Political Landscape After Elections
July 4, 2014
Prof. Andrzej Rychard, a sociologist and director of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, talks to Witold Żygulski.
Did the European Parliament elections of May 25 change the Polish political landscape significantly? How would you assess the results of the elections?
On the one hand, the European Parliament elections have shown that the current political balance of power in Poland is stable, with two parties dominating, the governing Civic Platform (PO) and the opposition Law and Justice (PiS). The sharp conflict between these two, which has been going on for years, has been the determining factor in Polish politics. On the other hand, the May 25 elections showed—although this is rarely mentioned by those commenting on Polish politics—that the elections were won by two pro-European parties. They may invite many critical remarks, but you cannot say that either the PO or PiS is anti-European. The PO is pro-European and pro-integration in an obvious way, while PiS is far from strongly Euroskeptic—after all it fully accepts Poland’s presence in the EU. Perhaps it has a slightly different vision of Poland’s role in the EU than the PO, but I would definitely classify PiS among pro-European parties.
The radical anti-European sentiment [that has come to the fore in various European countries] was visible in Poland only in the Congress of the New Right (KNP), a group led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, which secured four seats in the European Parliament. However, I think Korwin-Mikke seduced voters with his general anti-establishment views rather than his anti-European stance. He managed to convince voters that the KNP is not part of the political establishment.
Thus, a pro-European mood clearly prevailed in Poland, which was by no means a universal trend in other countries in Europe. This can be seen not only by comparing the results of the European elections in Poland with those in Euroskeptic countries such as Hungary, but also with several countries of the old, strong Europe, which has been integrating for decades, such as France and Britain. These countries were always the mainstay of a Europe that was becoming more unified. Who knows if we have not witnessed a new trend, a situation in which the core of European integration is moving toward the countries of the new Europe, which were admitted to the EU as a result of an enlargement process in the last 10 years.
Let’s talk about domestic politics. How will the election results impact the chances of individual parties before the upcoming election marathon in Poland—this autumn’s local elections and next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections?
If it had not turned out at the last minute, after all the votes had been counted, that the PO won by a whisker, this without a doubt would have added very strong momentum to Law and Justice. The European Parliament elections put the winner in an extremely comfortable situation, because, unlike in the case of the parliamentary elections at home, they do not involve the need to form a government coalition and Cabinet, and to prepare for the process of exercising power.
There is no visible responsibility involved; the winners are not subject to assessment by voters and therefore they can bask in the glory of their success for many months.
The question is how this narrow victory by the PO should be evaluated? If we compare it with the results of the previous European elections, it is clear that the PO did worse; it got fewer seats; you can see a downward trend; and there is reason to be alarmed. But if we compare the end result with what the polls predicted, we will see that, in the last few weeks or even days before the May 25 vote, the PO managed to turn things around and close much of the gap with PiS. Whether or not this impetus will be enough to continue to gain voter support and beat PiS in the local and parliamentary elections, is difficult to predict today. But if the PO—a party that has made its pro-European stance one of its main distinguishing features—had been defeated in the European Parliament elections, this would have certainly been a lot more painful for this party than it is for Law and Justice the way things turned out.
Solidarna Polska and Polska Razem, two small groupings created largely by politicians who have either left or been expelled from Law and Justice under different circumstances, failed to make it into the European Parliament, but together they garnered over 7 percent of the vote. Do you think PiS will be ready to re-admit these politicians in a new attempt to integrate the right?
It appears that this would be of more benefit to these politicians than to Law and Justice itself. PiS will manage somehow without this handful of once-popular politicians, while they, without the support of a larger group, will simply disappear from Polish politics in the coming months. They were given a very painful lesson that proves they have no realistic chance to resurface politically in the form they had devised. It is therefore rational for them to seek an agreement with the PiS, but their bargaining position is weak.
It should be noted, however, that PiS is not the only possible safe haven for all these political losers from smaller groupings. Despite the sharpness of the dispute between the PO and PiS there are areas in which the boundaries between these two groups are not as tight as it might seem. It’s enough to mention the (unsuccessful) bid by Michał Kamiński, the former PiS spin doctor who [defected to the PO and] ran on the PO ticket in the European Parliament elections—or, even more vividly, recall the fact that Radosław Sikorski, the current PO foreign minister, was once defense minister in a PiS government. Therefore, I wouldn’t rule out transfers of rightist politicians to the PO, although, obviously, PiS is the natural habitat for them. The approach that PiS takes toward re-admitting such “prodigal sons” will probably determine the political future of these politicians.
What do the results of the May 25 elections say about Polish left-wing parties? The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) had a very poor showing...
Things look very bad for the left. SLD leader Leszek Miller is the only person today who is trying as best he can to integrate the Polish left, but he is doing that according to a totally anachronistic concept. This concept is predominately based on the shrinking—including for purely biological reasons—group of people who were linked—personally, by family, or socially—to the former political system in communist Poland, which means the Polish United Workers’ Party [PZPR—the communist party, which was in power 1948-1989]. This group, even if it also includes 40- or 50-year-olds, is not oriented toward the future. There is no new program concept of what the left should look like in the coming decades.
Nor is anyone is trying to harness the leftist thought and tendencies otherwise present in society and transform them into a new political idea. Young people with leftist views are hardly keen to go into politics. They know how to join forces via the internet for one-off protests, such as those over the [controversial international copyright treaty] ACTA [which brought thousands of demonstrators out on the streets to protest at a deal they feared could lead to internet censorship. The Polish government eventually decided against ratifying the ACTA]. But then these people immediately withdraw into the privacy of their own world until someone wants to threaten them again in some way. No politician in Poland today is able to convince these people to be active in public life.
Miller’s case shows what minimum percentage of votes at the ballot box you can secure by relying solely on the nostalgic-postcommunist electorate. I believe nobody will do that better today than him, but this absolutely does not exhaust the left-wing potential in society. If, therefore, nothing changes in the coming years we will have a very unusual situation in Poland by EU standards, in which the leftists will be winning no more than 10 or 12 percent of the seats in parliament and will have little impact on government policy.
An attempt to create a new left-wing movement by Janusz Palikot—in the form of the Europa Plus/Your Movement group—proved a spectacular failure. Why do you think this initiative failed?
When Janusz Palikot caught the wind in his sails and formed the Palikot Movement [the party secured the third-best result in the last parliamentary elections, after the PO and PiS, in the biggest surprise of that ballot], he managed to harness something that was in the air—the mood of many leftist, mostly young, voters. He managed to put all this together and put his finger on it, but then lost interest somehow; he suddenly decided that this was no longer challenging enough for him intellectually or politically. The group’s ratings began to sink in the polls. A sudden change in the name of the party to Your Movement was for many of its supporters a sign that the group had lost its distinct image. An alarm bell for Palikot should have been when protests erupted in the country over the ACTA controversy; Palikot tried to join the protesters, but they rejected him.
Later, things went from bad to worse. The name of the election coalition, Europa Plus/Your Movement, was so uninspiring that the inventor of the name should get an Oscar for the worst political slogan in marketing and media terms. This cluster of words is difficult to remember and completely meaningless. It does not bring anything to mind for anyone. It’s amazing that all those otherwise intelligent people who were involved in Palikot’s group decided to run in the elections under such a slogan.
So Palikot lacked all those things that brought him success earlier in the parliamentary elections—a strong, clear message and an element of novelty in terms of his election platform.
The biggest surprise of the May 25 elections is the result of the radical Congress of the New Right. Do you think this is a harbinger of future success for Janusz Korwin-Mikke in Polish elections?
Until days before the elections, many commentators believed that Korwin-Mikke would not manage to exceed the 5-percent threshold needed to get into parliament because he represented disgruntled voters who rarely go to the polls and most often limit themselves to criticizing politicians at home or on the internet. These forecasts proved to be off the mark, so I think greater caution is needed in voicing opinions about the Congress of the New Right. Therefore I absolutely do not rule out that Korwin-Mikke has a chance to get into the Polish parliament, even though the novelty and freshness effect will no longer be working in his favor. He was always a distinct politician who came across as a consistent person and in addition he managed to convince voters that he had never been part of any dubious political deal-making. His young voters probably simply did not remember that he was a deputy in the Polish parliament in the early 1990s. Now Korwin-Mikke is making no secret of the fact that he is going to Brussels and Strasbourg in order to “milk EU institutions” and create a platform for his own success in national politics. He may succeed, of course provided he does not start sending totally absurd messages to his voters. Korwin-Mikke’s views are in fact a strange mix of common sense, accurate appraisals and completely out-of-this-world concepts.However, even if Korwin-Mikke manages to gets his foot in the door in national politics, I absolutely do not believe he could ever become a major player or a permanent presence in the corridors of power.
How would you explain the very low voter turnout in Poland, compared with most other EU member states? Is this because European elections generate little interest among voters, or are citizens becoming less and less interested in political activity in general?
Both. Each election draws fewer voters in Poland. As for the attitude to the European Parliament, it is very specific in Poland. I would venture a statement that this attitude is similar to those seen in the literature of the absurd by authors such as Sławomir Mrożek or Witold Gombrowicz. Studies show that Polish people are far less critical of the European Parliament than of their own parliament. They are among the most pro-integration-minded societies in Europe. But at the same time they do not really like their own MEPs, believing that the vast majority of these people are going to the European Parliament just to earn as much money as possible for doing nothing. They also apparently believe that supporting the idea of a united Europe does not have to be associated with voting for their own representatives to EU institutions. Indeed, you would need to have the mind of a aster of the literature of the absurd to put all this together into a logical whole.
In justice to those who do not go out to vote, it is necessary to say that those observing the work of the European Parliament and other EU institutions can easily conclude that no common mechanism is at work for the time being, that the attitudes and opinions of individual member states, particularly the strongest ones, are the decisive factor.
Do you think the new European Parliament, with vastly more Euroskeptic MEPs, will significantly change its ways?
The situation is completely new, especially as European institutions tend to make decisions by way of consensus, not just formal votes. This will be much harder now.
That opponents of the EU entered the European Parliament in large numbers, however, is only one side of the coin. Far more important is that Euroenthusiasts have become passive. Recently Euroskeptics have not been encountering an opposite force working in favor of deeper integration. The Euroskeptics have been left as the ones with the initiative. Individual member countries are also presenting completely different visions of how the EU should develop. Against this background, the strength of the groups seeking to break up an united Europe will be even greater. The problem to my mind is consequently not so much the strength of Euroskeptics as the weakness of the integration concept.
The results of Poland’s European Parliament elections
Civic Platform (PO 32.13 percent, 19 seats
Law and Justice (PiS) 1.78 percent, 19 seats
Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) 9.44 percent, 5 seats
Congress of the New Right (KNP) 7.15 percent, 4 seats
Polish People’s Party (PSL) 6.80 percent, 4 seats
Parties that did not make it to the European Parliament:
Solidarna Polska 3.98 percent
Europa Plus/Your Movement 3.57 percent
Poland Together 3.16 percent
National Movement 1.39 percent
Turnout: 23.83 percent