PO Still Behind, Despite Reshuffle
December 19, 2013
Prime Minister Donald Tusk has replaced seven ministers in a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle intended to breathe new life into a government that is struggling to regain voter support after six years in power. Despite the move, Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform (PO) party is still trailing the opposition in the polls.
In the long-awaited reshuffle, Tusk Nov. 20 replaced seven ministers from the Civic Platform, the senior partner in the coalition government, appointed a second deputy prime minister and closed down one ministry.
According to most political scientists, any attempt at dismissing a minister from the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the PO’s junior partner in government, could destabilize the ruling coalition and cause it to lose the slight majority it has in parliament. The PSL has one deputy prime minister and its politicians are in charge of the economy, agriculture, and labor and social policy ministries.
A key change announced by Tusk was the appointment of Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the minister of regional development, as a new deputy prime minister. As part of the reshuffle, Bieńkowska was given extra responsibilities after the ministry of transportation was merged with the one she heads.
Until Tusk’s announcement, Bieńkowska was one of the few government ministers who had escaped scathing criticism by the opposition. According to commentators, her appointment as a deputy prime minister means she will become part of Tusk’s inner circle within the government. Others have commented that Tusk appointed her in order to weaken the position of PSL leader Janusz Piechociński, the economy minister and so far the only deputy prime minister.
In her new, high-profile role, Bieńkowska quickly became a target for the Law and Justice (PiS) opposition party, which has topped the polls for several months and which looks strong as the country counts down to the next parliamentary election in 2015. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński called a special press conference to criticize Bieńkowska for what he claimed was her mismanagement of EU funds allotted to Poland.
Another key change in Tusk’s Cabinet was the dismissal of finance minister Jacek Rostowski, who in recent months was increasingly under fire over the state of public finances. He also caused controversy with plans to reorganize Poland’s pension system and partially nationalize the country’s so-called open pension funds (OFE). Rostowski’s plans were slammed by the opposition and were openly criticized by Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of the economic reforms designed to transform the country into a market economy after the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989.
The new finance minister is Mateusz Szczurek, 38, former chief economist of ING bank in Central Europe, whose primary task, according to Tusk, is to oversee the reform of the pension system.
International controversy ensued when Tusk replaced environment minister Marcin Korolec with Maciej Grabowski as United Nations climate talks were taking place in Warsaw. Korolec played a leading role in organizing the summit and the news that Korolec had been dismissed took conference delegates by surprise. Many said that Tusk’s move showed the Polish prime minister and his government were not taking the global battle against climate change seriously.
Barbara Kudrycka, the minister of science and higher education, announced her resignation even before Tusk unveiled his reshuffled Cabinet. She said she felt “burned out” after six years in office. Kudrycka was replaced by the PO’s Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, a member of the European Parliament and a well-known sociologist.
Another minister who lost her job was Krystyna Szumilas, who held the education portfolio and was one of the most unpopular members of Tusk’s Cabinet. Her successor is Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, who was expelled from PiS, then tried to form an alternative right-of-center party before eventually joining the PO several years ago.
Also dismissed was the highly criticized sports minister, Joanna Mucha. As her replacement, Tusk appointed Andrzej Biernat, a popular member of the PO.
The last minister to lose his job was Michał Boni, the minister of administration and digitization. He was replaced by the PO’s Rafał Trzaskowski, until recently a member of the European Parliament.
The reshuffle left only three ministers who have been in the PO-PSL government since the parliamentary election of autumn 2007 in place. Apart from Bieńkowska, these are foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and Bogdan Zdrojewski, minister of culture and national heritage.
Tusk said the government needed “new energy” for the two years remaining until the next parliamentary election. If the PO won that ballot, it would set a record by staying in power for three consecutive terms, a feat no other party has achieved in Poland since 1989. However, the PO’s results in the polls suggest this is not going to happen. According to Prof. Andrzej Rychard, a well-known sociologist, it is no longer enough for the PO to use Jarosław Kaczyński as a bogeyman and to warn voters of the consequences of PiS returning to power.
Rychard said the PO now needs to come up with a positive action plan of its own in order to retain its current electorate and win back voters who have turned their backs on the party. The Cabinet reshuffle does not appear to have done the trick— the PO’s ratings failed to go up in the final weeks of last year.