The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Tag: Janusz Palikot

Which issues will determine the Polish presidential election?

While the right-wing presidential challenger’s early momentum appears to have stalled, the incumbent’s attempts to portray his opponent as a radical have not been completely successful and a second round of voting now looks likely. Although the current President remains clear favourite to win, a run-off could develop its own dynamic with unpredictable consequences.

Mr Duda catches Mr Komorowski off-guard

The Polish presidential election will be held on May 10th with a second round run-off two weeks later if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes. The President retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the Constitutional Tribunal, nominate a number of key state officials, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. The presidential poll should, therefore, be seen above all as a precursor to the more important autumn parliamentary election which will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for several years to come.

The election campaign has been fast-paced but lacked a dominant theme and the main lines of division between the candidates have changed rapidly. Originally, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski – who is backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) party led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, and has enjoyed extremely high personal and job approval ratings of over 70% – looked odds-on favourite to win, probably in the first round. However, his campaign got off to slow start, unlike his main challenger Andrzej Duda – candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping – whose energetic and dynamic launch caught Mr Komorowski off-guard. Promising an active presidency in contrast to Mr Komorowski’s alleged passivity and complacency, Mr Duda’s campaign has focused on socio-economic issues, including a pledge to repeal the Civic Platform-led government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age to 67. Moreover, the fact that Mr Duda’s poll ratings were, initially at least, well below those of his party actually proved advantageous: by simply increasing his name recognition he was able to boost support among the Law and Justice core electorate very rapidly thereby giving his campaign a sense of progress and momentum.

‘Rational Poland’ versus ‘radical Poland’

Once he eventually got into his stride, Mr Komorowski’s core campaign message, based on the slogan ‘Agreement and Security’, was the claim that, unlike his opponents, he was a non-party ‘civic’ candidate who represented political consensus and stability. These qualities were, he argued, essential as Poland had to avoid sharp internal conflicts at a time when the international situation in the region was so unstable. Although events in neighbouring Ukraine no longer dominate the news headlines and have not been a salient campaign issue, they provided an important subtext to Mr Komorowski’s ‘security’ message: that a period of ongoing international tensions was not a time to risk experiments with political novices.

The other main objective of Mr Komorowski’s campaign was to try and draw a contrast between what he termed ‘rational’ and ‘radical’ Poland. In part, this was simply an attempt to revive Civic Platform’s traditional anti-Law and Justice message: that the ruling party is a better guarantor of stability than the confrontational and turbulent style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associate with Law and Justice and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. This theme has characterised all of the ruling party’s recent, successful election campaigns. However, it also involved a conscious effort to ‘toxify’ Mr Duda, whom Law and Justice tried to present as a moderate and reasonable centrist, by portraying him as a political extremist.

Mr Komorowski’s supporters tried to do this by highlighting popular socially liberal policies being promoted by the Civic Platform-led government which are opposed by Mr Duda and Law and Justice. These included: ratifying the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing violence against women, and passing a liberal law regulating in-vitro fertilisation. Mr Duda opposed both measures, agreeing with the stance taken by the Catholic Church – which remains an influential political actor in Poland, especially on the political right, and is against the artificial creation of human life. While strongly supporting policies to protect women, Mr Duda argued that the Council of Europe convention was not the right solution as it linked domestic violence to religion and the traditional role of the family while introducing alien concepts into the Polish legal system, such as so-called ‘gender ideology’ which allowed individuals to choose their own gender roles. Mr Komorowski’s supporters took advantage of this to suggest that Mr Duda was failing to stand up for the rights of abused women. They also drew attention to the fact that, in an earlier 2012 parliamentary debate, Mr Duda supported a draft law that would have led to the imprisonment of doctors involved in in-vitro fertilisation (a proposal that Law and Justice has since withdrawn). These moves were also part of a concerted effort by Mr Komorowski to appeal to the centre-left voters who are crucial to him securing victory in the first round. At the same time, the President steered clear of moral-cultural issues where public attitudes were much more socially conservative, such as same-sex civil partnerships.

Mr Komorowski’s supporters also tried to taint Mr Duda with political scandal by linking him to a controversy over the SKOK credit union system founded by the (currently suspended) Law and Justice Senator Grzegorz Bierecki, which has been criticised by the Polish financial regulator. The liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper claimed that, in 2009, Mr Duda played a key role as head of the presidential legal office in persuading the then President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s twin brother) to refer to the Constitutional Tribunal a law that would have placed the SKOK system under the supervision of the regulator. This, they argue, stalled the law’s entry into force thereby allowing bad debts to grow and Mr Bierecki to transfer assets to other accounts. Mr Duda’s supporters argue that these accusations are a politically-motivated smear and he has resisted attempts by Civic Platform deputies to force him to appear before a parliamentary committee to respond to them.

In fact, the ‘SKOK affair’ is too complicated for most voters to disentangle and Mr Duda’s campaign staff diverted public attention away from his alleged involvement by claiming that Mr Komorowski had close personal ties with the management of the bankrupt Wołomin SKOK credit union. For a time, they were also able to re-focus the campaign onto the issue of Polish accession to the Eurozone. Although there is overwhelming public support in Poland for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country adopting the single currency. While Mr Duda has opposed rapid Eurozone accession, Mr Komorowski sees it as essential for Poland to be part of the EU’s decision-making core and has, on a number of occasions, urged the government to accelerate its preparations; although sensing his vulnerability tried to downplay the issue during the campaign. For sure, Mr Duda found himself on the back-foot as a result of his unpopular stance on the European convention and in-vitro fertilisation, although this may also have helped to strengthen his credibility among ‘religious right’ voters who comprise a core element of Law and Justice’s electoral base.

The rise of the ‘anti-system’ candidates

None of the minor candidates has been able to challenge the two front-runners although whether or not there is a second round run-off will depend on the extent to which they are able to peel away support from Mr Komorowski. Historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek – the candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition grouping – started the campaign in third place with 5-6% but lost support as the election progressed falling back to only 3-4%. Lacking any real political experience, Ms Ogórek has run a poor campaign that has been dogged by controversy from the outset and even appeared to dissociate herself from the Alliance (and, indeed, the left in general), leading to rumours that the party could withdraw support for her before polling day. The other centre-left presidential challenger is the controversial and flamboyant businessman Janusz Palikot whose anti-clerical Palikot Movement (RP), re-branded subsequently as ‘Your Movement’ (TR), came from nowhere to finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election with just over 10% of the vote. However, since then it has seen its support slump and most of its parliamentary caucus defect to other parties, and, although Mr Palikot has run a very energetic campaign, the public appears to have grown weary of his erratic behaviour and constant political zig-zags. Similarly, Adam Jarubas – the deputy leader of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner – has failed to transcend his image as a regional politician. Mr Palikot and Mr Jarubas are currently polling around 1-2%.

The two minor contenders who appear to be making the biggest impact are the self-styled ‘anti-system’ candidates: economically libertarian and socially conservative MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, and charismatic rock singer and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Mr Korwin-Mikke is a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene whose radically Eurosceptic Congress of the New Right (KPN) party came a surprise fourth in last May’s European Parliament (EP) election with 7% of the vote. He was deposed as party leader and forced to set up his own grouping (called ‘KORWIN’) at the start of the year but steadily increased his support to around 4-5% and could come close to repeating his EP election success. However, the real ‘dark horse’ of election appears to be Mr Kukiz who gained momentum during the campaign on a platform of opening up and renewing the Polish political system through the introduction of single member parliamentary electoral constituencies. Mr Kukiz is polling 7-8% and could finish third, using his presidential success as a springboard to launch a new political movement.

Will a second round change the electoral dynamics?

As the campaign enters its final, decisive phase, Mr Komorowski’s support appears to have stabilised at around 40-50%, while Mr Duda has stalled on 25-30%. Although the benefits of Mr Duda’s early up-swing have now dissipated, it still looks increasingly likely (although not certain) that there will be a run-off. Nonetheless, Mr Komorowski remains the very clear favourite to win and a good result for Mr Duda would be securing more than 40% of the vote. However, if the election goes to a second round, the campaign could develop a new dynamic, making the outcome much less predictable; particularly if the two leading candidates go head-to-head in a debate, something that Mr Komorowski has avoided knowing it is a potential game-changer.

Interestingly, the narrowing of Mr Komorowski’s lead has coincided with Civic Platform apparently increasing its support. Having previously shown the two main groupings running neck-and-neck, most polls now suggest that the ruling party has opened up a small lead of around 5%. This is partly due to the Kopacz administration’s leftward tilt on moral-cultural issues which has consolidated its support among socially liberal voters. Moreover, having had its fingers burned earlier this year – when, faced with the prospect of strikes in the key electoral background Silesia region, Mrs Kopacz backed down from an attempt to reform Poland’s ailing coal industry thereby setting off a further wave of social protests – the government has put off introducing any further major reforms until after the election, focusing instead on voter-friendly social and welfare policies. However, the polarisation of party support in the presidential election also appears to have shored up support for Civic Platform. Ironically, while a good presidential election result for Mr Duda would provide Law and Justice with a huge morale boost and valuable momentum in the run-up to the parliamentary poll, it could also help to mobilise the ruling party’s more passive supporters.

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Who will win the Polish presidential election and why does it matter?

Last month the starting gun was fired on the May Polish presidential election campaign. The ruling party-backed incumbent got off to a shaky start and could face a more serious challenge than he originally anticipated but still remains odds-on favourite to win. However, even if he wins decisively the fact that the President is projecting himself as a non-partisan ‘civic’ candidate will limit the political momentum that the ruling party will derive from his victory in the run up to the more important autumn parliamentary election.

A ‘President of all Poles’?

The Polish presidential election will be held on May 10th with a second round run-off two weeks later if no candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes. The President retains some significant powers, such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the Constitutional Tribunal, nominate a number of key state officials, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. The presidential poll should, therefore, be seen as a precursor to the more important autumn parliamentary election which will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for several years to come. Opinion polls currently show the two main parties – the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, which has been in office since 2007, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, which was in government between 2005-7 – running neck-and-neck.

The Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski is extremely popular and is odds-on favourite to secure re-election, possibly even in the first round. Polls conducted by the CBOS agency last month found that he enjoyed a 75% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, and that 71% of respondents were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties. The choice of election date – which was determined by the Civic Platform-backed speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament – is also felt to be advantageous to Mr Komorowski. In addition to the fact that there are a number of important national commemorations at the beginning of May, the presidential poll will take place two days after Poland hosts a high profile remembrance service to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in which the President will take centre stage (this is also the last day on which election campaigning is allowed).

As well as building support and influence in the media, Mr Komorowski’s political strategy has been based on projecting himself (opposition parties argue, disingenuously) as a non-partisan ‘President of all Poles’. Poles prefer their President to at least give the impression of being above the day-to-day political fray and, from the outset, Mr Komorowski tried to project an image of his presidency as being based on co-operation and dialogue. In setting out his bid for re-election, he thus presented himself as a non-partisan ‘civic’ candidate with a broad political and social base of support. The fact that Mr Komorowski tried to subtly distance himself from the ruling party was encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that many Poles have grown tired of a government in its eighth year in office. But it also limits the political momentum that Civic Platform might derive from his victory. Moreover, given that he enters the campaign with such high expectations, failure to secure a first round victory, or at least a decisive second round win with more than 60% of the votes, will be seen as a disappointment and could also detract from the positive impact of his re-election for Civic Platform’s prospects.

Mr Duda lays down the gauntlet

Mr Komorowski’s main rival is Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda, a well-respected 42-year-old lawyer and MEP but relatively unknown and un-tested in such a high profile contest. Mr Kaczyński decided not to stand this time feeling that he was unlikely to repeat his relatively good result in the previous election when he lost narrowly to Mr Komorowski securing 47% in a second round run-off. However, having been criticised initially as worthy but dull, Mr Duda started to develop some traction last month following a barnstorming speech at the high-profile US-style convention launching his campaign. Projecting himself as a young and energetic challenger, Mr Duda promised to be an active President who would improve social dialogue, and made a specific pledge to try and reserve the government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms which raised the retirement age to 67. At the same time, in order to consolidate his base of support among Law and Justice core voters, Mr Duda said that he would model himself on President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother whose term of office ended abruptly when he died in the 2010 Smolensk air crash and who is an iconic figure on the Polish right.

This contrasted starkly with Mr Komorowski’s ponderous and anaemic campaign launch held on the previous day at a Civic Platform party council meeting, where he gave the impression that the election was foregone conclusion. As a consequence, having initially shown support for Mr Komorowski at around 50-55% compared with 15-20% for Mr Duda, for the first time a number of polls suggested that a second round run-off was a serious possibility. Mr Duda’s strategic objective is thus to increase his support to around the 30% level currently enjoyed by Law and Justice in the polls which, if the other candidates can also peel away enough of the President’s support, should ensure that he goes head-to-head with Mr Komorowski.

The chances of a second round were increased by the decision at the end of January of the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior governing coalition partner, to stand its own candidate. Presidential elections have always been difficult ones for the party as this is the poll in which its supporters are least likely to vote; in the last two contests its candidates secured less than 2% of the vote. Party strategists were, not surprisingly, extremely concerned that a poor presidential election result would damage morale in the run up to the parliamentary poll and some even favoured supporting Mr Komorowski instead of standing their own candidate. However, in the event the party decided that it was too risky to absent itself from an electoral process that will dominate the political scene for the next couple of months. Consequently, it nominated Adam Jarubas, the party’s articulate and up-and-coming 40-year-old deputy leader but who is little known outside of his home province of Świętokrzyskie where he has been regional assembly leader since 2006; his poll ratings are currently in the 1-3% range.

A weak challenge from the left

Much will also depend on the vote share obtained by left-wing candidates. The main grouping on the Polish left is currently the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the once-powerful communist successor party which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election and is now struggling for its future survival. Knowing that they faced almost-certain defeat, the Alliance struggled to find a high profile, party-aligned figure willing to contest this election. Party leader Leszek Miller – a wily political operator who, in his heyday during an earlier stint as Democratic Left Alliance leader, served as prime minister from 2001-2004 – ruled himself out knowing that a poor result would weaken his already precarious grip on the leadership.

In the event, in January the party selected a political unknown, 35-year-old historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek, as its candidate. Ms Ogórek lacks any real political experience and her programmatic statements include controversial policies such as a pledge to re-write Polish law from scratch. Her candidacy has generated huge media interest but much of it is due to her striking appearance and controversial private and family life. However, while she lacks appeal with the Alliance’s traditional core constituency of older voters linked to the previous communist regime, Ms Ogórek has tried instead to position herself as an anti-establishment candidate who can articulate the concerns of alienated Polish youth. Nonetheless, she has drawn much derision for her refusal to answer questions in press conferences and media interviews, and it will be difficult for her to remain a credible candidate if she keeps this up for the rest of the campaign. At the moment, most polls put Ms Ogórek in third place but with only around 5% of the vote and if she does not secure at least 10% Mr Miller could well face a leadership challenge

Another presidential challenger on the centre-left is Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman whose anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) came from nowhere to finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election with just over 10% of the vote. However, in spite of re-branding itself as a more economically and socially liberal centrist grouping now called ‘Your Movement’ (TR), his party saw its support slump and most of its parliamentary caucus defect. Although Mr Palikot is running an energetic campaign he is only registering around 2-3% in the polls and unless he can think of a way of once-again radically re-inventing himself, appears to be finished as a major actor on the Polish political scene. Moreover, two former members of his parliamentary caucus also announced that they would be contesting the election: Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first trans-sexual parliamentarian who will be the candidate of the miniscule Green party (Zieloni); and veteran feminist campaigner Wanda Nowicka who is supported by the small Labour Union (UP).

The big challenge for minor party candidates such as these is to collect the 100,000 signatures required for their names to appear on the presidential ballot paper. One who is likely to cross this threshold easily is the economically libertarian and socially conservative MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene whose radically Eurosceptic Congress of the New Right (KPN) party came a surprise fourth in last May’s European Parliament election with 7.2% of the vote. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke will struggle to repeat this success after he was deposed as party leader at the beginning of the year and forced to set up his own grouping. One candidate who could emerge as the ‘dark horse’ of the election is charismatic, union-backed rock singer and social activist Paweł Kukiz.

Still the odds-on favourite?

The presidential election is proving more difficult for Mr Komorowski than Civic Platform strategists originally anticipated. Mr Duda has got off to a good start and the prospects of a second round run-off now look much more likely, especially as there are several minor candidates who could peel support away from the incumbent. Moreover, even if he does not win, Mr Duda may still give Mr Komorowski a fright and establish himself as a rising star of the Polish right. However, while the Law and Justice candidate has developed some momentum he is still polling below the levels of support achieved by his party. With the situation in neighbouring Ukraine so unstable and security issues remaining high on the political agenda, Mr Komorowski’s experience may also count in his favour and encourage voters to play safe. Paradoxically, a tightening of the presidential race may also help to mobilise his more passive supporters who could otherwise think the election outcome is a foregone conclusion. Although Mr Komorowski clearly needs to change gear and realise that the kind of passive, almost non-political, approach that works well for an incumbent President does not always do so in an election campaign, his approval ratings are so high that, barring some major and unforeseeable political game-changer, he still remains the odds-on favourite to win.

Polish politics in 2014 (Part 4): Has the left hit rock bottom?

This is the fourth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2014.

For part 1, ‘Is the ruling party back in the game?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/polish-politics-in-2014-part-1-is-the-ruling-party-back-in-the-game/

For part 2, ‘Can Law and Justice break through the “glass ceiling”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/polish-politics-in-2014-part-2-can-law-and-justice-break-through-the-glass-ceiling/

For part 3, ‘Has the Peasant Party joined the “premier league”?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/polish-politics-in-2014-part-3-has-the-peasant-party-joined-the-premier-league/

2014 was a disastrous year for the Polish left. After nearly a decade in the political wilderness, it entered 2015 in deep crisis and with a real chance that no left-wing parties will be elected to parliament in the autumn election.

The Democratic Left Alliance in the doldrums

For the last decade the Polish political scene has been dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the once-powerful communist successor party which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5, has been in the doldrums since support collapsed in the 2005 parliamentary election following its involvement in a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. At the most recent 2011 parliamentary election the party suffered its worst ever defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote and there were question marks over its future survival. At the same time, a challenger emerged on the centre-left in the form of the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the vote. The Movement was formed at the end of 2010 by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman, and one-time Civic Platform parliamentarian.

However, when Leszek Miller, who was previously Democratic Left Alliance leader from 1997-2004, took over the leadership following its 2011 election drubbing he steadied nerves and restored some sense of discipline and purpose to the party. Mr Miller is a wily political operator who, in his heyday, led the party to victory in the 2001 parliamentary election and served as prime minister of Poland from 2001-2004, overseeing the country’s accession to the EU. By the start of 2014, the Alliance appeared to have recovered ground and emerged as the main left-wing challenger and ‘third force’ in Polish politics, with most polls suggesting that its support was hovering around the 10-15% mark. The party was looking to confirm this position in the May European Parliament (EP) election and possibly even to offer a serious challenge to the two main parties.

Mr Palikot’s star wanes

Meanwhile, Mr Palikot’s party failed to capitalise on its 2011 election success, struggling with its political identity and finding it difficult to decide whether it really was a left-wing party at all or more of an economically and socially liberal centrist grouping. While Mr Palikot clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest in his political initiatives, which had helped him to shake up the Polish political scene, many Poles still regarded him as an unpredictable maverick who used coarse, often brutal, rhetoric and whose political initiatives lacked consistency. At the end of 2013, Mr Palikot re-launched his party as ‘Your Movement’ (TR) and promised to tone down the strong anti-clericalism and social liberalism on which his earlier electoral success was based while placing greater emphasis on free-market economics. However, re-branding the party simply further confused its remaining supporters and it continued to bump along at around 5% in the polls, the threshold for parties to secure parliamentary representation.

Mr Palikot’s party had an even more miserable year in 2014. He tried to regain the political initiative and broaden out his party’s appeal by contesting the EP election as part of the broader centre-left ‘Europa Plus Your Movement’ (EPTR) electoral coalition. Mr Palikot originally hoped that Europa Plus would benefit from the (at least nominal) sponsorship of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a very popular Democratic Left Alliance-backed two-term President of Poland (1995-2005) and one of the few Polish political figures of international standing. Many commentators saw Mr Kwaśniewski as the one politician with the potential to transform the Polish left’s electoral fortunes.

In fact, Mr Kwaśniewski’s involvement in the initiative was, from the outset, half-hearted to say the least and on occasions he appeared more of a liability than an asset; during much of the campaign he was mired in controversy over his business links with Ukrainian oligarchs. In the event, the EP election ended in disaster for Europa Plus which finished seventh securing only 3.6% of the votes. Even Mr Palikot acknowledged that the former President’s ability to sway Polish voters was actually very limited and Europa Plus, which was almost-certainly Mr Kwaśniewski’s last major intervention in Polish domestic politics, fell apart in the wake of its electoral drubbing. 2014 also saw Your Movement’s parliamentary group implode as 21 of its deputies defected to other parties and, by the end of the year, its caucus was reduced from the 40 parliamentarians who were elected from Mr Palikot’s party lists in 2011 to just 15 members.

The end in sight for Mr Miller’s party?

Nonetheless, in spite of seeing off the Palikot challenge and emerging as the main standard bearer of the left, the Democratic Left Alliance was not able to capitalise on this and continued to lag well behind the two main parties in the polls. Mr Miller’s party secured third place in the EP election but with only 9.4% of the vote, well short of the 15% that it was hoping for (the party won 12.3% in 2009), and lost two of its seven MEPs. Critics argued that there was a limit to how far the party could go under Mr Miller’s leadership and that he lacked any clear strategic vision of how to expand its base and move support up to the next level. Indeed, there was worse to come in the November local elections which were a disaster for the Democratic Left Alliance. In the elections to Poland’s 16 regional assemblies, the best indicator of national party support, the party finished fourth and saw its vote share fall from 15.2% in 2010 to only 8.8% and number of seats slashed from 85 to 28. It was scant consolation that Mr Palikot’s party was not even able to register candidate lists in all of the regions.

Like all the main parties, the Democratic Left Alliance, and Polish left more generally, faces two formidable electoral challenges in the coming year. The first of these is the summer presidential election. Knowing that it faces almost-certain defeat at the hands of the popular Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, the Alliance struggled to find a high profile, party-aligned figure willing to contest this election. This included Mr Miller who ruled himself out at an early stage knowing that a poor result would weaken his already precarious grip on the party leadership. In December, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the party to support the candidacy of Ryszard Kalisz, at one-time one of the Alliance’s most popular parliamentarians. Mr Kalisz faced hostility from regional party bosses who regarded him as a renegade following a flirtation with Mr Palikot which led to his expulsion from the Alliance in 2013; he went on to stand on the Europa Plus ticket in the EP election. (In the event, in January 2015 the party selected a political unknown, 35-year-old historian and TV personality Magdalena Ogórek, as its presidential candidate.) For his part, Mr Palikot also announced his intention to stand in what will almost certainly be his last hurrah. Unless he can think of a way of once-again radically re-inventing himself, Mr Palikot appears to be finished as a major actor on the Polish political scene.

The most important challenge will, of course, be the autumn parliamentary election, whose outcome will determine the shape of the Polish political scene for years to come. Assuming he survives the presidential election, the autumn poll will be ‘do or die’ for Mr Miller and possibly even for the Democratic Left Alliance itself. If the party can recover ground and get itself into a position where it could be a pivotal member of a two or three-party Civic Platform-led coalition government, then this could provide it with a lifeline and mean that Mr Miller can end his political career as deputy prime minister or possibly speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, the second most senior Polish state office. (Entering a governing coalition with Law and Justice is highly unlikely given that the two parties are bitter rivals but not totally inconceivable. Last November, in a hitherto unprecedented meeting of minds they joined forces to question the accuracy of the regional election results.) On the other hand, given its recent difficulties there is a real chance that the Alliance may not even cross the 5% threshold which would not just mean an ignominious end to Mr Miller’s career but could herald the demise of a party that was the dominant force in Polish politics for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The left’s electoral-strategic challenge

More broadly, while various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as being on the political left at around 25-30%, the bigger, over-arching electoral-strategic challenge faced by the Polish left is to develop an appeal that can bring together its two potential bases of support: socially liberal and economically leftist voters. Socially liberal voters tend to younger, better-off, prioritise moral-cultural issues such as reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in public life, and often quite economically liberal as well. They were at one time Mr Palikot’s core electorate and many of them still support Civic Platform. Indeed, some analysts argue that Civic Platform ‘borrowed’ many of these potential centre-left voters, who supported the party as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of office, but that it has no intention of giving them back! The economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older and more culturally conservative; indeed, for this reason even many of those who are nostalgic for the job security and guaranteed social minimum that they associate with the former communist regime often support right-wing parties such as Law and Justice. Arguably the only deep social roots that the Polish left, and Democratic Left Alliance in particular, have are among those steadily declining sections of the electorate that have some kind of interests linking them to the previous regime, such as families connected to the military and former security services.

The Polish left finished the year pretty close to rock bottom; indeed, some commenters argued that the demise of the Democratic Left Alliance and current crop of left-wing elites were inevitable and even desirable. The left, it is argued, needs to develop a completely new political formula and generation of left-wing leaders if it is renew itself and develop an effective long-term challenge to the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly. For example, some are investing great hopes in figures like Robert Biedroń, a one-time Democratic Left Alliance activist who was elected from Mr Palikot’s party lists in 2011as Poland’s first openly homosexual parliamentarian. Last year, in a high profile contest that was one of the few rays of hope for the Polish left in the November local elections, standing as an independent Mr Biedroń ran a clever campaign based on grassroots ‘pavement politics’ to unexpectedly win election as mayor of the northern Polish city of Słupsk. However, at the moment he is more of a political celebrity with a knack for attracting publicity than potential future leader. The fact that it had to clutch at such rare and isolated examples of political success exemplifies the dire state that the Polish left found itself at the end of 2014.

For part 5, ‘How salient was the European issue?’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/polish-politics-in-2014-part-5-how-salient-was-the-european-issue/