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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » January 28, 2015
Politics & Society
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Politics of Protest
January 28, 2015   
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A hundred days after taking office, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz found herself facing mass protests by miners over government plans to restructure coal mines and under pressure from trade unions over doctors’ contracts.

These two issues threatened to plunge the country into chaos, but observers disagree as to whether the Kopacz Cabinet’s efforts to resolve them can be considered a success.

Asked about the worst minister in the government, 47 percent of respondents in an opinion poll have pointed to Health Minister Bartosz Arłukowicz, who has come in for flak over the latest crisis in the health service sector. Right after New Year’s Day, patients in different parts of Poland were unable to visit their family physicians. The doctors had gone on strike, demanding higher salaries and refusing to sign yearly contracts with the National Health Fund (NFZ), which disburses public funds for medical services. Initially, Arłukowicz refused to sit down for talks with doctors’ trade unions, insisting that physicians should first reopen their surgeries. Several days later he gave in to pressure from the public and the medical community and agreed to start negotiations. The talks were successful in that doctors went back to work, but the details of the deal they made with the Health Ministry are so complicated that disputes could erupt again, meaning more trouble for patients.

Meanwhile, Kopacz enjoys the highest approval rating of all government members, at 43 percent, even though critics have accused her of passivity.

The biggest challenge and potential threat to Kopacz and her government in their first three months in office was an urgent need to restructure the ailing state-run mining giant Kompania Węglowa. Experts urged the government to close down four unprofitable mines and it looked possible that miners could launch bitter strikes lasting weeks. A major crisis was averted at the last minute when an agreement was signed with miners’ trade unions after long negotiations. Government officials described the agreement as a major success, but the miners are saying they “showed Warsaw who will decide about the future of coal mining in Poland.”

The unionists looked to be the stronger side during the negotiations, especially as just hours earlier, Kopacz said she was adamant that the decision to close down four mines could not be reversed. Under the government’s deal with miners, no mine will be closed down and only two of the four in question will be sold to private owners. Economists are saying that, by signing the agreement, the government caved in—in a bid to prevent thousands of miners from taking to the streets. Such demonstrations staged in Warsaw in the past show that no matter what party is in power, angry miners can wreak havoc. As a result, successive governments have been hesitant to take steps to reform Poland’s ailing mining sector. Negotiations with the trade unions are scheduled to continue once there is a new restructuring plan for the industry. The plan will not be unveiled until March, however.

The Kopacz Cabinet looks unlikely to cut short its term and will probably remain in office until this autumn’s parliamentary elections unless massive public protests break out. When Kopacz became prime minister in late September, the opposition, especially the Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, hoped that the PO-led government would collapse without Donald Tusk, who had resigned as prime minister to take office as president of the European Council. The governing PO has a clear advantage over the opposition, as shown by the results of the local elections in November and the fact that just several months ahead of presidential elections, the incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski, who hails from the PO, is far ahead of any other contender in the polls.
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