Is Poland’s Law and Justice government in crisis?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

Controversy over ministerial bonuses and a parliamentary occupation by carers of the disabled have exposed Poland’s right-wing government’s areas of greatest potential weakness: not being seen to live up to its claimed higher ethical standards, and demands for ever-greater social welfare spending. But the ruling party still appears to remain more credible than its liberal-centrist opponents on the key socio-economic issues that Poles care most about.

Undermining the ruling party’s core appeal

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 right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015 – prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s found himself on the defensive following an accumulation of political controversies. Almost immediately, Mr Morawiecki was plunged into 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. Although international rows such as these attract huge media attention they often tend to leave most Poles unmoved. Nonetheless, Mr Morawiecki was forced to expend valuable time and political capital on fire-fighting the anti-defamation law crisis rather than promoting a positive agenda.

The sense of crisis was compounded when it emerged that former Law and Justice prime minister Beata Szydło, Mr Morawiecki’s predecessor and currently deputy prime minister responsible for social affairs, had awarded herself and other ministers generous bonuses of as much as 82,000 złoties, one-and-a-half times the country’s average annual wage, just before the government reshuffle in which half of the cabinet was replaced. The government’s position was further weakened when Mrs Szydło defended the bonuses aggressively in parliament, arguing that she had done nothing illegal in awarding them and that ministers were ‘simply due’ the money for their hard work. All of this provided the government’s opponents with an opportunity to launch their first really effective political offensive since the 2015 elections. The liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, sent a so-called ‘convoy of shame’ (‘konwój wstydu’) of mobile billboards across the country showing various ministers’ faces and how much money they had received.

The problem for Law and Justice was that the ministerial bonuses issue undermined a core element of its ethical legitimation and political appeal. Law and Justice’s 2015 electoral success was based in large part on promising clean and honest government and portraying itself, in apparent contrast to its Civic-Platform-led predecessor, as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than the country’s venal and self-serving political elites. One of the greatest threats to Law and Justice, therefore, comes from the danger of it being seen to succumb to the kind of arrogance and complacency that led to the downfall of its predecessor. While most Poles do not appear to be particularly concerned about what they consider rather abstract constitutional and ‘rule of laws’ issues, which so vex the government’s liberal-left critics, they are extremely sensitive about whether Law and Justice is felt to be operating to higher ethical standards than its opponents. Up until now they have tended to view episodes such as the ministerial bonus controversy as the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, and they have not damaged Law and Justice to any great extent. However, the ‘Pooling the Poles’ blog which aggregates voting intention surveys showed a sharp drop in average opinion poll support for Law and Justice from 48% in January, before the bonuses issue emerged, to 40% in April.

Law and Justice counter-attacks

Mr Morawiecki failed to defuse the bonus controversy when, at the beginning of March, he promised to create a leaner, more efficient administration by dismissing a quarter of the 126 deputy ministers, and pledging to curb the use of credit cards by and scrap rewards for top government officials in the future. Consequently, with the public backlash showing little sign of abating, at the start of April Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – 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 – decided on a change of tactics. In what was probably the government’s most spectacular climb down to date, Mr Kaczyński announced that ministers had decided to donate their bonuses to the Catholic Caritas charity. However, he also tried to regain the political initiative by announcing that Law and Justice would introduce legislation to cut the pay of all parliamentarians (by 20%) and managers of state-owned companies, as well as placing new financial limits on the salaries of senior local government leaders, many of whom are, of course, opposition party members.

This was followed by a Law and Justice party convention where Mr Morawiecki and other ministers announced a raft of new policies, including infrastructure projects, tax breaks and social spending pledges. The so-called ‘Morawiecki Five’ (‘Piątka Morawieckego’) package included plans to: cut corporate income tax (CIT) rates for small and medium-sized companies from 15% to 9% (which would be the lowest rate in the EU); lower social insurance (ZUS) contributions for the self-employed; spend 23 billion złoties over the next eight years on the ‘Accessibility Plus’ plan to improve the quality of life of the elderly and disabled; allocate 1.5 billion złoties in 2018 and (in the autumn) set up a 5 billion fund for  building and renovating local roads; and provide parents with a 300 złoties handout to help cover essential expenses for every child before the start of the school year. Other measures in the new, so-called ‘Mama plus’ programme included: expanded pension benefits for mothers of four or more children, including those who have never worked; bonuses for families that have a second child shortly after their first; and free medicines for pregnant women.

Law and Justice tried to use the convention to draw clear lines of division between the government – which, it argued, was focusing on practical policy measures to make life easier for businesses, families and the elderly – and the opposition whose approach, it claimed, was negative and inward-looking. Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party also held a joint convention on the same day as Law and Justice but their main message was the fact that they had concluded the ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) alliance to contest the autumn local elections. This electoral coalition, government’s supporters argued, was united primarily by a dislike of the ruling party rather than any credible and attractive programmatic alternative to Law and Justice.

Entrapped by its own rhetoric?

However, the government’s political counter-offensive was almost immediately overshadowed when a group of carers for disabled adults and children began a protest for higher welfare payments, occupying a hallway in the parliament building. Some government supporters argued that the protest had become politicised, pointing out that the carers were admitted to parliament by an opposition deputy, and accused them of an unwillingness to compromise. However, notwithstanding the fact that the carers denied this vigorously, given the huge public sympathy for their plight and the location of their protest – which meant that it attracted intense, ongoing media coverage – Law and Justice had to proceed extremely cautiously in its dealings with them to avoid another public relations disaster. Moreover, the bigger problem for Law and Justice is that this dispute exemplifies how the government has become entrapped by its own rhetoric of success: that a growing economy and healthy public finances allow ever-more expensive spending on government social welfare programmes. This generates an appetite among more social groups to lobby for increased state support for their cause, which will be increasingly difficult to satisfy and become exacerbated every time that the government accedes to a particular group’s demands, however worthy.

So far the government has agreed to one of the protesters’ two key demands: that disability benefits be raised to the same level as the monthly unemployment benefit paid to those unable to work for health reasons, which currently stands at around 1,000 złoties per month. However, it is extremely reluctant to agree to the second demand: an extra cash handout of 500 złoties per month paid directly to disabled adults, which the government argues could cost the state budget 9-10 billion złoties per annum. Instead it has offered additional support for specific forms of assistance for the disabled – which, the government argues, actually adds up to the same amount per person but is targeted more effectively – but the protesters are continuing to hold out for direct cash payments. Mr Morawiecki also failed to appease the protesters with a pledge to introduce a new ‘solidarity tax’ whereby the 50,000 richest Poles would pay more to support the most needy, including people with disabilities.

Crisis or midterm blues?

After largely dictating the terms of political debate in Poland for the last couple years, in recent months Law and Justice has found itself on the defensive. An accumulation of problems have highlighted the ruling party’s two biggest areas of potential weakness: not being seen to live up to the ethical standards of a party that claims to stand for the moral renewal of the Polish state; and generating demand for ever-greater social welfare spending though its rhetoric of economic success. The controversy over ministerial bonuses was the first time in the current parliament that the opposition forced the government to retreat in an atmosphere of weakness and indecision. At the same time, the fact that Law and Justice found itself on the political back foot in its dispute with the disabled carers augurs badly for what would happen if the economy were to slow down and the government was struggling to deliver on its generous social spending programmes. All of this will have given the opposition hope that Law and Justice is not, as some commentators at one point appeared to suggest, an unstoppable political machine marching effortlessly to victory in the country’s next parliamentary election, due in autumn 2019.

However, although this year’s autumn local elections have now taken on an even greater significance as a test of government popularity, it is too early to talk of Law and Justice being in crisis. Midterm blues, the tendency of voters to grow disillusioned with a government midway through its term of office, is a normal political phenomenon in all democracies as memories of its predecessor’s failings fade, internal conflicts emerge and the challenges of office accumulate. In spite of recent political turbulence, in April ‘Pooling the Poles’ showed Civic Platform averaging only 27%, still thirteen points behind Law and Justice, and all the other opposition parties on single figures. While Civic Platform was able to exploit the ministerial bonuses issues effectively and the disabled carers dispute is an extremely uncomfortable one for the government, the liberal-centrist opposition’s leadership is still too associated with Law and Justice’s discredited predecessor and appears to lack the political skills to turn short-term tactical victories into a longer-term strategic advantage. Although Poles will not vote for Law and Justice solely out of gratitude the next time around, the fact that it has implemented most of the high profile social spending pledges that were the key to its 2015 election victories gives Mr Kaczyński’s party much greater credibility on these issues than the liberal-centrist opposition. Crucially, therefore, Law and Justice still appears to be more in tune with the majority of Poles than its opponents on the key socio-economic issues that they care most about.