr Szczerba be re-instated. The Sejm session was moved to an ancillary chamber where the budget was passed by deputies from Law and Justice, which holds an outright parliamentary majority, and a handful of opposition members.

Although Mr Kuchciński said that the vote was conducted in line with Sejm regulations, the government’s opponents refused to recognise its legality and anti-Law and Justice protesters rallied outside the parliament building. Sensing that it had little to gain from continuing its conflict with the media, Law and Justice backed down and agreed to keep the current parliamentary access rules in place until new ones could be agreed. Nonetheless, deputies from Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party continued their occupation over the Christmas recess, demanding that the key budget vote be re-run.

However, although Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ wrong-footed Law and Justice with their occupation tactic, they missed the opportunity to end the protest on a high note when the proposed media regulations were withdrawn and left themselves without an exit strategy for finishing the sit-in without losing face. While smaller opposition groupings also opposed the new media rules, the anti-establishment Kukiz ‘15, the third largest parliamentary caucus, never supported the sit-in while the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s one-time junior coalition partner, withdrew its backing once Law and Justice shelved its proposals.

Leadership crises

Moreover, the sit-in protest was severely undermined when ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru was photographed on a plane heading to Portugal for a New Year’s Eve holiday with one of his deputies, the recently divorced Joanna Schmidt. Before Mr Petru admitted he was on a private trip another ‘Modern’ deputy leader, Katarzyna Lubnauer, insisted it was a ‘pre-planned’ visit ‘related to party matters’. The fact that Mr Petru and Ms Schmidt broke off from the protest to take a foreign holiday while their party colleagues were involved in an apparently urgent struggle to save Polish democracy was an appalling error of judgement. As well as being the latest in a series of gaffes that have allowed the party’s opponents to portray Mr Petru as an over-promoted political lightweight, it played directly into the government’s narrative that nothing extraordinary was happening and the opposition was playing a cynical game aimed at generating public hysteria.

At the same time, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement that has provided the main focus for mobilising extra-parliamentary opposition to the government, was also hit by a leadership crisis. The Committee was formed in November 2015 days after Law and Justice took office, with the initial impetus for its protests being controversy over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Government supporters argued that its activities were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to Law and Justice’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and introduce sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. Nonetheless, the Committee was been able to project itself, 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.

However, in January documents leaked to the press revealed that more than 120,000 złoties from the Committee’s public collections had been channelled in regular payments to an IT company owned by its leader Mateusz Kijowski, a computer programmer who quickly rose from obscurity to head up the organisation, and his wife. Not only was the Committee’s leadership unaware of these payments, they also appeared to contradict a claim by Mr Kijowski (who had previously come under attack from government supporters for his inability to pay alimony from a previous marriage) that he did not receive any official income from the movement. Mr Kijowski admitted that it was probably imprudent to combine the roles of leader and professional services provider but also called the media reports a ‘provocation’. He rejected a call from the Committee’s management board to resign, insisting that he would be standing in the movement’s March leadership election. In fact, some commentators argued even before the IT contract scandal that, while it retained the capacity to mobilise thousands of people in street demonstrations, the Committee was losing momentum and had little idea of how to reach out to Poles who were not already committed opponents of the government, especially younger people who were notably under-represented on its protests.

Mr Schetyna relatively unscathed

The only opposition figure to emerge relatively unscathed from the parliamentary crisis was Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna. Mr Schetyna was uneasy about the sit-in, fearing that many Poles did not really understand its purpose and viewed the behaviour of some of its participants as immature and self-indulgent. Indeed, the impetus for the occupation came from mainly younger deputies, who were close to former Civic Platform prime ministers Ewa Kopacz and Donald Tusk (who became EU Council President in December 2014) but were marginalised by Mr Schetyna. Nonetheless, he was obliged to (at least publicly) support the occupation as he did not want to be outflanked by Mr Petru, his bitter rival for the opposition leadership. In fact, following his Portuguese holiday scandal, Mr Petru tried to defuse the crisis: participating in talks aimed at securing a compromise (which he subsequently backed away from) and making it clear that his party’s deputies would not block the Sejm rostrum when parliament returned from its recess. Mr Schetyna used this as an opportunity to present himself as the government’s most uncompromising opponent and boycotted the talks. However, much of this was posturing: Mr Schetyna had already come to the conclusion that, without a convincing narrative as to why the opposition was continuing with the protest, it had become counter-productive. In the event, he ended the sit-in abruptly in mid-January on the second day after parliament resumed.

In fact, when Mr Schetyna took over the Civic Platform leadership following its crushing 2015 election defeat, the party faced a major, possibly even existential, crisis. ‘Modern’, which was elected to the Sejm for the first time in 2015, was able to contrast its ‘newness’ with the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform, which many Poles saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals, and pulled ahead of Mr Schetyna’s party in opinion polls. However, Mr Petru’s party lost its initial momentum while 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 included 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. In the wake of the parliamentary crisis, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys found Civic Platform holding steady at 20% compared with a large slump in support for ‘Modern’, down to only 11%; although both opposition groupings were running well behind Law and Justice on 39%.

Nonetheless, although Mr Schetyna is a good organiser and an experienced (and ruthless) political operator, he lacks dynamism and charisma, and does not yet appear to have an effective strategy for re-building Civic Platform’s support. He also leads a deeply divided party with a strong internal opposition, notably from those younger deputies who were clearly dissatisfied that he ended the sit-in protest without securing any further concessions from the government. Indeed, some commentators have floated the possible return of Mr Tusk to national politics either as Civic Platform leader or to head up a united opposition alliance. Mr Tusk’s first two-and-a-half year term as EU Council President expires in May and, although he enjoys widespread backing from European leaders, Law and Justice have indicated that they will not support extending his mandate.

However, while Mr Tusk remains a charismatic and authoritative figure, it is far from clear that most Poles really want him to return to front-line national politics. Having previously been one of his party’s most important electoral assets, Mr Tusk’s popularity slumped during the last parliament. Law and Justice long argued that he personified the shortcomings and pathologies of the Civic Platform government, which it often referred to as the ‘Tusk system’. The ruling party will no doubt try and remind voters of this by, for example, making Mr Tusk appear before a special parliamentary commission that is investigating the 2012 Amber Gold pyramid scheme scandal, as a result of which thousands of Poles lost their savings, questioning him on when he first learned about the company’s problems given that his son was employed by one of its subsidiaries.

No going back

The Polish opposition still retains the support of most of the country’s cultural and business elites, and has strong links with the EU political establishment and much of the Western opinion-forming media which share its dislike of Law and Justice. Although the ruling party shrugs off EU criticisms, international pressure has forced it to devote valuable time and political capital defending its position in the European arena. The political scene is also very polarised: many Poles oppose the government, uneasy about its alleged centralising tendencies, and, given that they live disproportionately in urban areas, can be mobilised relatively easily to take part in street demonstrations. The opposition may need to wait for an opening when the government faces a major crisis, but the next (local) elections take place in autumn 2018 and the key parliamentary poll is not scheduled until 2019, so it still has time to develop an attractive political alternative.

However, it still spends too much time focusing on issues that are too abstract for most Poles, while failing to offer a convincing alternative on pressing social and economic concerns where Law and Justice is more in tune with public opinion. Although critics argue that the government’s social spending plans will place a strain on the public finances, it has introduced reforms, such as its extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, that benefit the many Poles who feel frustrated not to have shared in the country’s recent economic growth. Law and Justice’s election victory also reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. The opposition will struggle to mount an effective challenge until it recognises that most Poles do not simply want a return to the status quo ante.