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Unstable Platform? Poland’s ruling party struggles on

By Sean L Hanley, on 30 January 2014

A series of on-going political crises in 2013 saw support for Poland’s centrist ruling party, Civic Platform, slump. Despite a number of initiatives to revive its fortunes, public hostility may have passed a tipping point argues Aleks Szczerbiak.

 2013 was a year of on-going political crisis for Civic Platform (PO) party, he main governing party in Poland,. The approval ratings of both the Civic Platform-led government and prime minister and PO leader Donald Tus, slumped to their lowest levels since they came to office in 2007. A December 2013 poll by CBOS found that the number who declared themselves to be government supporters and were satisfied with Tusk as prime minister fell to 21% and 26% respectively – compared to 33% and 35% a year earlier.

 Another December 2013 CBOS poll found that only 31% trusted Mr Tusk, a slump of 10% over the past year and just 1% higher than the number trusting Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), the main opposition grouping. Civic Platform also suffered a series of local by-election defeats and has, since May, trailed Law and Justice by around 5-10% in the polls.

 With the economy sluggish and unemployment remaining high, Poles have become increasingly gloomy about their future prospects. There has also been a growing sense of government drift with ministers appearing to spend too much of time on crisis management and failing to undertake long-term structural reforms. The Tusk government appeared to revert to the cautious policy of ‘small step’ reform that characterised its first term in office. This approach worked fairly well while the economy was strong but began to come unstuck when the tempo of growth slowed and unemployment increased.

 Divisions and tensions within the ruling party both contributed to and were exacerbated by the sense of crisis. This reached its peak during the summer when Mr Tusk was challenged for his party leadership by Jarosław Gowin.

Gowin a leading figure in the party’s conservative wing was sacked as justice minister by Tusk at the end of April after they fell out over same-sex civil partnerships and in-vitro fertilisation. Gowin argued that Civic Platform needed to be careful not to alienate its more socially conservative voters, but his leadership campaign focused primarily on economic issues claiming that Tusk had abandoned the Platform’s original free market ideals.

 Although Gowin secured a significantly better than expected result (winning 20% of the votes), following his defeat he left the party along with his two closest parliamentary allies. to launch a new political grouping, Poland Together (PR), which claimed to be returning to Civic Platform’s original economically liberal but socially conservative roots. Critics argued that under Tusk, Civic Platform had turned from into an ideologically eclectic centrist grouping which some dub a values-free ‘post-political party of power’. Gowin was joined by politicians from two small Law and Justice breakaway groupings: Poland is the Most Important (PJM) and the Republicans led by Przemysław Wipler, an economically liberal deputy who had resigned from the party in June.

Fighting to regain the initiative

 Prime minister Tusk took a number of initiatives to revive Civic Platform’s fortunes  He first tightening his grip on the Civic Platform organisation, marginalising his main rival PO deputy leader) Grzegorz Schetyna. Tusk persuaded the party to bring it forward the party leadership election, originally to be held at Civic Platform’s spring 2014 congress and and broaden the franchise to include all members. As a consequence, Mr Schetyna, who enjoyed greater support among party officials than rank-and-file members, decided not to mount a leadership challenge. At the end of October, Mr Schetyna was defeated by a Tusk loyalist in the election for the leadership of the Lower Silesia regional party organisation, previously his local power base and  December he was ousted as deputy leader and lost his pace on the party executive.

 Civic Platform also stemmed the tide of by-election defeats in October when it scuppered an opposition attempt to oust Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz , in a recall referendum. The stakes were extremely high as the referendum had a political dimension that went well beyond the capital since Warsaw was one of Civic Platform’s strongholds. The party has won every election there since 2005. As soon as it became clear that a recall referendum would be held, Tusk and other Civic Platform dignitaries, including by the popular PO-backed Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, called upon the mayor’s supporters to boycott the poll as best means to keep her in office. In the event, although 95% of those who voted wanted to remove her, the 25.7% turnout fell short of the 29.1% minimum threshold required for the referendum to be valid.

 Thirdly, in November Tusk attempted to re-launch his government with a radical (and long-awaited) cabinet reshuffled.  This saw the sacking of finance minister Jacek Rostowski, the main architect of the government’s economic strategy and a major policy speech by Tusk setting out the revamped government’s priorities for the rest of the parliamentary term.

 However, the unifying theme of the so-called ‘new opening’ was not policy change but appointing ministers with fresh energy and vigour, such as the new finance minister Mateusz Szczurek, a competent but relatively unknown 38-year-old economist. A key plank of the re-launch was to make using EU funds a major strategic objective. Regional development minister Elżbieta Bieńkowska was promoted to deputy prime minister and made head of an expanded super-ministry now including transport and infrastructure. Poland’s emergence as the largest net beneficiary from negotiations on the EU’s 2014-2020 budget was claimed by Tusk as one of the government’s greatest achievements. His the new team, it was hoped, would ensure the funds were well spent to bring about a much-promised ‘civilisational leap’.

 Down but not out

 With over two years to go until the next parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2015), Civic Platform still has time to win back some of its passive and disillusioned erstwhile supporters.The party’s has retained the support at around 25-30% of the electorate and its poll ratings did not go into free-fall. Figures released in late 2013 also suggested that the Polish economy was re-bounding faster than expected, although question marks remained as to whether, even with the EU funds coming on stream, the pace of recovery will be enough to revive the ‘feel-good factor’ before the next election.

 It was also questionable whether Jarosław Gowin’s new breakaway party Poland Together (PR) will have much. Although seen a serious and credible political figure, Mr Gowin is primarily an intellectual and it is unclear if he has the necessary charisma and organisational skills to build a new political grouping from scratch. The fact that the main Polish parties obtain most of their funding from the state budget makes it extremely difficult for new entrants to challenge the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly that has dominated the Polish political scene for the last eight years. Gowin’s new grouping will receive no direct states funding until it secures at least 3% in a parliamentary election, and there are strict limits individual donations to parties,

 Early polls indicate that Gowin’s new party has been hovering around the 5% threshold need to enter parliament suggesting that many of his  potential supporters are waiting and see how the new initiative develops before declaring their hand. And –  some suggest –  Poland Together might be a bigger threat to Law and Justice than Civic Platform.

 Passing a tipping point?

 Nonetheless, there are indications that negative attitudes towards Civic Platform are so deep-seated that the party has passed a ‘tipping point’ where only a major political game-changer will shift the political fundamentals., The government has been so strongly identified with prime minister Tusk, whose his repeated promises to deliver a ‘civilizational leap’ have left many Poles cynical  that even the radical cabinet shake-up and ‘new opening’ are unlikely to have a significant impact on Civic Platform’s poll ratings unless attitudes towards the prime minister also begin to change.

 The two big tests for Civic Platform in 2014 will be the May European Parliament election and autumn local elections. These will be important preludes to the summer 2015 presidential and, above all, the autumn 2015 parliamentary elections. However, Civic Platform looks set to continue to trail Law and Justice in the polls. Given that European and local elections are often ‘second order’ polls in which voters punish governing parties they will prove a very tough challenge for Mr Tusk’s party.

 Civic Platform’s best hope remains the fact that voters may not trust the Law and Justice opposition enough to vote them back into office. As the Warsaw recall referendum showed, serious doubts remain as to whether Law and Justice can capitalise on the ruling party’s weakness. Fear of Mr Kaczyński’s conservative right-wing party was still a powerful mobilising tool among a large segment of voters. Moreover unlike Civic Platform, Law and Justice’s has low coalition potential,Mr Tusk has already made overtures to the communist successor party Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – the smaller left-wing opposition party that could emerge as a third force after the next election.  The SLD leader Leszek Miller enjoys good personal relations with the prime minister. If can hold on to a sizeable share of its support, there is, therefore, still a good chance that Civic Platform could lose the 2015 election but still remain in office.

 Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of 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 also writes an academic blog on Polish politics where this article first appeared as part of a longer series assessing party politics in Poland. It is reproduced with permission.

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

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