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The Warsaw Voice » The Basics » August 1, 2013
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PO Must Push Back
August 1, 2013   
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Prof. Andrzej Rychard, a sociologist, political scientist and director of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, talks to Witold Żygulski.

PiS has surged ahead in the polls. Has there been a sea-change in Polish politics?
The main change, of course, is that the two largest parties, the ruling Civic Platform (PO) and the opposition Law and Justice (PiS), have switched places in terms of voter support. The PO, whose position [as number one in Polish politics] seemed to be safe for a long time, began to feel PiS breathing down its neck and soon afterwards lost its lead in the polls.

There were many signs that this defeat in the polls was approaching. In my opinion, this is not so much the result of some monstrous mistakes made by the PO, but rather of some partial omissions. The party did not present a coherent vision of how the country is to develop, settling for some individual ideas, which, however, were sometimes not developed in a way clear enough to voters. On many occasions announcements were made that there would be a government reshuffle or that the prime minister would take a tour of the country in a special bus. But no significant changes were made to the Cabinet, and the Tusk bus tour never materialized, either. The PO also took legitimate pride in highlighting the fact that Prime Minister Tusk secured a record 100 billion euros from EU coffers for Poland during talks in Brussels and Strasbourg, but this otherwise very important fact was not followed up by any explanation as to how these funds would be used for the country and what kind of reforms they will make possible. After all, no special intellectual effort was needed to combine all these issues into a coherent and clear whole. Nor did the opposition come up with any new, bright idea on how to run the country. What we did see—and this is something we’ve known for some time—is that PiS knows how to skillfully manipulate its image. One of the ways it portrays itself is as a radical group, an image symbolized by its stance on the Smolensk disaster [the April 10, 2010 air crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 other people, including politicians and senior military officers. Prominent PiS politicians, including the party’s deputy leader Antoni Macierewicz, have long claimed that the plane crash was the result of a plot to kill the Polish president]. PiS also has a milder way of portraying itself, symbolized by Prof. Piotr Gliński, the party’s would-be candidate for prime minister and head of a government of technocrats. It turned out that these types of PR maneuvers were enough to leap ahead in the polls in a situation in which the PO did what it did.

What can the PO do in the coming months to tip the scales in its favor?
We will certainly be seeing the PO making an attempt to become more active. That, however, may prove to be difficult, especially as the fall will not necessarily be a time of positive developments in the Polish economy. And a crisis by definition does not favor governing parties. But some attempt must be made, especially as the PO is in a quite comfortable position after all. It is backed by the president, although Bronisław Komorowski is—rightly—trying to pursue a policy of independence and of keeping a certain distance from the party he hails from, which makes it much easier to introduce any potential reforms. From 2014 to 2020 Poland will benefit from huge financial support from the EU—the last time this kind of support is available on such a scale—which can make some difficult economic decisions much easier. Finally, the next parliamentary elections are still two years away and there are no signs that an early election could be needed. However, all this is not enough; people must see that Donald Tusk is determined to fight, not just continue in office until the end of his term.

Do you think the prime minister still has the energy for a major political battle?
Perhaps the prime minister’s motivation has waned somewhat in the past few months, but I absolutely do not believe that this is an irreversible process. We have all seen what Donald Tusk has been able to do over the past 20 years. From a rookie who was not always treated seriously by some in the Liberal-Democratic Congress [Tusk’s first party, which existed from 1990 to 1994], he evolved into a politician of European stature, the undisputed leader of his party and two-time winner of parliamentary elections. This last feat is something that no one else has managed to accomplish in Poland since [the country shook off communism in] 1989. Tusk has always been and remains a fighter who may have found himself on the back foot, but is certainly capable of striking back effectively.

Some say the PO is now in crisis. Is it tearing itself apart?
The PO has never been a uniform party to begin with. You can even say that it was always ideologically diverse. Now this diversity is slowly beginning to come to the fore. These differences in views [on various controversial social issues] have always existed, but for a long time they were suppressed by Donald Tusk’s strong leadership.

Meanwhile, the leader of a conservative faction within the PO, Jarosław Gowin, has emerged [as the official challenger to Tusk for the post of party leader in an internal election scheduled for August]. I do not think, however, that the open emergence of a strong conservative faction is the PO’s main problem today.

“I believe that the PO’s main problem is that—in a trend already visible in the polls—the party is steadily beginning to lose those of its supporters who hoped it would be more liberal, free-market, and pro-European, in short, more modern.”

Many young people in big cities are clearly disappointed. Consequently, the party is losing supporters in what used to be its traditional core electorate. In my opinion, the biggest challenge for the party in the coming months will be to win back these voters. Otherwise, these people will simply stay home on election day during the next parliamentary elections [in 2015].

For a party that calls itself “civic” there’s also another trend—which can be mainly be seen at the local level—that has been particularly painful in the last few months. That’s the emergence of genuine civic movements that oppose specific political decisions made by the authorities in their cities and regions. A standout example is that several hundred thousand people have signed a petition drawn up by a group of local councilors to hold a referendum to oust Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who is a deputy leader of the PO, as mayor of Warsaw.
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