Split platform: How the Polish opposition is coping with defeat and disillusioned voters
How the Polish opposition is coping with defeat, abuse of power scandals and the new demands of disillusioned voters
When tens of thousands of Poles held protests against the Law and Justice (PiS) government in May, some people called this evidence of a strong opposition. Members of the ruling party, in contrast, criticised the reluctance of Civic Platform to accept the results of elections that were held in October 2015, six months previously.
In any case, prior to those elections the impending defeat of the now opposition Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) was considered quite obvious and almost a done deal. Fatigue from the long rule of one political force (PO governments had been in power for the previous eight years) was complemented by other factors, such as the "cassette scandal", while Ewa Kopacz – the successor to Donald Tusk, who had long been party leader and prime minister before his move to Brussels – obviously lacked the charisma and leadership skills of her predecessor. "Everyone knew that PO would lose, but most commentators thought it would be strong enough to form a coalition with the Polish People's Party and, perhaps, other left-wing forces in order to leave Law and Justice outside government. However, a serious blow to 'Platform' was Bronisław Komorowski's loss at the presidential elections", says Wojciech Szacki, Senior Analyst for Political Affairs at Polityka Insight.
Despite these political shocks, PO gained 24.09% of the votes, but PiS took first place at the elections. The failure of the United Left with a result that only just fell short of the election threshold (7.55%), as well as KORWiN and Razem (Together), gave Law and Justice an overall majority. "The election law is designed in such a way that the winner gets more seats than it would if there were more parties. Kaczyński's party won with a proportion of the votes no higher than PO four or eight years ago, but that result was enough to create a majority," says Szacki.
Some PO voters moved to PiS, but most, according to experts, switched to the party Modern (Nowoczesna), which got into parliament with the fourth-best result, behind the populist Kukiz'15. After the elections, this political force, whose ideologue is considered to be Leszek Balcerowicz, enjoyed more than 20% support, according to opinion polls. However, the potential of this young and still not very well organised party is now gradually fading and it could require a fresh start. Indeed, according to the analyst, it could become a good oppositional force with 10-15% that will join broader coalitions, although it will not be strong enough to counterbalance PiS.
After a difficult first few months after the elections, when PO continued to lose support, the last three have allowed it to recuperate and the party's ratings began to gradually increase. In an interview with conservative weekly Do Rzeczy, party leader Grzegorz Schetyna outlined a new ideological vision of his faction as a "liberal-conservative" force, which many analysts and commentators perceived as a positive and necessary step that would help make PO powerful enough to defeat PiS. Although more of the people who vote for PO consider themselves "leftists", Polish society as a whole has shifted slightly to the right in its electoral sympathies (according to a CBOS survey, right-wing views outweigh left-wing ones by 42% to 17%).
It would have been possible to speak about a potential "recovery" of PO just a few weeks ago, if it was not completely nullified by an incident involving deputy head of the party and mayor of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.
The scandal that broke out a few weeks ago with renewed vigour actually has a long history and is associated with the reprivatisation of property in the capital. Pursuant to a law (the so-called Bierut Decree that is still in force), the state nationalised 90% of pre-war Warsaw. Landowners have the right to appeal to the authorities for a longterm lease of the property that once belonged to them, unless this is contrary to current urban planning. In the latter case, they have the right to ask for compensation (such a situation may arise if the relevant building now performs certain functions for the city, for example, as a school). According to Polish magazine Polityka, the most popular way to regain property was a request to annul an individual decision made by the communist authorities. The appropriate documents were sent to the Ministry of Infrastructure and then – with the cancellation confirmation – to the Warsaw mayor's office, which provided the long-term lease. If this was not possible, the local authorities had to pay compensation.
Since 1989, Warsaw has returned several thousand buildings to their former owners under long-term lease,
and 500 million zlotys (US $130mn) in restitution had been paid out by 2013.
As the newspaper writes, the return of property or obtainment of restitution turned into a lucrative business for people not related to the previous owners, as well as the lawyers representing their interests.
Newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published the first highprofile investigations of these violations. In April this year, the first material emerged that should have been a wake-up call for the mayor. GW journalists pointed out the link between the long-term head of the Warsaw Office of Property Management Jakub Rudnicki and lawyer Robert Nowaczyk, who reclaimed 50 locations in Warsaw for himself and his clients, including a building worth 160 million zlotys (US $42mn) near the Palace of Culture. Following this case, Rudnicki resigned in 2012, and then himself made a claim to get back his family's old property. Allegedly, this operation was also unlawful.
After an audit of the Warsaw Office of Property Management by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, in April this year there was talk of fraud investigations started against several officials that were involved in restitution during Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz's mayorship. Critics accuse the latter of not paying attention to the illegal actions that accompanied reprivatisation over many years. This situation is very convenient for politicians from PiS, who seek to remove the PO mayor from office. This can be done through a referendum (in 2013 Gronkiewicz-Waltz survived a plebiscite that failed due to low turnout). Apart from such a popular vote, the government is able to directly appoint a commissioner for the city, although this seems less likely, as it requires more bureaucracy.
One way or another, the reprivatisation scandal has been a hot topic for Polish media since the end of August and a trump card for PiS against PO. However, it remains to be seen how the parties will deal with this matter, because, despite their fervour and demands for GronkiewiczWaltz to resign, it appears that PiS does not have a strong enough alternative for the top job in the capital city. According to Wojciech Szacki, if Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz ultimately resigns, this could deal a deathblow to PO.
Reprivatisation is not the first scandal to befall PO in recent years. Previously, the "cassette scandal" dealt a serious blow to the reputation of party, although it still considered to be more of an ethical issue than one connected with corruption. Members of the government of the time and businessmen can be heard on the tapes, which were recorded in several expensive Warsaw restaurants in 20132014. The recordings were published by magazine Wprost when their "consequences" could already be seen: in one of the conversations, Interior Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and head of the National Bank of Poland Marek Belka discussed the possibility of having the National Bank finance the public debt in the event of a serious financial crisis that could occur, according to Sienkiewicz, if PiS take power. Belka agreed to this, provided that Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski be dismissed and the law on the National Bank be amended. When the dialogue was published, both of these conditions had been met. In total, seven members of the PO government came under fire, as well as the marshal of the Sejm and Radosław Sikorski, who was foreign minister when the tapes were made.
Despite the relative maturity (compared to other post-socialist EU members) of Polish parliamentarism, it still lacks new faces and a decent alternative to current elites. The ideologies of PO and PiS are still formed by politicians fostered by the Polish People's Republic.Modern was able to play on its freshness (despite its close ideological relationship with Leszek Balcerowicz), but lacked the strength to create a strong and durable structure. Modern was more a party for those who wanted to flee Civic Platform, sensing its weakness. As for PO's prospects, some analysts point out their young faces, such as the mayor of Poznan Jacek Jaśkowiak, former Deputy Foreign Minister RafałTrzaskowski or MP Agnieszka Pomaska. However, their ideological vision deviates from the course recently set by PO: they lean more to the left. Certain commentators perceive them, alongside the best-known Polish mayor Robert Biedroń, as a hope for a future left or left-liberal party of a new type, as they are representatives of a new generation of politicians (Trzaskowski, for example, translated and distributed flyers for Solidarity while still at school, so had virtually no direct contact with the socialist regime). However, these people are not really a prospect for the immediate political future.
In the meantime, the "new" policies of current PO leader Grzegorz Schetyna, or his desire to eliminate internal opposition, have caused scandals within the party. In late July, three respected members were expelled from it: previous Mayor of Wrocław Stanisław Huskowski, former regional head of PO in Lower Silesia Jacek Protasiewicz and ex-MEP Mariusz Kamiński. Schetyna called for their membership to be rescinded for allegedly creating a "negative image of the party". In fact, the biggest factor was his rejection of the position of PO representatives in Lower Silesia, where he covertly negotiated for a coalition with PiS in the regional parliament.
However, only Ewa Kopacz and Bogdan Borusewicz voted against the decision to exclude all three deputies (besides them, Trzaskowski was also against the removal of Huskowski's membership). Even now, Kopacz is still an important counterweight to Schetyna in the party. She effectively represents Tusk's grouping and, as wrote Wsieci columnist Stanisław Janecki, both are trying to politically destroy Schetyna by all means necessary. The journalist claims that politicians, businessmen and media representatives in Brussels are encouraged to put pressure on Schetyna to resign. Tusk asks to be involved in all of the party's affairs, in order to unsettle the current leader and push him to make even more errors. That is to say, according to Janecki, Schetyna should only be seen as a temporary chairman.
These two camps are today the largest influence groups in the party. They have two ideologically different visions of its development: liberal-conservative for Schetyna and more left-wing, social-democratic for Kopacz and Tusk. Both sides may have a point, as it is entirely possible that an overly sharp turn to the right would deprive the party of its stable centre-left electorate. At the same time, moderate Christian-democratic ideas would encourage the undecided and meet the needs of Polish society, which has recently moved slightly to the right.
SOME PO VOTERS MOVED TO PiS, BUT MOST, ACCORDING TO EXPERTS, SWITCHED TO THE PARTY NOWOCZESNA, WHICH GOT INTO PARLIAMENT WITH THE FOURTH-BEST RESULT
Risky negligence. The scandal around reprivatization of buildings in Warsaw involving PO city mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz can deal a fatal blow to the party