The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: March, 2018

Are the Polish opposition’s prospects really so hopeless?

Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition lacks convincing leadership and has failed to offer a credible and attractive alternative to Poles on the issues that they care most about. But the right-wing ruling party will go into the autumn local elections with very high expectations and the most high profile contests will be fought in areas where the opposition is relatively strong.

Failing to mount an effective challenge

Poland’s weak and divided liberal-centrist opposition has failed to mount an effective challenge to the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s ruling party since its decisive autumn 2015 election victory. In March, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys showed Law and Justice averaging 42% support compared with only 26% for the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, 9% for the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz ‘15’ grouping, 7% for the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), and 5% for the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL).

Since the election, Civic Platform, and the liberal-centrist opposition more generally, have been constantly on the back-foot. They have focused on constitutional and ‘rule of law’ issues that are too distant and abstract for most ordinary Poles and failed to offer a credible and attractive programmatic alternative on the more pressing social and economic concerns that they care most about. Here Law and Justice is clearly more in tune with public opinion as a result of its generous, high profile social spending programmes which were the key to the party’s 2015 election victory and on which it appears to have delivered in office while maintaining strong economic growth. At the same time, Law and Justice has outmanoeuvred the opposition by highlighting issues such as the European migration crisis where the overwhelmingly majority of Poles share its vehement opposition to the EU’s compulsory migrant relocation quota scheme, while Civic Platform’s stance on this issue has been equivocal and inconsistent.

The opposition’s strategy of trying to exert pressure on the government by invoking the disapproval of, and presenting the Law and Justice government as isolated within, international institutions such as the EU has proved ineffective; indeed, arguably counter-productive. Although Poles are overwhelmingly pro-EU they also do not like what they see as external interference in the country’s domestic political affairs and are critical of the opposition’s attempts to use the Union’s institutions and forums such as the European Parliament (EP) in ways that they feel could weaken Poland’s international standing and harm the national interest.

No return to the status quo ante

On numerous occasions, the opposition has shown itself to be tactically inept, confusing and alienating even many of its core supporters. For example, in January forty Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ deputies abstained in, or absented themselves from, a vote on whether to refer a draft bill aimed at liberalising Poland’s abortion law promoted by the feminist ‘Save the Women’ (Ratujmy Kobiety) civic committee to the parliamentary committee stage (three Civic Platform deputies also voted to reject the bill outright and were then expelled from the party’s parliamentary caucus). This meant that the draft law could not proceed beyond its first reading in spite of the fact that sixty Law and Justice deputies, including party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, actually voted against rejecting it at this stage. (These deputies strongly opposed the draft law’s provisions but argued that all civic-sponsored bills that collected the requisite number of supporting signatures should, as a matter of principle, be allowed to proceed to the committee stage.) The failure of Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ to take a decisive stance on this issue provoked a wave of criticism in the liberal-left media and even anti-opposition street demonstrations by feminist and non-parliamentary left-wing groupings.

The liberal-centrist opposition also lacks a strong and convincing leader around whom government opponents can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna lacks dynamism and charisma but when he was elected in January 2016 was nonetheless seen as an effective political operator who could restore a sense of discipline and purpose to the party. However, his failure to land any blows on the Law and Justice government, exemplified by the fiasco surrounding the abortion law vote which severely damaged Mr Schetyna’s reputation as an effective party manager, has led to constant criticism of him in the liberal-left media. He now has to spend far too much time in internal party battles with competing coteries to shore up his leadership. It is not surprising that a March survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 21% of respondents declared confidence in Mr Schetyna compared with 51% who did not, making him Poland’s least trusted politician.

More fundamentally, the liberal-centrist opposition has failed to grasp the nature of the social changes that have occurred in Poland in recent years, particularly the increased insecurity and frustration among those Poles who felt that they had not shared fully in the country’s increasing prosperity. Law and Justice’s 2015 election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the perceived arrogance of the country’s ruling elite in general and the outgoing Civic Platform-led government in particular; with a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. Most Poles do not want to see a return to the status quo ante which they still associate with the liberal-centrist parties that they rejected so decisively in 2015. While many have misgivings about some of Law and Justice’s policies and actions, particularly its programme of radical state reconstruction, they also feel that the government is at least trying to tackle many of the pathologies which previous administrations appeared content to ignore.

A potential opening

In fact, the opposition retains considerable political assets. These include: a sizeable potential base of popular support, especially in the larger towns and cities; substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media; significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites; and close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice.

Moreover, in recent weeks the Law and Justice government has increasingly found itself on the defensive. After a successful launch of his premiership last December and well-received government re-shuffle in January, which led to an increase in support for the ruling party, new Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki faced a major crisis of international relations with Israel – and, as a consequence, the USA, the administration’s key foreign policy ally. This was prompted by the passage at the end of January of a controversial anti-defamation law which makes it a criminal offence to falsely ascribe responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, but which Israeli critics argued could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation. This was followed by controversy over the generous bonuses paid to Mr Morawiecki’s predecessor Beata Szydło and other ministers. All of this has provided the opposition with potential openings that it can exploit.

Difficult elections for the ruling party

Moreover, the next major test for the Polish parties will be the autumn 2018 local elections and these could be very problematic for Law and Justice. For a start, the ruling party is likely to enter the local election campaign with extremely high expectations: anything significantly less than the 38% national share of the vote that it secured in 2015 is likely to be viewed as a disappointment. At the same time, much attention will be focused on the results of the mayoral elections in Poland’s large towns and cities, where Law and Justice is relatively weak and should be favourable for the liberal-centrist opposition. Winning a mayoral race in any of these areas will be huge achievement for Law and Justice, particularly given that victorious candidates have to secure more than 50% of the vote, if necessary in a second round run-off. Indeed, the most prestigious and high profile contest will be the Warsaw mayoral election which will be an extremely difficult one for Law and Justice but the ruling party appears to have manoeuvred itself into a position where this could become a key symbolic test and main prism through which the local election results will be evaluated.

In fact, mayoral contests are often heavily localised and personalised, and in most towns the favourites will be non-party independents. Moreover, given that Poland’s 16 regional authorities play a major rule in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage, the most politically significant of the local polls will actually be the regional assembly elections. These are also the best indicators of party support as they are the only local government tier where elections are fought on national party lines. However, given its weak coalition potential, if Law and Justice does not win outright majorities in these assemblies (it is hoping to do so in at least half of them) then it will struggle to secure control of many regional authorities, even if it emerges as the largest single party. In the previous 2014 local elections, for example, although Law and Justice narrowly won the largest share of the vote nationally and in half of the assembly elections, it was only able to secure a majority in one regional authority while Civic Platform took control of the remainder either on its own or as part of a coalition. One major problem here is that it is not clear how well ‘Kukiz ‘15’ – which is Law and Justice’s most viable coalition partner, but only has a very weak local organisational base – will perform in these elections.

Moreover, at the end of January, in order to consolidate their support, and as an attempt to regain the political initiative following the abortion law vote fiasco, Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ agreed to stand joint lists in the regional assembly elections. (The two parties also announced that they hoped to stand joint candidates for mayoral contests in the large towns and cities, but so far have only been able to reach agreement in Warsaw and Szczecin.) At the same time, Law and Justice could be squeezed in smaller towns by the Peasant Party, Civic Platform junior governing coalition partner between 2007-15, which is hovering around the 5% in national opinion polls but always performs much better in local elections due to its strong grassroots organisational base and the fact that there is always a higher turnout in these polls in rural areas that form the bedrock of its support. In 2014 the party won nearly 24% of the regional assembly vote; although Law and Justice supporters questioned the reliability of these results.

Changing opposition fortunes?

For sure, while the local elections will be very difficult for Law and Justice, disappointing results for Civic Platform will not only threaten Mr Schetyna’s leadership but also raise fresh doubts about the future of a party which many voters continue to support out of habit and lack of alternatives. This could happen if, for example, the party loses control of a majority of regional assemblies, or suffers a symbolic defeat in Warsaw or another large town or city currently run by a prominent Civic Platform politician. Nonetheless, some commentators argue that, however weak and divided the opposition may appear to be now, it will present a united front at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2019, and point to the agreement of joint Civic Platform-‘Modern’ regional election lists as the start of this process of (at least partial) consolidation. Although the opposition is currently at a very low ebb, better-than-expected local election results would provide it with a major boost and could play a major role in helping to change its fortunes in the run-up to next year’s decisive parliamentary poll.

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How will the anti-defamation law dispute affect Poland’s political scene?

Poland’s anti-defamation law has caused a huge diplomatic row with Israel and the USA but most Poles do not yet appear to see it as a clear and tangible threat to the national interest. A review of the law by the country’s constitutional tribunal could provide its right-wing government with a way to defuse the crisis without appearing to back down to international pressure.

Sacrificing diplomacy for domestic politics?

Since the end of January the Polish political scene has been dominated by controversy surrounding an attempt by the government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, to amend the 1998 law establishing the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a body charged with investigating Nazi and communist-era crimes and informing and educating the public about the country’s recent past. The new anti-defamation law imposes fines and criminal penalties of up to three years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of falsely ascribing responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, whether the statements are made in Poland or abroad. The legislation was prompted by a long-running campaign to curb the use of defamatory phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ by public figures (notoriously in 2012 by the then-US President Barack Obama, although the White House later apologised for this) which suggest that the Polish state was at least partly responsible for the extermination camps that were built and operated by the Germans to kill millions of Jews and others after they invaded Poland in 1939. During 2017 alone, Polish Embassies had to respond 260 times to the use of this term.

However, the new law caused a serious deterioration in Polish-Jewish relations and a huge diplomatic row with Israel, normally a close Polish ally. This began when the Israeli Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari attacked the law in a speech during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, on the day after the legislation was passed by the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament. Israeli critics were concerned that the new law was so loosely worded that it could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation.

The law also met with fierce criticism from the strongly pro-Israel US Trump administration which warned that it could adversely affect freedom of speech and academic inquiry (a concern shared by some Polish government supporters who argued that open debate was the best means of countering misleading statements about Poland’s role in the Holocaust) and have repercussions for the country’s strategic interests and relationships. All Polish governments have pursued a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy with the USA viewed as the main guarantor of the country’s military security. But given its strained relations with the major European powers and EU political establishment, the Law and Justice government has been particularly keen to develop close relations with the Trump administration and considers Washington to be its most important international ally.

At the same time, the liberal centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s largest opposition grouping and, between 2007-15, the country’s main governing party – called upon Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda to veto the bill, and proposed amendments to: delete the imprecise term ‘Polish nation’, and clarify that the law was aimed specifically at tackling the phrase ‘Polish death camps’. Civic Platform and other government critics accused Law and Justice of politicising history and manoeuvring Poland into an international crisis in order to advance its domestic political agenda, arguing that the row exemplified the incompetence and amateurishness of its diplomacy. They claimed that the same objectives could have been achieved without alienating the country’s allies and that the law was counter-productive with media references to ‘Polish death camps’ going viral as soon as the row with Israel broke out. The government’s critics also argued that the crisis encouraged those Poles who held xenophobic views to speak out and, although they acknowledged that Law and Justice is not an anti-Semitic grouping, claimed that the party was reluctant to distance itself from radical nationalist elements of its core electorate. However, all but five opposition deputies (and every one from Civic Platform) either abstained or voted in favour of the law in the original Sejm parliamentary vote, leaving themselves open to criticism that they only changed their stance in response to international pressure.

Protecting Poland’s good name?

For its part, the government argued that the new law was necessary to send a clear signal to the world that it would not allow the country to be slandered, saying that Holocaust denial also involved ascribing responsibility for German wartime atrocities to other national victim groups such as Poles. Although it acknowledged that a tiny minority of individual Poles aided the Nazi forces, thousands of others sheltered Jews in spite of the fact that (uniquely in German-occupied Europe) they and their entire families faced execution if they were caught; the Israeli Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial Centre has honoured more Poles for helping Jews than any other national group. There was no systematic complicity with the Holocaust by the Polish nation or state and, unlike other countries, its government did not surrender to, or collaborate with, Nazi Germany.

The government’s supporters argued that the row only surfaced because of internal Israeli political disputes and claimed that Jerusalem was fully consulted on the contents of the law and its concerns taken on board; pointing out that the legislation makes exceptions for academic historical research and artistic expression, and is targeted precisely at proclamations about Poland and not specific Poles who betrayed Jews. They said that the Law and Justice leadership had strongly condemned anti-Semitism on numerous occasions, while the current government was one of the most pro-Israeli and philo-Semitic in, and Jews were safe in Poland compared with other parts of, Europe. Some commentators also claimed criticisms of the law were linked to attempts by Jewish organisations to persuade the Polish government to compensate them for property confiscated from citizens of Jewish origin during World War Two even when there are no living ancestors of the former owners.

In the end, Mr Duda signed the bill into law in February but, in an effort to defuse tensions and create space for dialogue, also referred it to the constitutional tribunal to check whether its most controversial clauses clashed with Poland’s fundamental rights. However, just as the diplomatic row with Israel appeared to be quietening down, tensions once again emerged following remarks by Poland’s Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the annual Munich security conference when, in response to a question from an Israeli journalist, he listed Jews among those who were ‘perpetrators’ of Nazi-era atrocities alongside Germans, Poles and other nationalities. The government later insisted that Mr Morawiecki’s words were taken out of context and it was never his intention to blame Jewish Holocaust victims for the German-perpetrated genocide.

The row has left most Poles unmoved

The irony is that one of the main justifications for Mr Morawiecki’s appointment as prime minister last December was that his fluent English, understanding of the mentality of Western elites and familiarity with diplomatic niceties would help to boost the Law and Justice government’s international standing. To be fair, the crisis was Mr Morawiecki’s first major political test since he took over the premiership and revealed his relative lack of experience in dealing with sensitive issues such as historical truth and memory. Mr Morawiecki only entered active politics when he joined the government as deputy prime minister for economic affairs in November 2015, having previously worked as a senior executive in the banking sector, and until he became prime minister only had to deal with economic matters. Moreover, Mr Morawiecki has also been very pro-active in taking the lead in international public diplomacy on this issue and, his Munich conference gaffe notwithstanding, worked hard to de-escalate the conflict and present Poland’s case.

Indeed, the fact that Mr Morawiecki appeared to be unflinching in defending Poland’s national honour and historical truth about the country’s role in the Holocaust in the face of fierce international criticism probably strengthened his position among Law and Justice’s provincial and less well-off but extremely patriotic core supporters. Up until now they may have been wary of Mr Morawiecki as a wealthy technocrat with a background in international high finance. Indeed, even if they had misgivings about the specific solutions proposed in the anti-defamation law, many Poles feel that the immense suffering that the country endured under German wartime occupation was too often ignored or deliberately pushed aside by those wanting to focus on Polish anti-Semitism. For example, a February poll conducted by the CBOS agency found that although 52% of respondents said that they understood Israel’s concerns about the law, only 24% felt that it would limit discussion of how Poles had treated Jews during the war. By a margin of 53% to 29% they agreed with Mr Duda’s decision to sign into law, and by 45% to 40% felt that introducing criminal sanctions would be an effective means of tackling misinformation about Poland’s wartime role (although they preferred to pursue this goal through education and diplomacy rather than legal measures).

Moreover, although international rows attract huge media attention they tend to leave most Poles unmoved unless they represent a clear and tangible threat to the national interest. While Poles are aware of the damage that the row over the anti-defamation law has inflicted upon the country’s relations with Israel, a key US ally, they do not necessarily believe that this will lead to a weakening of Washington’s NATO commitment to Poland’s military security. So far the row does not appear to have harmed the prime minister’s approval ratings and the ruling party retains a commanding poll lead over opposition groupings, although we need to await the publication of more opinion surveys conducted after Mr Morawiecki’s Munich remarks to get a clearer picture.

Waiting for the constitutional tribunal’s judgement

Although there is no obvious end in sight to the crisis – and the law will remain a bone of contention between the Polish and Israeli (and, therefore, US) governments, at least until the constitutional tribunal completes its review – Warsaw is hoping that the row will now at least quieten down. Israel also has an interest in de-escalating the conflict: Poland is currently its most important EU ally, has used its seat on the UN Security Council to support Jerusalem in its dispute with the Palestinians, and Israeli firms benefit from Polish defence contracts. At the same time, even many Law and Justice sympathisers are highly critical of the law and it may have been amended by now anyway had the international row not made it impossible for the government to back down without losing face.

The government’s strategy over the next few weeks appears to be to hold tight, avoid provocations that could sharpen the conflict, and wait until the constitutional tribunal completes its review. Moreover, although the law came into force at the beginning of March, some Law and Justice leaders have suggested that the public prosecutor’s office may not launch any actions to enforce it until the legislation has been vetted by the tribunal. Indeed, the tribunal – whose composition has been a matter of bitter legal and political dispute over the last couple of years, and which the opposition argues is now effectively subservient to the ruling party (something Law and Justice denies vehemently) – appears to offer the best hope of resolving the conflict. If it were to find the law’s most controversial elements unconstitutional then this would provide the government with a comfortable pretext to defuse the crisis by amending the law without appearing to be backing down as a result of international pressure.