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Poland 2011 Elections – Analysis

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According to the final official results, the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party has won the Polish parliamentary elections held on Sunday 9th October, clearly defeating the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party by 39% to 30%. Third place was taken by the Palikot Movement (10%), fourth by the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) with over 8%, with the post-communist SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) party coming last, also with over 8%, but just a fraction less than the PSL.

On current seat projections (PO 206; PiS 158; Palikot 40; PSL 28; SLD 27), this result means that the PO will be able to form a government with its current coalition partner, the PSL, with 234 seats out of 460 in parliament. An alternative possibility of a coalition would be between PO and the Palikot Movement, but this is unlikely due to the strong opposition of parliamentary Speaker and key PO politician Grzegorz Schetyna. Instead, the PO-PSL alliance will probably seek out support from individual SLD MPs to further strengthen its parliamentary position.

Poland
Poland

In elections to the Senate, the PO won an equally strong victory, taking 63 out of 100 seats, with 31 seats going to PiS, two to PSL, and the rest to independents. The Senate results come under the first-past-the-post electoral system, introduced for the first time in the Senate elections, and belie fears that maverick candidates would exploit the new system. Instead it seems that the same political party lock in the Sejm (lower house) has been replicated in the Senate as well.

…as a result of PM Tusk’s campaign, economic growth and opposition weakness…

The current PO-PSL government has become the first government to be successfully re-elected in a parliamentary election in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989. In this sense, the result is a double victory for Prime Minister Tusk, who himself engaged personally in the campaign two weeks prior to voting, concerned at its lacklustre progress. By touring the country in an election “battle bus” and mobilising the PO vote, his victory will entrench his position not only as Polish Prime Minister and also as PO leader, giving him the upper hand in party rivalries with the current Speaker of Parliament Grzegorz Schetyna.

The result reflects the good fortune of the PO to have overseen, over the last few years, continued economic growth whilst the rest of Europe grappled with huge economic problems. 4% growth on average per annum, EU funds financing infrastructure investment, and consumer spending fuelled a “feel-good factor” that clearly led many Poles to believe that changing the government made little sense. PO also played on the competencies of their existing economic team as the safest hands in the current global economic crisis and difficult times ahead. PO during the campaign also drew heavily on the weakness of the potential PiS governing team, and in the last week played on the memories of the chaos and inefficiencies of the previous 2005-2007 PiS government to scare neutral voters into voting PO. PiS did not help itself either, with the final week of the campaign being marred by injudicious remarks by Kaczynski about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which discredited him in the eyes of many centrist voters.

… raising questions about the political tactics of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski…

For PiS the result will be the fifth successive election defeat that they have suffered at the hands of the PO since 2007 (taking into account local, presidential and European elections), and the defeat to the PO by almost 10% will confirm the words of PM Donald Tusk only a few months ago that “PO had no-one to lose an election to”. Kaczynski’s perennial political tactic of shoring up his radical political base between elections whilst attempting to move to the centre during the campaign itself will now be questioned as lacking credibility, as will his plan of regrouping in opposition and initiating “one last push” for the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. Kaczynski hopes that external and internal economic conditions over the next four years will have deteriorated to the extent that electorate fatigue with the PO will give him final victory, and he is counting on his loyal party base to have the patience to wait yet again for political success. Despite this defeat, it is doubtful if Kaczynski’s leadership in the party will come into question. Although putative successor Zbigniew Ziobro may be encouraged into making moves to oust him, the party’s internal statutes make this a difficult task and there remain enough Kaczynski’s loyalists in place in the new parliamentary club to ensure his survival.

… whilst Janusz Palikot celebrates his success…

Other than PO, the clear beneficiary of the elections is Janusz Palikot, leader of his eponymous Palikot Movement, obtaining 10% of the vote. Having started his party from scratch less than a year ago after leaving the PO, Palikot has positioned himself as a pro-economic reform but anti-clerical politician. He appeals to a clear section of the electorate hostile to the Catholic Church – mainly the young, who are moving away from the PO – and also to former supporters of the populist Self-Defence party, who seeing themselves as disenfranchised and ignored by Warsaw are attracted to Palikot’s anti-establishment outsider image. Palikot’s relative success is all the sweeter as having combined with the pushing of the post-communist SLD, hitherto the standard-bearer of the Polish Left, into last place. For Palikot, entering parliament with a strong representation – and being in opposition for four years as the troubles of the government will surely mount – is the best political scenario he could have hoped for, and in the future he will aim to garner disaffected PO and SLD voters in order to position himself as the main centre-left political opposition to both PO and PiS.

…and the PSL guarantees itself another four years in government…

The PSL party under its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak, can be satisfied with its result, which at over 8% is more than most polls were predicting. Pawlak’s success lies not only in the level of his vote, but in his inevitable role as junior coalition partner to the PO party – in this sense, Pawlak has achieved his objective of providing to his party and its activists another four years in government, together with the benefits and sinecures that stem therefrom. In a government coalition between PO and PSL, Pawlak can expect to take two or three ministries – although probably not the job of Parliamentary Speaker, likely to remain in the hands of PM Tusk’s political rival Grzegorz Schetyna. Pawlak will be looking to take over the newly proposed joint Ministry of Energy and Environment, or failing that, the proposed new Ministry for Digital Economy.

…whilst the SLD looks to a bleak future.

The one single obvious loser of the campaign is the SLD party, which under its leader Grzegorz Napieralski had hoped to build on the latter’s relative success in last year’s Presidential elections and stage a recovery as a credible political force in Polish politics. Instead, a leaden campaign by Napieralski, plus his decision to ease out of the party and electoral lists candidates who might have broadened the party’s left-wing appeal, has resulted in a disastrous 8% vote that has opened the process to replace him as party leader. Napieralski’s only hope was to secure his position by joining a coalition government with the PO and PSL, but given the current seat projections even this seems unlikely. Riven by internal conflicts, out of government and facing a challenge from the Palikot movement as the champion of Poland’s anticlerical Left, the SLD looks set for another four years at the fringes of Polish politics. Any new leader will face an uphill task of rebuilding a party whose electorate has been disassembled by PiS, PO, and the Palikot Movement, and whose only public faces are the ex-communist dinosaurs of yesteryear, such as former PM Leszek Miller.

PM Tusk and President Komorowski move to form the new government quickly…

The next few hours and days will see discussions open between the PO and PSL over the division of government responsibilities between the parties, and President Bronislaw Komorowski ought to be relatively quickly informed about Tusk’s ability to secure a majority in parliament. At that point, and following Tusk’s formal resignation of the current government at the first session of the new parliament, Komorowski will reappoint him as Prime Minister together with the new ministers, pending a formal vote of confidence by the beginning of November at the latest. President Komorowski has already hinted that he will accelerate this constitutional process, given that the victors and main players are already known, and it is possible that the first session of parliament and confirmation of the new government will happen before the end of October.

…with attention focusing on personalities and policy

Attention will now shift to the make-up of the new government. PM Tusk has stated publicly that only five ministers can be sure of their jobs in the new cabinet, and these are widely expected to be current Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski, Regional Development Minister Elzbieta Bienkowska, and one or two others. Some ministers may remain in cabinet but be shifted to other ministries. The picture is additionally confused by plans to merge some ministries, divide up others – creating for example, a separate Ministry of Interior from the current Ministry of Internal and Administrative Affairs – and also create new ones, such as the planned Ministry for Digital Economy. Whatever the make-up of the new government however, it will be very much the government of Donald Tusk, together with those who have been his closest colleagues hitherto, head of his Economic Council Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, and Minister without Portfolio Michal Boni, at his side.

In terms of policy, Donald Tusk is aware that the future of the government and PO rests very much on maintaining the pace of reform, especially as economic conditions deteriorate externally and internally. Already on election night, he announced a much more robust approach to reform, hearkening back to the radical reform roots of the PO. With a party completely under his control, a stable majority in parliament, a friendly President, and an opposition in disarray, there is little excuse for Tusk not to push forward with more ambitious policies. In addition, the arrival of the Palikot Movement in parliament has brought with it a political force perhaps even more wedded to the free market than Tusk himself, and their votes – albeit in opposition – will be a useful buttress for policies that might be resisted by the more conservative PSL.

Normally, an election that generates the same government as before might presage an uninteresting political future, but in the case of these Polish elections, the re-election of the PO-PSL coalition has brought with it new personalities, new parties and a new dynamic that will ensure that the next four years of Polish politics may be even more absorbing than the last.

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Marek Matraszek

Marek Matraszek is based in Warsaw. He has written widely on Polish and international affairs and is a regular commentator on Polish politics for the international media. He is the Founding Partner of CEC Government Relations, and maintains the "From the Front" website.

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