Has Poland’s Law and Justice government regained the political initiative?

Although Poland’s right-wing government has been on the defensive following a series of mini-crises, it has maintained a solid base of support by delivering on its key social welfare spending promises. Last month, the main opposition party lost ground as it came under much greater scrutiny, especially on the European migration crisis issue. However, even if macro-economic indicators remain positive and the government delivers policies that improve ordinary people’s living standards, Poles may still opt for a party than appears to offer them a calmer and more stable political environment.

An accumulation of mini-crises

The Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has found itself on the defensive in recent months as it encountered a series of mini-crises. This began at a March EU summit when Poland was isolated in its attempt to prevent the re-election of Donald Tusk – former prime minister and one-time leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – for a second term as European Council President. Then, in April Mr Tusk was questioned by the public prosecutor about his knowledge of a co-operation agreement between Polish military counter-intelligence and the Russian security service. Mr Tusk’s arrival at Warsaw railway station, and carefully choreographed walk to the prosecutor’s office surrounded by supporters, was turned into a media spectacle giving the impression of a triumphant return to the national scene by a politician being hounded by the ruling party.

There were also disputes and divisions within the ruling party played out in the media glare rather than being resolved behind-the-scenes. For example, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda appeared to be at odds with defence minister Antoni Macierewicz following the latter’s failure to give official responses to correspondence requesting clarification of the ministry’s work in a number of areas. More broadly, stung by allegations that he is a subservient and politically partisan President, Mr Duda has (albeit rather tentatively) started to try and carve out a more independent political role for himself by, for example, expressing his concerns about a number of government measures. Opposition from the President was, for example, one of the factors that led Law and Justice to withdraw its proposal to create a two-term limit for elected local mayors, which would have operated retrospectively so that it included incumbents standing in the next autumn 2018 local polls.

Recent months also saw various controversies and scandals involving a number of government-appointed officials. In April, 27-year-old Bartłomiej Misiewicz, a former close aide to Mr Macierewicz, was forced to resign as a Law and Justice member when a special commission set up by party leader Jarosław Kaczyński ruled that he was not qualified or experienced enough to fulfil the various functions to which he had been appointed. Media reports suggested that Mr Misiewicz had been offered a huge salary and perks in the state-run Polish Armaments Group (PGZ) in spite of earlier being forced to resign as defence ministry spokesman. This was followed by the resignation of Wacław Berczyński as head of the commission re-investigating the 2010 Smolensk air crash, after he claimed to have influenced the government’s decision last year to abandon a planned deal to purchase 50 Caracal military helicopters from the French-based Airbus company, even though he had no competencies in this area and potential conflicts of interest. The allegation that Law and Justice has tolerated cronyism is particularly damaging because a fundamental element of the party’s appeal has been its claim to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state in contrast to its scandal-ridden Civic Platform-led predecessor.

At that same time, there has been increasing pressure on the government in a number of policy areas where it has been drawn it into conflicts with various interest groups. For example, the government was heavily criticised for its failure to respond positively to a petition organised by the Union of Polish Teachers (ZNP), the main teaching union, signed by over 900,000 citizens calling for a nationwide referendum on its educational reforms. The government argues that the reforms were clearly set out in its manifesto and widely consulted, while a summer referendum would cause chaos given that they are due to come into effect when the new school year begins in September. However, the petition put Law and Justice in an awkward position, given that when in opposition it had criticised its Civic Platform-led predecessor for ignoring civic referendum initiatives.

None of these various individual mini-crises were decisive of themselves but their cumulative effect was to put Law and Justice on the back-foot and undermine the government’s credibility and morale. Indeed, even a recent spate of car accidents involving Mr Duda, Mr Macierewicz and prime minister Beata Szydło (who was hospitalised for several days as a result) allowed the opposition to portray the ruling party as a privileged caste who were not even subject to the same traffic rules as ordinary citizens; important because one of Law and Justice’s main criticisms of the previous Civic Platform administration was that it represented an arrogant and out-of-touch elite. As a consequence, opinion polls started to indicate a shrinking of Law and Justice’s previous double-digit lead, and a couple of them even showed Civic Platform overtaking the ruling party.

Delivering on social spending and the economy

In fact, the narrowing of Law and Justice’s poll lead was due largely to the consolidation of the previously fragmented opposition around Civic Platform. Indeed, the latest data produced by the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys showed that by mid-May Law and Justice had recovered and once again opened up a clear lead with 37% support (in the October 2015 parliamentary election it secured 37.6%) compared to 30% for Civic Platform. A May 2017 survey for the CBOS polling agency also found that the number of government supporters was, at 39%, at its highest level since Law and Justice took office (34% were opposed and 25% neutral).

The government has maintained a solid base of support due in large part to the fact that it has delivered on several of the social spending promises that were the key to its 2015 election victories. The most significant of these were: its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families; and a law reversing the previous administration’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which had increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men). For their part, the government’s critics point out that there are also a number of key pledges that it has failed to implement, notably a substantial across-the-board increase in tax allowances.

Moreover, the Polish economy is also performing better than expected, with investment increasing and unemployment falling to its lowest level in 25 years. For sure, the government’s critics argue that it is benefiting from a short-term consumption boom rather than increased productivity and, although the state budget deficit is under control due to increased tax revenues, the level of public debt remains high and increased social spending could impose a future burden if there is an economic downturn. Nonetheless, policies such as ‘500 plus’ have provided a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost for many low income households frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in earlier periods of economic growth. Interestingly, a May CBOS survey also found that 43% of respondents evaluated the economic situation positively (and only 15% negatively), the highest level since 1989.

Civic Platform under pressure

At the same time, Civic Platform has come under much greater scrutiny as Law and Justice has forced it to spell out and defend its own programmatic alternatives rather than simply criticise the government in general terms. For example, having previously argued that ‘500 plus’ would place an unaffordable strain on the public finances, the opposition grouping has tried to outflank Law and Justice by arguing that the programme should be extended to include every child regardless of family income. However, knowing that this risks damaging the party’s fiscal credibility Civic Platform has also suggested that it will limit entitlements by excluding parents who are not working or seeking work. This has left the party both open to the charges of opportunism while simultaneously creating uncertainty among voters favouring greater social welfare spending as to whether Civic Platform is really committed to maintaining the programme.

Moreover, the revival of debate around the EU migration crisis also put Civic Platform on the defensive. The Law and Justice government has taken an increasingly hard line on this issue refusing to implement a 2015 deal agreed by the previous Civic Platform-led administration whereby Poland would admit 7,000 people as part of an EU-wide scheme to relocate 160,000 Middle Eastern and North African migrants, and says that it is ready for a lengthy battle with the EU institutions if necessary. Knowing that opinion polls show three-quarters of Poles are against the EU scheme, Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna initially denied that the migration crisis was still an issue and then, when pressed by a reporter, appeared to suggest that he was against admitting any refugees. However, under pressure from the liberal-left media, Civic Platform rowed back from this and suggested instead that it was only against ‘illegal migrants’ and in favour of accepting a small number of refugees who were genuinely escaping armed conflict and had been vetted on security grounds. To add to the confusion, the majority of the party’s MEPs abstained during a May European Parliament debate on the issue.

2005 or 2007?

Civic Platform’s programmatic zig-zags came as a huge relief to Law and Justice after a series of cumulative public relations mini-crises had knocked the ruling party’s earlier momentum and self-belief. Law and Justice hopes that its social welfare policies will be a key issue determining the shape of the political debate right up to the next election. In this sense, the ruling party will be hoping the next election is a re-run of the 2005 parliamentary and presidential polls which Law and Justice won by framing the contest as a choice between its own socially ‘solidaristic’ vision of Poland and Civic Platform’s much less appealing economically liberal approach. However, ‘500 plus’ and other government social policies can only be weaponised politically if voters feel that the opposition represent a genuine threat to their continuation, and last month Law and Justice was able to create considerable doubt as to whether Civic Platform was really committed to them.

Nonetheless, although Law and Justice’s support appears to be holding steady, the nightmare haunting the party is that the next election actually becomes a repeat of the 2007 poll. Then, as the incumbent, Law and Justice mobilised its core supporters and even increased its share of the vote on the back of a strong economic performance, but ultimately lost because even larger numbers turned out to vote for Civic Platform which promised a less combative governing style. So even if the macro-economic indicators are good and Poles are pleased that Law and Justice has delivered policies that have had a visible, positive impact on their living standards, they could once again opt for a party that appears to offer them the best chance to enjoying the fruits of a strong economy and generous social welfare in a more calm and stable political environment. Regardless of whether one believes that the cause of this instability is an overly-confrontational government needlessly opening up conflicts on too many fronts or, as the government’s supporters argue, an irresponsible opposition trying to whip up hysteria, it is this potential concern among Poles that the country is in a state of semi-permanent political conflict that could be the biggest challenge facing the ruling party and key to its future prospects.