Waiting for Elections
September 30, 2013
After six years in power, Poland’s governing coalition, comprising the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the rural-based Polish People’s Party (PSL), is steadily losing support in the polls. In mid-September the PO was at least 5-7 percentage points behind the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, and the PSL was teetering on the verge of the 5-percent voter support threshold required for a party to make it into parliament. PiS is in the lead with more than 30-percent support.
In a special election in the southeastern Podkarpacie region—held to fill a vacancy in the country’s upper house of parliament, the Senate—PiS contender Zdzisław Pupa knocked out his rivals, winning more than 60 percent of the vote. A joint PO and PSL candidate garnered just over 21 percent. The victory of the opposition would probably have been even more spectacular were it not for the fact that it is heavily divided. A contender supported by the Solidarna Polska party, formed by a group of Law and Justice dissenters and politicians expelled from PiS led by former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, got 11 percent of the vote.
Of course, Pupa’s victory does not mean the situation nationwide is identical. Podkarpacie is a traditional bastion of rightist groups, and turnout was modest at under 16 percent. But, first, the PiS contender did much better than in the last local elections, and, second, his showing indicates that conservative voters are the most disciplined and more likely to cast a vote. That the governing coalition has found itself in deep trouble is also shown by the fact that the PO did not field a contender of its own, but a joint candidate with the PSL—clearly sensing that he would fail anyway.
For months, journalists, political scientists and other observers of Polish public life have been asking themselves whether the latest series of defeats suffered by the PO and PSL will lead to early elections. At the moment, the ruling coalition has a majority of only one vote in the lower house of parliament. Several members of the PO’s conservative faction led by Jarosław Gowin recently left the party, saying they were no longer able to support its policies. A few weeks before he left the PO, Gowin stood against Donald Tusk for party leader and received over 20-percent support from the party’s members, with turnout at just over 51 percent. This raises questions about how unified the PO is and highlights the fact that a significant minority of party members have reservations about Tusk as leader.
Nevertheless, most experts believe that early elections are unlikely. Under the constitution, early elections are held when the government fails to adopt a budget, which is unlikely at the moment, or when parliament decides to dissolve itself, which appears out of the question at the moment. Thus the coalition will probably stick it out until the autumn of 2015. But, as history shows, this could prove to be merely deferring the problem. The 1997-2001 government of the Solidarity Election Action (AWS) survived in a similar manner only to fall flat on its face later—neither the AWS nor the Freedom Union (UW), its coalition partner for half of its term in power, got into parliament in the next elections.
In the meantime, a moment of truth for Poland’s politicians will be the European Parliament elections next spring and local elections in the fall. Only after these two events will it be possible to assess the real balance of power in Polish politics. Voters are fickle in this country and elections have often ended in surprises.