The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: October, 2017

Why is Poland’s Law and Justice government so popular?

In spite of the fact that it has come under heavy criticism from its political opponents for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law, the popularity of Poland’s right-wing government is at record levels. It has delivered on its high-profile social spending pledges, strongly opposed the EU’s very unpopular migrant relocation scheme, and many Poles feel that it deserves credit for at least trying to tackle the shortcomings of the Polish state. With the opposition failing to mount an effective challenge, the ruling party’s greatest threat comes from the risk of arrogance and complacency among its own supporters.

Record levels of support

Poland’s government – led, since its autumn 2015 election victory, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – has come under heavy fire from its political opponents who have accused it of: creeping authoritarianism and illiberalism; failing to respect the Polish Constitution and separation of powers; and undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. Thousands of Poles have participated in anti-government protests and the Law and Justice administration has faced harsh criticism from the EU political establishment and much of the Western opinion-forming media. The European Commission has launched a ‘rule of law’ action under Article 7 of the European treaties, threatening the Polish government with sanctions including possible suspension of the country’s voting rights in the European Council.

However, the government’s supporters have robustly denied these allegations, defending its actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they argue, have been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. Moreover, in spite of this wave of criticism, Law and Justice has maintained high levels of public support and during the last couple of months the party’s popularity reached record levels. As the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows, Law and Justice has a clear poll lead averaging 43% support (in the autumn 2015 election it secured 37.6%) compared with 23% for the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007 and 2015, 10% for the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz ‘15’ grouping, and 9% for the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party. An October survey by the CBOS polling agency also found that that, at 44%, the number of government supporters was at its highest level since Law and Justice took office; 27% were opposed and 26% neutral.

Delivering on social spending pledges

Why is the ruling party so popular? Perhaps most importantly, the government has delivered on several of the high-profile social spending pledges that were the key to Law and Justice’s 2015 election success. 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 government’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which had increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men). The ‘500 plus’ programme in particular has had an important symbolic effect by providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s recent economic growth. Many Poles feel that, while politicians have often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice is the first party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale.

Moreover, although the government’s social spending programmes are very costly, and its opponents argue that they place a massive strain on public finances, the Polish economy is performing much better than expected. Economic growth is strong, investment increasing, unemployment is at its lowest level for 25 years, wages have started to rise, and increased tax revenues have actually led to a reduction in the state budget deficit. For sure, the government’s critics argue that it is benefiting from a more general upswing in the European economy and short-term consumption boom rather than increased productivity and private sector investment. The level of public debt remains high and increased social spending could, they say, cause serious problems in the future if there is an economic downturn and the fiscal situation deteriorates. Nonetheless, Poles are more optimistic about the state of both the economy and their personal finances than they have been for many years.

Opposing enforced multi-culturalism

The vast majority of Poles also support the Law and Justice government’s strong opposition to the EU’s mandatory re-distribution quotas for Middle Eastern and North African migrants located in Greece and Italy. For example, a May 2017 CBOS survey found that 70% of Poles were against accepting refugees (never mind economic migrants!) from Muslim countries and only 25% in favour. Law and Justice understands that for many Poles the European migration crisis is an issue of huge political and symbolic importance and – in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European cultural and political elites – they view the EU relocation scheme as a threat to national sovereignty, identity and security. Most Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that they feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities. The fact that, unlike in many West European cities, there have been no Islamist terrorist attacks in Poland has increased Poles’ sense that they live in a relatively safe country and fear that EU-imposed multi-culturalism threatens their security.

Moreover, although Poles are still overwhelming pro-EU they are more divided over whether the Union’s institutions should become involved in the country’s internal affairs. Many are sympathetic to Law and Justice’s claim that the Commission’s criticisms of the Polish government are motivated, in part at least, by Warsaw’s rejection of enforced multi-culturalism and, more broadly, of what they see a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus in the moral-cultural sphere that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Interestingly, a June 2017 poll conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Polityka’ journal found that 51% of respondents actually supported leaving the EU if this was the only way to prevent Poland from being forced to admit Muslim migrants.

A weak and ineffective opposition

Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition has also failed to mount an effective challenge to Law and Justice. Although many Poles have misgivings about the government’s approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, the strategy of so-called ‘total opposition’, based on exerting pressure through a combination of street protests and international influence, has proved largely ineffective. The opposition has spent too much time focusing on issues that are too abstract for most Poles, while failing to offer an attractive alternative on their more pressing social and economic concerns where Law and Justice is clearly more in tune with public opinion. While he is an effective political operator who has consolidated his grip on the Civic Platform apparatus, party leader Grzegorz Schetyna lacks dynamism and charisma and is constantly being undermined by younger deputies who were close to the previous party leadership. At the same time, a series of gaffes and public relations disasters have allowed government supporters to portray ‘Modern’ leader Ryszard Petru as an over-promoted political lightweight.

Moreover, 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, and most Poles do not want to see a return to the status quo ante. 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 administration. The government has also made it difficult for Mr Schetyna’s party to disassociate itself from the negative legacies of its earlier period in office. For example, a special parliamentary commission investigating the 2012 Amber Gold pyramid scheme scandal, as a result of which thousands of Poles lost their savings, has revealed the inadequacies of the state’s oversight systems on Civic Platform’s watch. Similarly, Warsaw mayor, and one of Civic Platform’s deputy leaders, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz has also caused the party embarrassment by refusing to appear before a special government-appointed verification commission investigating the so-called ‘reprivatisation scandal’: irregularities in the return of properties in the capital confiscated under communist rule.

Paradoxically, although it frustrated a key element of the government’s legislative programme, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda’s July vetoes of two controversial flagship judicial reform bills may also have helped the ruling party, in the short-term at least. By taking the wind out of the opposition’s sails and focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp, the presidential vetoes have both marginalised, and highlighted the weakness and ineffectiveness of, the government’s opponents. However, the political ambitions and emotions involved here may be difficult to contain within manageable boundaries and there is a danger that, if this political conflict between the President and ruling party escalates out of control, it could lead to ongoing mutual recriminations within – and even, in the worst case scenario, the implosion of – the governing camp.

Arrogance and complacency are the greatest risks

Some commentators have argued that opinion polls may be over-estimating Law and Justice’s support, or that the party should be performing even better given the state of the economy and level of social transfers. However, the fact that its polling surge has come later in the parliamentary term, rather than as a post-election ‘bounce’ that newly elected parties often enjoy, suggests that it is more deeply rooted. Indeed, even if they disagree with some specific government measures many Poles still feel that Law and Justice deserves credit for at least trying to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the Polish state which had been ignored by previous governments. For example, even many of the government’s critics have praised its attempts to seek redress for ordinary citizens who lost out as a result of the Warsaw reprivatisation scandal. Law and Justice has thus been very effective at convincing a large number of Poles that, for all its faults, it is at least attempting to make the state more responsive and citizen-friendly and prevent it from being hi-jacked by well-connected elites and special interests. An important element of this is what some commentators have termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’, whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens have started to regain a feeling of dignity and feel that their government is finally trying to restore an elementary sense of justice and moral order.

In fact, apart from the risk of escalating conflicts within the governing camp, the greatest threat to Law and Justice probably comes from the danger of its own activists succumbing to the kind of arrogance and complacency that led to the downfall of its predecessors, especially if they are seen increasingly not to live up to the ethical standards of a party that claims to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state. So far, the negative publicity surrounding questionable appointments to state-owned companies and agencies, the awarding of contracts to political allies, and appropriation of state resources for partisan ends, has not damaged the ruling party to any great extent; its supporters still regard these as the occasional lapses of a generally honest party. However, experience suggests that an accumulation of apparently minor incidents can gradually chip away at a governing party’s credibility so that when a more serious, high profile scandal emerges it can act as a tipping point and shift the public mood very quickly. In spite of recent mishaps, Law and Justice can be grateful that it is still some way off reaching that tipping point.

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How will relations between Poland’s President and ruling party develop?

The Polish President’s decision to veto the government’s flagship judicial reforms was part of a broader move for greater autonomy from the ruling party. He clearly gains from highlighting his independence, while focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak opposition. But conflicting ambitions and emotions could make it difficult to contain competition between the President and ruling party within manageable boundaries.

Unexpected judicial reform vetoes

Although he was elected as candidate of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, at the end of July, in a dramatic and surprising move, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two controversial laws overhauling the country’s Supreme Court and National Judicial Council (KRS) that would have given the government significant new powers in appointing and dismissing judges. Overturning a presidential veto requires a three-fifths majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, where Law and Justice only has a simple majority.

Mr Duda’s unexpected move came after the ruling party’s judicial reform proposals triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and now the main opposition grouping, and smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party – strongly criticised the legislation. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, they argued that the reforms undermined the constitutional separation of powers and would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees. As a consequence, there were nationwide protests in dozens of Polish towns and cities. The reforms were also heavily criticised by the European Commission which warned that it was ready to take action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, if any Supreme Court judges were dismissed.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite was out of touch with ordinary citizens and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they said, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts and appointment of judges was justified, and simply brought Poland more into line with practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s counter-proposals

Last month, Mr Duda presented his own versions of the two vetoed laws. The original Law and Justice law to reform the National Judicial Council involved ending the terms of 15 of its 25 members and selecting their successors by a simple majority in the Sejm rather than by judges’ organisations as was the case up until now. In Mr Duda’s new draft, the majority of the Council would still be nominated by parliament but he repeated his earlier condition that they be elected by a three-fifths majority. In fact, Law and Justice had already accepted this proposal as an amendment to its earlier Supreme Court reform bill, even though it would have forced the party to negotiate Council appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

However, Mr Duda also proposed a further requirement that if, during a two month period, lawmakers could not muster the three-fifths majority then the President would have the right to select the Council members himself from among those considered by parliament. When it quickly became clear that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ would not support the constitutional amendment required to enact this proposal, Mr Duda proposed instead that a new vote should take place to break the deadlock with each Sejm deputy only able to vote for one candidate, which would also ensure that some opposition nominees were elected. Government supporters are concerned that this will not guarantee a clear ‘pro-reform’ majority within the Council and want the final decision to be taken by a three-fifths vote in the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber where Law and Justice holds 64 out of 100 seats.

The other Law and Justice-sponsored law required all current Supreme Court members to stand down except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list approved by the justice minister, with future candidates appointed in the same way. Mr Duda proposed instead that Supreme Court judges would retire at the age of 65 with the President deciding if their term could be extended. If introduced, Mr Duda’s plan would mean that around 40% of the current Supreme Court judges would have to stand down – including its president and harsh critic of the government’s reforms Małgorzata Gersdorf, who turns 65 in November – with the rest due to retire within the next three years.

Distancing himself from the ruling party

In fact, Mr Duda has, from the outset, struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. His opponents had dismissed Mr Duda as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ as he (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones. However, earlier this year Mr Duda dismissed his chief of staff Małgorzata Sadurska, who was felt to be too closely aligned with the Law and Justice leadership. Then, without consulting the ruling party, in May the President announced that he was initiating a national debate on whether to change Poland’s 20-year-old Constitution culminating in a consultative referendum in November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of the restoration of Polish sovereignty at the end of the First World War.

In July, the President also vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers to give the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are controlled by opposition parties. Then, in August Mr Duda – who, as head of state, is also commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces – refused to approve the appointment of dozens of generals, reflecting ongoing tensions between the President and defence minister Antoni Macierewicz who had earlier blocked a key presidential military aide’s access to classified information.

Mr Duda’s knows that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to attract support beyond the Law and Justice hard core and his decision to veto the government’s judicial reforms was not, therefore, a one-off but part of a broader move by the President to develop greater autonomy and independence from the ruling party. Voters appear to approve of this: surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency last month found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 74% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, while 68% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties; a sharp increase from 60% and 55% respectively in July.

‘Good change’ or ‘revolutionary change’?

However, by putting himself at odds with the ruling party, Mr Duda’s decision to veto Law and Justice’s flagship judicial reform laws was clearly a major turning point for his presidency and has introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics. Demonstrating that he could act independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – Poland’s most powerful politician who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – Mr Duda is trying to completely re-define his presidency and carve out an alternative power centre within the governing camp which the Law and Justice leader has to negotiate with to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme.

Indeed, the judicial reform crisis has highlighted some of the structural weaknesses within the governing camp. Given that the President’s most significant constitutional powers are negative ones, blocking nominations and legislation, some tensions between any government and all but the most passive head of state are almost inevitable. However, while Mr Kaczyński’s position as undisputed Law and Justice leader has given the governing camp a sense of unity and stability, it has also led to a reluctance to grant Mr Duda any real autonomy for fear that this would encourage the formation of rival power centres. This meant that when Mr Duda eventually tried to develop a more independent role for himself Mr Kaczyński and the Law and Justice leadership saw this as undermining the cohesiveness of the governing camp.

In fact, although Mr Kaczyński can at times be overbearing he is also deeply pragmatic and knows that entering into an ongoing, open conflict with the President would put his long-term political project of radically reconstructing the Polish state at risk. Mr Duda is also a much less experienced politician and lacks any real independent power base within the governing camp which remains overwhelmingly loyal to Mr Kaczyński. Moreover, although some government supporters, notably allies of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, question the President’s commitment to the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana), talk of a new centre-right ‘presidential party’ is fanciful at this stage.

Indeed, Mr Duda does not want to damage, or even significantly weaken, the ruling party whose support he needs to secure his short-term political objectives (his constitutional referendum proposal will, for example, require the approval of the Senate) and longer-term re-election prospects. Indeed, the President argues that he shares the government’s broad objectives but simply disagrees about the best means of achieving them and, in some cases, how radical the reforms should be; favouring, as he puts it, ‘good change’ over ‘revolutionary change’. In terms of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s proposals represent certain adjustments to, rather than a radical departure from, Law and Justice’s original plans. In other words, Mr Duda wants the Law and Justice leadership to pay more attention to his interests and develop its reforms in a more consensual way.

Containing divisions will be difficult

Mr Duda and the ruling party, therefore, have to maintain a careful balancing act. Although the President risks losing part of his political base and cannot achieve anything substantial if he moves too far away from the ruling party’s orbit, he clearly gains from highlighting his independence and autonomy. Focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak and ineffective opposition. In the case of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s actions not only defused tensions and de-mobilised mass protests in the short-term, they also shifted debate onto what form the reforms should take rather than whether they should be undertaken at all. This is one of the factors explaining why public support for Law and Justice has actually increased over the last couple of months: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice enjoying 42% support compared with only 22% for Civic Platform and only 9% for ‘Modern’.

However, although open hostility would be suicidal for all concerned, conflicting political ambitions and emotions could make it very difficult to keep political competition between the presidential camp and ruling party within manageable boundaries. Mr Duda’s vetoes were clearly a watershed and if Law and Justice and the President cannot develop an effective working relationship then the remainder of the current parliament could see ongoing political conflict, mutual recriminations and, at worst, the implosion of the governing camp. The next few weeks are likely to be crucial in determining whether this model of contained and managed political competition between its two most important elements can be sustained.