The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: January, 2018

What is the political significance of Poland’s government reshuffle?

A sweeping reshuffle by Poland’s new prime minister has changed the shape and direction of its right-wing government with a greater emphasis on economic modernisation, political stabilisation and improving EU relations. But this pivot to the technocratic centre risks alienating the ruling party’s core electorate, and is more about packaging the government’s reforms attractively than abandoning its radical state re-construction programme.

Dismissing controversial ministers, promoting technocrats

In January, Mateusz Morawiecki – who, in a surprise move, replaced Beata Szydło as Poland’s prime minister last month – ended months of speculation by announcing a sweeping reshuffle of the Polish government which, since autumn 2015, has been led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. The most symptomatic change involved the replacement of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, a powerful figure who enjoys the backing of the ruling party’s radical wing, by interior minister Mariusz Błaszczak. Before he took on the defence portfolio Mr Macierewicz headed up a party commission investigating the causes of the 2010 Smolensk tragedy in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and dozens of other senior officials died in a plane crash in Western Russia. The Smolensk issue was a touchstone for the party’s core supporters and viewed as part of a broader pattern betrayal of the country’s interests by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007 and 2015 and currently the main opposition grouping.

However, Mr Macierewicz’s commission caused controversy by appearing to countenance sabotage as a possible cause, but failed to find conclusive evidence of this even when it became an official state body after Law and Justice’s 2015 election victory. As defence minister he also clashed repeatedly with Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who, according to the Polish Constitution, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Moreover, Jarosław Kaczyński – who does not hold any formal state positions but exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and is always sensitive to potential challengers – became concerned that Mr Macierewicz was using the ministry to develop an independent political power base. Some commentators also suggested that pressure from the US State Department played a decisive role in Mr Macierewicz’s sacking.

Other high profile dismissals included foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, who was often embroiled in disputes with the EU political establishment and replaced by his less controversial deputy Jacek Czaputowicz. Council of Ministers standing committee chairman Henryk Kowalczyk replaced environment minister Jan Szyszko, who had attracted widespread criticism over his moves to allow logging in the Białowieża primeval forest. Cardiologist and deputy higher education minister Łukasz Szumowski took over as health minister from Konstanty Radziwiłł, who failed to resolve a high profile dispute involving resident doctors. At the same time, Mr Morawiecki appointed his former deputies to lead the key ministries that he had headed up before becoming prime minister: Teresa Czerwińska as finance minister, Jerzy Kwieciński as investment and development minister, and Jadwiga Emilewicz in the entrepreneurship and technology brief. All of these were centrist, technocratic figures not associated with front line party politics; although Mr Morawiecki also re-appointed justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who oversaw the government’s controversial judicial reforms.

Strengthening the prime minister and President

Mr Morawiecki only became a Law and Justice member in March 2016 and lacked a power base in the ruling party’s factional politics, raising doubts as to whether he would be able to resolve the government’s main structural weakness: infighting between ministers entrenched in their departmental power bases. However, the fact he appeared to be given a free-hand to stamp his authority on the government and dismiss such powerful figures as Mr Macierewicz suggests that the new prime minister has much greater room manoeuvre then his predecessor. Mr Morawiecki clearly enjoys Mr Kaczyński’s trust and there is even speculation that the Law and Justice leader is grooming him as his long-term successor. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński remains a key figure in settling personnel and policy disagreements within the governing camp and ensured that two of his most trusted allies, Mr Błaszczak and party organisation supremo Joachim Brudziński, were appointed to head up the key defence and interior ministries.

Another important consequence of the reshuffle, especially Mr Macierewicz‘s dismissal, was to strengthen Mr Duda’s position and defuse the row between the President and the ruling party which, at one time, appeared to threaten the unity of the governing camp. Relations between Mr Duda and the Law and Justice leadership became very tense after the President’s dramatic and surprising decision last July to veto two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws, as part of an effort to assert his independence and autonomy. However, rather than embarking upon a confrontational course, Mr Kaczyński decided to try and mend relations with the President and conceded a certain amount of influence to him over policy and appointments. Improving relations with Mr Duda would have been impossible beyond a certain point if Mr Macierewicz had remained in office and Mr Kaczyński was clearly willing to risk alienating certain elements of Law and Justice’s political base in order to strengthen the governing camp’s internal cohesion.

Political stabilisation and improving EU relations

One of the reshuffle’s main objectives was to stabilise and consolidate Law and Justice’s position ahead of a series of key elections: local government in autumn 2018, European Parliament in summer 2019, parliamentary in autumn 2019, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll. Since it was elected in 2015, the government has undertaken a series of controversial reforms, notably of the judiciary, civil service and public broadcasting. These have laid the groundwork for a radical reconstruction of the Polish state but also precipitated large-scale anti-government protests and led to opposition accusations of creeping authoritarianism (which the government vigorously denies), as well as bringing the ruling party into conflict with the country’s legal establishment and cultural elites.

Mrs Szydło’s administration took the political flak for introducing these reforms but, with the passage of the judicial reform laws at the end of last year, many of the key of elements of the government’s state re-construction programme are now in place. Mr Morawiecki is, therefore, hoping to shift the focus of debate in the second half of the government’s parliamentary term away from these controversial issues by portraying his administration as a team of technocratic experts governing efficiently, modernising an increasingly prosperous and secure country, and ensuring that ordinary Poles share in the benefits of economic growth. The reshuffle is thus an attempt to broaden Law and Justice’s appeal to more centrist, less politically committed Poles who do not reject the ruling party outright but mistrust figures such as Mr Macierewicz; as well as encouraging the country’s elites to come to terms with the government. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the reshuffle may be part of a more ambitious, long-term project of transforming Law and Justice into a pragmatic conservative grouping; although others dismiss it as simply a tactical pivot similar to the one that the party performed so successfully in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

Part of the motivation for the reshuffle was also to improve relations with the EU political establishment. Law and Justice has found itself in conflict with the EU institutions and major European powers on several fronts. It refuses to implement an EU plan for the compulsory relocation of Middle Eastern and North African migrants, which it argues would force multi-culturalism upon Poland and threaten its national security. It disputed a European Court of Justice order to stop logging in the Białowieża Forest, arguing that it was only removing trees on public safety grounds. In December, Poland also became the first EU state to have a so-called Article 7 procedure launched against it following criticisms from the European Commission that a dispute over appointments to and the functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal, and the government’s judicial reform programme, posed a threat to the rule of law; a charge that Law and Justice vigorously denies. For many commentators, Mr Waszczykowski and Mr Szyszko symbolised the government’s poor relations with the Commission and their dismissal was prompted by a desire to give the government a more EU-friendly image.

Pivoting to the centre carries risks

Opinion polls suggest that the reshuffle has proved very popular and Mr Morawiecki is enjoying a political honeymoon. A January survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 61% of respondents evaluated the reshuffle positively compared with only 9% who viewed it negatively (30% were undecided), and 54% were pleased that Mr Morawiecki had taken over as prime minister while only 20% were dissatisfied (26% undecided). The ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice averaging 48% support (in the autumn 2015 election it secured 37.6%) compared with only 24% for Civic Platform, and other opposition parties on single figures.

However, Law and Justice’s change of strategy also carries risks. While the government has enjoyed the fruits of strong growth and low unemployment it also needs to deliver on its ambitious investment and modernisation agenda, while an economic downturn would make it difficult to finance the very costly social spending programmes that have been crucial to its continued popularity. It may also prove impossible to avoid divisive political conflicts. For example, the Polish parliament is currently debating a civic initiative to further tighten the abortion law. Most Law and Justice deputies support this but in autumn 2016 large protests forced the ruling party to vote down a previous attempt to introduce greater restrictions. Moreover, while Mr Morawiecki indicated that Warsaw is open to negotiations with the Commission, he has also made it clear that his government will not abandon, or even significantly modify, its judicial reforms, nor its opposition to compulsory migrant relocation. Two important tests for the Morawiecki administration will be: whether Poland can find six countries prepared to block the Article 7 procedure at the first stage of voting in the Council of Ministers (probably at the end of February); and if the new EU budget, negotiations on which begin later this year, will link disbursal of funds to the functioning of a member state’s judiciary.

More broadly, there is a risk that Law and Justice’s pivot to the centre could alienate a section of its core electorate and supporting media, notably the milieu clustered around the Catholic ‘Radio Maryja’ broadcaster which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’. Many of the party grassroots were already disorientated by the fact that the popular and folksy Mrs Szydło was replaced by Mr Morawiecki, a technocratic former bank chief executive. However, with its support at record levels, Law and Justice is counting on the fact that Mr Macierewicz and the Radio Maryja milieu will reject the idea of a right-wing breakaway party as politically suicidal. Moreover, even if they do not always understand the rationale underpinning his political manoeuvres, the great bulk of the party’s core supporters still trust Mr Kaczyński’s instincts and see his continued leadership of the governing camp as the best guarantee of its right-wing bona fides.

Softening the government’s image, but not changing policy

Mr Morawiecki’s radical reshuffle has significantly changed the shape and direction of the Law and Justice government, with a much greater emphasis on economic modernisation and political stabilisation both domestically and internationally. The party’s apparent pivot to the moderate technocratic centre has also made it more difficult for the weak and divided opposition to develop an effective strategic response and sustain its narrative that a divisive and illiberal government is isolating Poland. At the same time, while Mr Morawiecki clearly has a different governing style from his predecessor, the new administration appears just as committed to pursuing the core elements of Law and Justice’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana). The adjustment has so far been more about softening the government’s image and presenting its reforms more attractively rather than any substantive policy change.

How will the European Commission triggering Article 7 affect Polish politics?

Last month Poland became the first EU member state to have an Article 7 rule of law procedure launched against it, although the country’s right-wing government argues that its judicial reforms are constitutional and necessary. While sanctions appear extremely unlikely, the domestic political impact will depend on whether Poles accept the opposition’s argument that the government is isolating Poland internationally, or the ruling party’s that it is defending national sovereignty against EU interference in the country’s internal affairs.

A major escalation of an ongoing conflict

At the end of December, in a major escalation of a conflict with Poland that has been rumbling on for the past two years, the European Commission recommended triggering the so-called Article 7 procedure, the first ever against an EU member state. This followed its criticisms of the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – as posing a threat to the rule of law. The Commission’s original concerns stemmed from a dispute over appointments to, and the functioning of, Poland’s constitutional tribunal, but since last July escalated to include the government’s controversial judicial reform programme. The Commission argued that, as a result of a set of 13 laws passed by the Law and Justice-dominated parliament, the ruling party had undermined the independence of the judiciary which meant that the constitutionality of the country’s legislation could no longer be guaranteed.

Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, Poland’s main opposition groupings – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the governing party from 2007-15 – and the legal establishment, have accused Law and Justice of failing to respect the Constitution and separation of powers. They argue that the government’s judicial reforms and other actions have subverted democratic values by allowing the ruling party to pack the courts with its own hand-picked nominees. In addition to launching the Article 7 procedure, the Commission also confirmed that it would refer Poland to the European Court of Justice for an alleged infringement of EU law, arguing that legislation changing the way that the heads of lower district and appeal courts are appointed gives the Polish justice minister too much power and is discriminatory because it introduces separate retirement ages for men and women

The government’s supporters responded by saying that Poland was as committed to the rule of law as any other EU country and that its actions were in line with the Polish Constitution. They argued that judicial reforms were sorely needed because 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 judiciary, like many key institutions, was already politicised and expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. They also accused the Commission of double standards arguing that the Polish government’s reforms were in line with practices that existed in many other established Western democracies, and that Brussels was biased and acting on political motives because Law and Justice has challenged the interests of the major EU powers and is out of favour with the socially liberal and cosmopolitan policies supported by the EU political establishment.

Law and Justice won’t back down

The Commission’s latest move shifts the ‘rule of law’ dispute to the EU inter-governmental level but no firm date has been set for member states to vote on its recommendation, allowing some space for diplomatic efforts. The Commission has also said that if the Polish government reverses its legislative changes within the next three months it could rescind its decision. However, within hours of the Commission’s announcement Poland’s Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda signed into law the two judicial reform bills whose earlier approval by the Polish parliament Brussels felt marked a point of no return. One of these potentially ended the tenure of around 40% of current Supreme Court judges by lowering their retirement age from 70 to 65, with the President deciding if their terms could be extended. The other reformed the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, so that most of its members were elected by parliament rather than judicial bodies.

Earlier last month, Poland’s finance minister and respected former banker Mateusz Morawiecki was also appointed as the country’s new prime minister partly in the hope that he would be able to ‘re-set’ Warsaw’s relations with the EU political establishment. Due to his excellent international business contacts, Mr Morawiecki understands the mentality of Western elites and generates their respect for his competence and professionalism. However, judicial reform is one of the most important elements of Law and Justice’s programme to radically re-construct the Polish state. Although Mr Morawiecki’s greater familiarity with diplomatic niceties should enable him to develop better contacts with Western politicians, the new prime minister’s statements since his appointment make it clear that, other than adopting a somewhat gentler rhetorical tone, the government does not intend to change course even if this brings it into conflict with the EU elites.

No sanctions, but Poland marginalised?

Member states are likely to vote on whether to enact Article 7 at an EU General Affairs Council meeting scheduled for the end of February. In the first stage of the procedure the decision on whether the Polish reforms constitute a ‘clear risk of a serious breach of rule of law’ requires the support of 22 of the EU’s remaining 27 members (Poland is excluded from the vote) to move to the next stage. Given that France and Germany have already signalled that they will back the Commission, most other EU states are likely to fall into line, so blocking the Article 7 procedure at this stage would be a huge diplomatic triumph for Law and Justice and Mr Morawiecki. However, a subsequent vote to trigger sanctions against Poland – including, in the worst-case scenario, suspending the country’s European Council voting rights – requires unanimity and the Hungarian government, for one, has made it clear that it will oppose such a move.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice’s critics argue that even if no sanctions are eventually imposed the Article 7 procedure will further damage Poland’s international reputation and undermine the government’s ability to advance the country’s interests on other issues such as the distribution of EU funds when states begin negotiating the 2021-27 EU budget later this year. Poland is the main beneficiary from these fiscal transfers but the current EU budget was always likely to be the last from which the country would gain so substantially, given that British withdrawal from the Union will reduce the overall level of the funding available. At the same time, some EU leaders and officials have argued that the disbursal of Union funds should reflect the extent to which countries are felt to uphold so-called ‘European values’, including democracy and the rule of law. For its part, Law and Justice argues that, as EU budgets require unanimity, Poland can prevent any attempts to develop such linkages, although some commentators say that this can be by-passed.

Support for the EU is broad but shallow

The question of whose interpretation of the meaning of the dispute between Poland and the EU political establishment Poles come to accept will be one of the most important arenas of political conflict in the country’s politics over the coming months. While they are extremely critical of the way that the courts and legal institutions function in their country, Poles are much more divided on the merits of Law and Justice’s specific judicial reforms. They are also, on the face of it, overwhelmingly pro-EU: a December 2017 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 85% of respondents supported their country’s EU membership compared with only 8% against. However, Poles are more wary about the idea of EU institutions becoming involved in the country’s internal affairs and are likely to be extremely hostile if they perceive that the government’s domestic political opponents are trying to settle Polish disputes in international forums. Many are also 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 what they see as the hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus in the moral-cultural sphere that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity.

Moreover, some commentators argue that Polish public support for the EU is very broad but also rather shallow, with Poles increasingly instrumental in their attitudes towards membership. A key motivation for their voting overwhelmingly for EU accession in a 2003 referendum was the idea it represented a historical and civilisational choice to re-unite with the West and the culmination of the post-communist democratisation process. However, this idea of EU membership as a natural and obvious civilisational choice has been undermined in recent years due to an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This issue surfaced in the reaction of Poles (and other Central Europeans) to the EU’s compulsory migrant relocation scheme developed in response to the 2015 migration crisis. An overwhelming majority of Poles oppose accepting refugees (never mind economic migrants) from Muslim countries even if Poland is threatened with financial penalties by the EU for refusing to do so. Poles, therefore, view the European integration process increasingly in terms of a cost-benefit analysis with the extent to which Poland benefits from EU fiscal transfers obviously a key element of this.

Marginalising Poland or defending national sovereignty?

How the triggering of Article 7 will play out in Polish domestic politics, therefore, depends critically on who frames the terms of the debate on this issue most successfully, and particularly whose arguments Poles find most convincing as to who is to blame for (the threat of) EU sanctions or reduced fiscal transfers. The government’s opponents will obviously continue to argue that Law and Justice’s dispute with the EU political establishment is about fundamental constitutional issues because the ruling party has violated basic liberal democratic norms. But they will also try to present Poland’s future relationship of the EU as one of the key issues at stake. They will argue that, at worst, Law and Justice is preparing the ground for ‘Polexit’: Poland following the UK’s example and leaving the EU. But they will also say that, even if the country formally remains an EU member, it could become so marginalised within the Union’s decision making structures that a process of ‘slow motion’ or ‘de facto’ Polexit will develop: with Poland progressively weakening its ties with the Union in a way that undermines its economic and geo-political interests.

The government’s supporters will, on the other hand, continue to vigorously deny that Law and Justice has any plans for ‘Polexit’, while framing the Article 7 debate in terms of a defence of national sovereignty. They will argue that Poland’s dispute with the Commission is a political one and not about the rule of law, while presenting the government as the defender of Polish national interests against the EU political establishment’s interference in the country’s domestic affairs. This narrative not only solidifies Law and Justice’s support among its core voter base, it also potentially casts the government’s opponents in a negative light in the eyes of less politically committed Poles. While the government’s opponents are keen to use their close links with the EU political elites, who share their dislike of Law and Justice, to exert pressure on the ruling party by presenting it as isolated within the Union, this also leaves them open to criticism that they are themselves undermining Poland’s international standing by involving Union institutions in domestic political disputes. If the government can persuade Poles to interpret the Article 7 procedure in this way then playing the ‘rule of law’ card could end up backfiring on both the EU political establishment and Law and Justice’s domestic opponents.