Poland: Law and Justice struggles to find a winning formula
By Sean L Hanley, on 28 January 2013
Opposition parties across East Central Europe have made gains against economically beleagured governments, but Poland’s Law and Justice party is struggling. Guest contributor Aleks Szczerbiak explains why.
For much of 2012, many Polish voters were clearly disappointed and frustrated with the ruling party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), fearing that the Polish economy was entering a period of crisis. Many incumbent parties in Central and East European facing similar problems have taken a political beating, losing out heavily to opposition groupings in recent elections. However, Civic Platform has benefited from the continued weakness of the main opposition grouping, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Polls suggested that voters were reluctant to support Law and Justice because they did not see the party as a credible alternative to Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform-led administration. They particularly disliked the apparently more aggressive and divisive style of politics they associated with its leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Tusk’s controversial predecessor who has figured in polls among Poland’s least trusted politicians.
Part of the reason why Law and Justice was unable to take advantage of the government’s problems was that during the first part of 2012 it was embroiled in a bitter political struggle to retain the loyalty of its core right-wing electorate against the new Solidaristic Poland (SP) party. This is a breakaway grouping comprising expelled Law and Justice members led by former party deputy chairman Zbigniew Ziobro who fell out with Jarosław Kaczyński after the autumn 2011 parliamentary election. The danger of Solidaristic Poland chipping away at Law and Justice’s core support stemm from the fact that Ziobro was, after Kaczyński himself, probably the best-known and most popular politician among right-wing voters.
However, it emerged fairly quickly that Ziobro’s breakaway was not going to emerge as a serious challenger to Law and Justice. Of key importance was the stance taken by the Catholic nationalist Radio Maryja media group run by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, is very influential among Poland’s sizeable ‘religious right’ who are a core element of Law and Justice’s electoral base. Although Father Rydzyk has close personal links with Ziobro, and initially Radio Maryja took a neutral stance on the split, Kaczyński’s party managed to retain the influential clergyman’s support.
In the autumn, Law and Justice finally looked like it was getting its act together when it launched a successful public relations offensive. The party focused its message on social and economic issues amid rising unemployment and a slowing down of the Polish economy, and proposed Piotr Gliński, a sombre and respected non-party sociology professor, to head a technocratic ‘government of experts’ that would replace the Tusk administration.
PiS also made a major effort to use less aggressive and confrontational rhetoric, particularly in relation to the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy, the plane crash in which the then Polish President Lech Kaczyński, the Law and Justice leader’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. This strategy appeared to be working as Law and Justice drew level in the opinion polls and in some even pulled ahead of Civic Platform for the first time since 2007.
However, the party’s support soon fell back in the turmoil that followed the publication of an article in Rzeczpospolita claiming that traces of explosives had been found in the wreck of the plane that crashed in Smoleńsk. This brought this controversial issue back to the top of the political agenda. Jarosław Kaczyński reacted to the Rzeczpospolita article by arguing that it provided confirmation for those who claimed that the late President had been murdered. He called for Prime Minister Tusk to resign arguing that his government had been shoddy in overseeing preparations for the visit and incompetent and dishonest in handling the crash investigation. At worst, he implied it might have been complicit in a cover-up with the Russian authorities. However, Kaczyński’s claims were undermined by a statement from the Polish military prosecutor in charge of the crash investigation that he could not confirm the newspaper’s claims (although he admitted that its tests would not be complete for some months).
In recent years, Law and Justice has made numerous attempts to tone down its more aggressive and controversial rhetoric and re-focus its core message onto ‘bread and butter’ social and economic issues; most notably during Jarosław Kaczyński’s campaign in the June-July 2010 presidential election that followed his brother’s death. However, the party invariably ended up returning to the confrontational tone that appeared to come naturally to Mr Kaczyński, particularly when discussing Smolensk which became a touchstone issue for the Polish right.
For many Law and Justice supporters the Smolensk disaster was part of a long history of Poland’s suffering at the hands of more powerful neighbours. Jarosław Kaczyński could use the tragedy to mobilise his core electorate by presenting it as narrative of Civic Platform-led government’s betrayal of Polish national interests. However, putting the Smolensk issue at the forefront of the debate distracted the party’s potential supporters from the government’s other shortcomings and alienated voters who, while not implacably anti-Law and Justice, rejected the party’s accusations of treason and assassination which they felt demonstrated Mr Kaczyński’s unfitness to govern Poland.
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University Sussex. He is a leading specialist on Polish politics and has written extensively on electoral and party politics in Poland and Central Europe. His current research focuses on the politics of lustration in Poland.
He writes an academic blog on Polish politics and recently spoke on Polish lustration debates at a seminar organised by the UCL-SSEES Centre for European Politics, Security and Integration. A podcast of the event is available here.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.