The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: January, 2019

Is Robert Biedroń the Polish left’s saviour?

Poland’s most popular and charismatic left-wing politician’s new initiative has a good chance of achieving short-term success in this year’s elections. But the grouping faces sharp criticism that it is dividing the opposition and playing into the right-wing government’s hands, and its longer-term prospects are much more questionable.

‘Newness’ and authenticity

The Polish left is in deep crisis. For most of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed the country from 1993-97 and 2001-5. The Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals, and it contested the most recent October 2015 poll – won decisively by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition in alliance with the ‘Your Movement’ (TR) grouping. The latter was an anti-clerical social liberal party led by controversial businessman Janusz Palikot which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the votes in the 2011 election but failed to capitalise on its success. However, in 2015, winning 3.6% of the votes, the new radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party peeled away enough support to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold for electoral alliances to secure parliamentary representation (it is 5% for individual parties). This meant that, for the first time since 1989, there were no left-wing parties represented in the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament.

Robert Biedroń is by far the most popular and charismatic left-wing politician in Poland today. In 2011, he was elected as a ‘Your Movement’ parliamentary deputy but, seeing that the party was in a downward spiral, sought an escape hatch and in 2014 became mayor of Słupsk, a provincial city the northern Pomeranian region. Another weak performance by left-wing parties in last autumn’s local elections – the Democratic Left Alliance secured 7% and 11 seats (out of 552) in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, while ‘Together’ only won 1.6% of the vote – created an opening for Mr Biedroń, who decided not to stand for re-election as Słupsk mayor in order to launch a new political initiative in 2019.

Mr Biedroń should not be under-estimated. He has many assets including excellent political antennae and communication skills. Mr Biedroń used his Słupsk mayoralty to project himself as a hard-working, effective and popular common-sense manager and leader, boasting a set of positive achievements during his term of office. He has also worked hard to develop an image of authenticity and ‘newness’. Although Mr Biedroń has been on the political scene as a left-wing activist for many of years – originally building his reputation and national political profile in the early 2000s as founder of the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) – he has never participated in national government. Indeed, given his own small-town background, a key element of his political appeal has been to portray himself as an anti-establishment ‘outsider’ trying to open up a sclerotic Polish political system. Although many Poles are culturally conservative, the fact that Mr Biedroń is in a same-sex relationship and has a clear social liberal-left ideological profile does not appear to have put off significant numbers of potential voters, because he has the rare political quality of being able to communicate with, and engender sympathy among, very diverse groups of voters and portray himself as a consensus-builder.

Transcending the ‘old’ politics?

Mr Biedroń, who will launch his new political initiative in February, claims that he can win over voters who are disillusioned with Law and Justice but would not otherwise support the opposition. His broad programmatic appeal is based on the ideas of what some commentators call the ‘symmetrists’ (symetryści), who accuse the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping, of simply wanting a return to the status quo ante, and ignoring the fact that previous governments were also guilty of many of the pathologies which are ascribed to Law and Justice. The symmetrists argue that it is both morally right and strategically sensible to develop some equidistance between these two political camps. So, while pledging to roll back the government’s reforms of state institutions such as the judiciary – which, its opponents, argue have undermined the rule of law and civic freedoms (a claim the government vehemently denies) – Mr Biedroń accuses the liberal-centrist opposition of failing to properly acknowledge that Law and Justice’s popular social spending policies have improved the living standards of, and restored a sense of dignity to, many ordinary Poles.

His programme, which is being drawn up by a group of relatively unknown expert advisers, is likely to include policies such as: removing state support for the Catholic Church and reducing its role in public institutions; greater environmental regulation; and increased spending on public services, especially education and health. However, rather than building his new movement around an existing programmatic agenda, over the last few months Mr Biedroń has organised a series of local meetings – many in smaller, provincial towns – where he claimed that he was ‘writing a programme with the people’. This is obviously somewhat artificial but these ‘brainstorms’, at which Mr Biedroń skilfully acted as master of ceremonies, did appear to create a genuine sense of interest and grassroots participation. In doing so, Mr Biedroń tried to portray himself as someone who transcends ‘old’ party politics; and, interestingly, consistently avoids the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’, preferring to define himself as a ‘progressive’ (some commentators have dubbed him the ‘Polish Marcon’).

Mr Biedroń’s critics argue that both he and his political project have major weaknesses. They accuse him of being too much of a ‘political celebrity’ more interested in building up his national media profile than serious politics. They point to the fact during his first three years as Słupsk mayor he spent seven months on business trips, and claim that, in spite of his popularity and skilful public relations, he did not actually solve any of the town’s fundamental problems. They also argue that while Mr Biedroń often comes across as friendly and sympathetic, in order to make a national political breakthrough he will have to transcend a purely personal and emotional appeal and convince Poles that he can actually take responsibility for the running of the state. This will involve him developing clearer positions on issues that he has either avoided completely or where his programmatic statements have, to date, been rather vague: such as economic policy and foreign affairs.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Mr Biedroń faces the problem that in Poland the less well-off, economically leftist electorate tends to be older and more socially conservative, so often inclines towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy. Although Mr Biedroń is quite subtle in the way that he articulates his social liberalism, using the discourse of diversity and inclusion, it will still be a challenge for him to win over poorer, economically leftist but culturally traditionalist voters. At the same time, the (relatively narrow) base of younger, better-off, socially liberal urban voters, who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. Mr Biedroń may alienate them if he tries too hard to outbid Law and Justice’s social spending promises in order to win over less well-off voters.

‘Adding value’ or fragmenting the opposition?

Early opinion polls suggest that potential support for Mr Biedroń’s grouping is solid if not spectacular: around the 5-10% mark that many such new political initiatives enjoy when they are launched. However, to play a pivotal role in the next parliament his grouping will need to secure around the 10-15% support that polls suggest Mr Biedroń could pick up as a candidate in a presidential election. Indeed, given that highly personalised elections have helped charismatic individuals build up new political movements in the past, a presidential poll would have been the best launch pad for his new grouping. However, the next presidential election is not scheduled until summer 2020.

Nonetheless, the May European Parliament (EP) election could also work well as a testing ground for his new movement. EP elections involve low start-up costs, because parties do not have to find many candidates, and the pattern of turnout – extremely low overall, but higher in urban areas – means that a liberal-left grouping can cross the 5% representation threshold by mobilising a relatively small number of voters around a distinctive appeal or well-known individual. The timing of these elections also allows Mr Biedroń to keep his options open and, depending on his grouping’s result, either contest the more important autumn parliamentary election independently or as part of a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance.

Indeed, considerations of Mr Biedroń’s prospects map on to broader debates about whether or not the opposition should contest the next elections as a single bloc. Mr Biedroń’s supporters claim that his new grouping will ‘add value’ by attracting support from those voters who would not otherwise back the liberal-centrist opposition. However, his critics say that the anti-Law and Justice parties are involved in a zero-sum game and that Mr Biedroń’s new grouping would simply further fragment the opposition. A September 2018 poll by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that Mr Biedroń’s new party was most likely to pick up support from the existing opposition groupings, with 61% of his supporters coming from Civic Platform, and only 10% from previous non-voters. Mr Biedroń’s critics draw attention to the fact that the Polish electoral system, proportion representation in multi-member districts using the so-called d’Hondt counting method, favours larger groupings and that a broad anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance would secure a ‘premium for unity’, attracting more support overall than several parties standing independently. What these arguments do not really account for is how the political dynamics and dominant narratives might change if an effective ‘third force’ challenger were to emerge on the Polish political scene.

Playing a longer game

Mr Biedroń’s prospects are one of the great unknowns of Polish politics in the country’s year of elections. It is relatively easy to launch a new political grouping around a well-known personality that is electorally successful in the short-term, and Mr Biedroń would not be first Polish politician to benefit from the effect of such ‘newness’. A respectable result of around 5-10% in the EP elections would not be a great surprise and his grouping certainly has the potential to secure parliamentary representation. However, many such groupings have also failed to live up to their early promise, and quickly lost support once the initial enthusiasm subsides.

In fact, Mr Biedroń is playing a much longer political game in which this year’s elections are simply a staging post. Indeed, in some ways it is actually in the longer-term interests of his political project if Law and Justice were to remain in office as this would create an opening for Mr Biedroń’s new grouping to emerge as the main opposition party; although he would obviously never admit this. But a sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs will strengthen the argument that the opposition needs to unite under the leadership of Civic Platform as the largest party and make it extremely difficult for Mr Biedroń’s new initiative to cut through with a distinctive message. Indeed, in those circumstances Mr Biedroń could come under increasing attack from the liberal-left media and cultural elites, which should be his natural allies, if they start to feel that he is playing into Law and Justice’s hands by dividing the opposition.

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Will Poland’s Law and Justice party win this year’s elections?

The right-wing ruling party’s strategy is based on claiming to offer socio-economic stability and prosperity while downplaying controversial issues to avoid mobilising its opponents. It has been on the defensive for most of last year but remains ahead in the polls and more credible than the liberal-centrist opposition on issues that Poles care most about.

On the defensive

The coming year will be a crucial one for Polish politics as the autumn parliamentary election could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. Having set the political agenda for the previous three years, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015, found itself on the defensive throughout much of 2018. The year began with a sweeping government re-shuffle by Mariusz Morawiecki, a respected former banker who replaced incumbent Beata Szydło as prime minister at the end of 2017, having earlier served as her finance minister. Law and Justice was hoping to re-focus the government’s priorities on to economic development and improving its international standing, particularly within the EU. The ruling party hoped that, having carried out difficult and controversial reforms during the first half of the parliament, a pivot to the technocratic political centre would win over moderate voters.

However, almost immediately the government found itself on the back foot as a result of an accumulation of political controversies. Firstly, it 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 of a controversial anti-defamation law which made it a criminal offence to falsely ascribe responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Israeli critics argued this could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation, and the crisis was only defused when Law and Justice agreed to amend the law.

This was followed by controversy over the generous bonuses paid to Mrs Szydło and other ministers which exposed the government to criticism that it was failing to live up to its claimed higher ethical standards; and once again Law and Justice was forced to climb down as ministers donated their bonuses to charity. The government also failed to close down its ongoing dispute with the European Commission over its controversial judicial reform programme. Brussels felt that the government’s concessions on this issue did not address its main concerns and continued with its action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which it can invoke against any EU member state where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy, as well as referring some of the reforms to the European Court of Justice.

In the October/November local elections, Law and Justice’s hopes that its pivot to the centre would expand its support base in urban areas, and programme of large-scale social transfers mobilise swathes of (previously electorally passive) beneficiaries, failed to materialise. Although the ruling party won the highest share of the vote in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, it performed poorly in medium-sized and larger towns, partly as a result of a much higher than usual turnout among the government’s opponents in these areas.

A threat to Law and Justice’s ethical legitimation

In November, Law and Justice once again found itself on the defensive following media reports of a recording which appeared to show that the head of Poland’s financial supervisory commission (KNF) Marek Chrzanowski was involved in a 40 million złoties bribery solicitation from the owner of Getin Noble Bank Leszek Czarnecki; an allegation which Mr Chrzanowski vehemently denied. The scandal posed huge risks for Law and Justice because the party has made reforming state institutions to raise moral standards 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 predecessor – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, currently the main opposition grouping – as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than venal and self-serving political and business elites. Consequently, Law and Justice moved quickly to force Mr Chrzanowski to step down and order state agencies to investigate the allegations.

The opposition argued that the investigator’s delayed response allowed Mr Chrzanowski to clear his office, and called for a special parliamentary commission to investigate the scandal. Moreover, although Law and Justice was at pains to point out that Mr Chrzanowski, a former central banker, was not a political figure, he was nominated to his post in 2016 by Mrs Szydło at the recommendation of Adam Glapiński, the head of the of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) and long-time political ally of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

Up until now, the scandal has not developed sufficient momentum to really damage the government and Law and Justice is hoping that it will fade with the passage of time. However, experience suggests that the impact of high profile scandals such as these can often be delayed, gradually chipping away at the governing party’s credibility until a further (sometimes relatively minor) incident or revelation acts as a tipping point and shifts the public mood very quickly. In this case, it could be the emergence of new recordings damaging to the government.

Finally, at the end of the year the government was embroiled in concerns as to how it intended to protect households, firms and local authorities from surging electricity price increases being proposed by state-run power vendors. In the event, it avoided the crisis by pushing through emergency legislation giving tax relief to electricity consumers and providing compensation for utilities, which it promised would guarantee that prices would remain unchanged in 2019.

Winding down conflicts

Law and Justice’s strategy for regaining the political initiative is based on trying to persuade moderate voters to focus on the government’s achievements in delivering on its highly popular social spending promises while maintaining economic growth and fiscal stability. The party’s approach is aimed at winning over undecided and passive non-voters who are not particularly interested in politics by offering them socio-economic stability and prosperity, and re-assuring them that politics will be quieter and less turbulent moving forward. It appears to be learning from its mistakes and getting better at portraying Poland as a stable and secure country under its leadership. Although Law and Justice’s support has fallen back recently, it continues to enjoy an average of around 40% in opinion polls, ten percentage points ahead of Civic Platform, and remains on course to emerge as the largest party after the parliamentary election, although whether it will be able to continue to govern without coalition partners is much more uncertain.

At the same time, drawing lessons from the local elections the ruling party is trying to lower the temperature of the political debate and downplay more controversial issues in order to avoid mobilising the anti-Law and Justice electorate. This has included trying to defuse the party’s row with the EU institutions by withdrawing some of the most contested elements of its judicial reform programme in order to neutralise the opposition’s apparently effective – and, from Law and Justice’s perspective, extremely dangerous – claim that the party wants to take Poland out of the Union (so-called ‘Polexit’). It also involves distancing the party from attempts by Catholic-inspired civic organisations to further tighten Poland’s already restrictive abortion law, an issue that is felt to mobilise anti-Law and Justice voters in urban areas. The nightmare haunting Law and Justice is that the next election becomes a repeat of the 2007 snap poll when, as the incumbent, it mobilised its core supporters and even increased its share of the vote on the back of a strong economic performance, but ultimately lost because larger numbers turned out to vote for Civic Platform which promised a calmer and more stable political environment.

Moreover, the political formula that worked so well for Law and Justice in 2015 – when it won support from voters not altogether convinced by its radical critique of the functioning of the post-1989 Polish state but disillusioned with the former governing elites and attracted by the party’s social policies which held out the promise that they could share more fully in the country’s economic successis slowly becoming exhausted. It will be difficult for Law and Justice to match the high profile spending pledges that were the key to its election victories; although it is apparently planning a series of new policy initiatives focusing on tax cuts in the New Year. Moreover, even when Law and Justice is appealing on bread-and-butter issues the nature of the party is such that it needs to locate its socio-economic policies within a broader political project, which makes it difficult to portray a purely technocratic-centrist image.

At the same time, the governing camp is not always consistent in pursuing its strategy of winding down conflicts, with many commentators citing justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is on bad terms with Mr Morawiecki, as the worst offender. They argue that Mr Ziobro ignited the ‘Polexit’ debate by asking the constitutional tribunal whether Polish judges had the right to refer queries on EU law to the European Court of Justice, which the opposition interpreted as a possible pretext for Poland to ignore the Court’s verdict. The justice ministry also shifted public attention back on to the financial regulation scandal by arresting former heads of the supervisory body for alleged negligence in their oversight of the SKOK Wołomin credit and savings union, which went bankrupt in 2014. Critics argued this was a ham-fisted attempt to distract from Mr Chrzanowski’s arrest. But Mr Ziobro is difficult to sack because he leads the ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party, a small grouping but one which, if it stood independently from Law and Justice, could deprive the ruling party of victory. An even greater threat would be if he joined up with a potential new right-wing challenger party that could emerge from the milieu linked to the Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’ electorate.

Still more credible on issues Poles care about?

Finally, Law and Justice’s electoral prospects also depend upon whether the liberal-centrist opposition can mount an effective challenge. For sure, it retains considerable cultural, financial and media assets, and enjoys close links with the EU political establishment. It is also helped by the fact that the European Parliament (EP) election, where turnout is very low but higher in the urban areas that the opposition enjoys stronger support in, will be held in May. A good performance here could provide it with valuable momentum in the run-up to the autumn parliamentary election; one of the reasons why Law and Justice is considering bringing the latter forward to the spring.

However, the opposition lacks convincing leadership around whom the government’s opponents can unite and rally around. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is an effective political operator who has emerged as the undisputed leader of the opposition, but lacks dynamism and charisma, and his ruthlessness has made leaders of smaller opposition groupings wary of working too closely with his ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) electoral alliance. Moreover, the opposition still lacks an attractive programmatic appeal on socio-economic issues. Mr Schetyna’s strategy, of hoping that Poles will simply rally around whoever happens to be the main alternative to the incumbent, worked reasonably well in urban areas during the local elections but a more positive approach will be needed to win a national poll. Although Poles will not vote for Law and Justice out of gratitude, the fact that the ruling party has fulfilled the majority of its social spending promises gives it much greater credibility than the opposition on these issues that voters appear to care most about.