Is Poland’s Civic Platform a serious threat to the ruling party?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s main opposition grouping appears to have seen off its challengers and be drawing level with the ruling party in the polls. Although underestimating the opposition would be a serious mistake for the governing party, for many Poles it remains associated the previous, discredited administration and does not yet offer a credible alternative.

Challengers for the opposition leadership

The centrist Civic Platform (PO), which was Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and is currently the main opposition grouping, suffered a crushing defeat in the most recent October 2015 parliamentary election at the hands of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The former governing party 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 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 whom many voters saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. When Grzegorz Schetyna took over as leader in January 2016 the party faced a major, possibly even existential, crisis.

Meanwhile, a significant challenger for the opposition leadership emerged in the form of the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping led by liberal financial sector economist Ryszard Petru. ‘Modern’ was elected to the Sejm for the first time in 2015 securing 7.6% by picking up support from voters who felt that Civic Platform had drifted away from its free market roots. The party’s greatest asset, however, was the fact that it was able to contrast its ‘newnesss’ with the more compromised figures associated with Civic Platform. Without the political ballast of having to defend eight years in office, Mr Petru’s criticisms of the Law and Justice government appeared more authentic and credible and, as a consequence, ‘Modern’ pulled ahead of Mr Schetyna’s party in the polls.

At the same time, the main focus for mobilising extra-parliamentary opposition to Law and Justice came from the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), which was formed in November 2015 days after the new government took office. Although the initial impetus for its protests was controversy over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, the Committee subsequently broadened out into a more general anti-Law and Justice civic movement. 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 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, and mobilised thousands in anti-government street protests.

Mr Schetyna restores discipline and purpose

However, Civic Platform retained a number of important advantages over its rivals. These included: a large caucus of experienced parliamentarians; considerable financial resources and 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. Mr Schetyna is also a good organiser who has restored a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. At the same time, although he is a deeply pragmatic politician, Mr Schetyna tried to position himself as the government’s most uncompromising opponent by adopting an approach dubbed ‘total opposition’ and, in contrast to Mr Petru, boycotted negotiations with the ruling party.

‘Modern’, on the other hand, lacked both grassroots organisational structures and experienced, battle-hardened politicians in its small parliamentary caucus. Unlike Mr Schetyna, who spent the first phase of his leadership attempting to consolidate the party’s local structures, Mr Petru chose a more centralised and media-orientated organisational strategy. This will pose problems for the party when it has to find thousands of candidates to contest the autumn 2018 local elections, the next major electoral test. Embarrassingly for a grouping that prided itself on its managerial competence, ‘Modern’ was also hit by a court ruling that it had broken campaign funding rules and, as a consequence, stripped of it election refund and three-quarters of its 6 million złoty annual state subvention.

However, Modern’s biggest underlying weakness lay in the narrowness of its programmatic appeal, given that experience suggests that the social base for a technocratic, pro-business liberal party in Poland is relatively small. Civic Platform’s weak ideological underpinnings, on the other hand, always gave it much greater reach across the political spectrum and the potential to garner the support of a very broad coalition of voters united by their dislike of Law and Justice. Particularly after it took office in 2007, Civic Platform adopted a deliberate strategy of diluting its ideological profile and projecting itself as a somewhat amorphous centrist ‘catch-all’ party, albeit with an increasingly socially liberal tilt. Mr Schetyna also appears to believe that only an ideologically eclectic, rather than overtly liberal, appeal can peel away enough centre-right voters to make Civic Platform an effective challenger to Law and Justice. He has talked about restoring the party’s ‘conservative anchor’ (rhetorically, if not in terms of any actual policy shifts) arguing that in recent years it had been too identified with social liberalism.

Moreover, not only did ‘Modern’ lose momentum as the effect of its ‘newness’ wore off but a series of gaffes by Mr Petru allowed the party’s opponents to portray him as an over-promoted political lightweight. Most spectacularly, in an appalling error of judgement Mr Petru went to Portugal for a New Year’s Eve holiday with one of his deputies, the recently divorced Joanna Schmidt, while their party colleagues were involved in a parliamentary sit-in protest as part of an apparently urgent struggle to save Polish democracy. ‘Modern’ has not really recovered from this public relations disaster and last month its internal divisions were exposed further when the party suffered its first parliamentary defections as four of its deputies joined Civic Platform.

The Committee for the Defence of Democracy was also hit by a leadership crisis when in January documents leaked to the press revealed that more than 120,000 złoties from its 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 appeared to contradict a claim by Mr Kijowski (who had previously come under attack from government supporters for his inability to pay alimony from an earlier marriage) that he did not receive any official income from the movement. In fact, the Committee had been losing momentum even before the IT contract scandal and appeared to have little idea of how to reach out to Poles who were not already committed government opponents, especially to younger people who were notably under-represented on its protests.

Mr Schetyna’s party also received a major boost when the Law and Justice government was isolated at a March EU summit in its attempt to prevent the re-election of Donald Tusk, Civic Platform’s co-founder and former leader who served as Polish prime minister from 2007-14, as European Council President. Although he is Mr Schetyna’s bitter political enemy, most Poles still identify Mr Tusk with Civic Platform and the party was able to portray his re-election as an important symbolic victory and major political turning point. Indeed, the latest data produced by the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice losing its one-time double digit lead and now on 34% support compared with 32% for Civic Platform; with ‘Modern’ down to only 5%. In fact, the ruling party has only seen a relatively small 3-4% dip in its ratings and the narrowing lead was due largely due to the consolidation of the opposition around Civic Platform; although some commentators suggest that Mr Schetyna’s party also received a boost in support from previously undecided voters when it became clear that it was the main challenger to Law and Justice.

Still not a credible alternative?

It would be a mistake for Law and Justice to think that Civic Platform does not represent a potentially extremely serious electoral threat. The political scene remains very polarised and, with Civic Platform having seen off the challenge for the opposition leadership from both ‘Modern’ and the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, the two-party duopoly that has dominated Polish politics since 2005 appears to be re-asserting itself. While the government retains widespread support, many Poles are also uneasy about its alleged centralising tendencies, and there are increasing concerns about some of it actions and policies even among voters who are broadly sympathetic to Law and Justice. The opposition also enjoys the support of most of Poland’s business and media 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.

Mr Schetyna is clearly a very effective and ruthless behind-the-scenes political operator who has consolidated his grip on the Civic Platform apparatus and marginalised his internal party opponents. However, he lacks dynamism and charisma and, although it is keeping a low profile at the moment, there is still a sizeable internal opposition to his leadership especially among those younger Civic Platform deputies who were close to Mr Tusk and his successor as Civic Platform leader and prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, but have been marginalised by Mr Schetyna. Moreover, although he was not in the party’s inner circle for a number of years before becoming leader, for many voters Mr Schetyna is still associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform government. Law and Justice’s 2015 victories reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and most Poles do not simply want a return to the pre-election status quo.

For sure, the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until autumn 2019, plenty of time of time for memories of the previous government to fade, and Mr Schetyna has lifted his party’s morale by landing some effective blows on the current administration. Having spent too much time over the last year focusing on constitutional matters that ordinary Poles find too abstract, Civic Platform has finally started to address the social and economic issues that are of more pressing concern to most voters. However, now that it is the unquestioned main opposition to Law and Justice, Civic Platform will start to come under much greater scrutiny. It still comes across as opportunistic and failing to offer a credible alternative that goes beyond simply criticising the current government. For example, Mr Schetyna has tried to outflank Law and Justice on social spending pledges by arguing that the government’s extremely popular 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. However, in doing so he risks both damaging the party’s fiscal credibility while failing to convince voters who favour greater social welfare spending but remember that Civic Platform had previously argued that ‘500 plus’ would place an unaffordable strain on the public finances, particularly given that the party has also suggested that it will limit entitlements to the programme in other ways. Mr Schetyna’s party, therefore, still needs to develop a more attractive and convincing political alternative if it is to mount an effective electoral challenge to Law and Justice.

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