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Polish Opposition. No One to Win Against?
   
In 2014, when it seemed that the ruling coalition of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) dominated the political scene, the then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk spoke the words "there isn’t even anyone to lose against". The same may be said today by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). Time will show whether this self-confidence proves justified, or whether the political sympathies of Poles will change again in the two years left until the next Parliamentary elections.

Three years ago, Tusk, the longest serving head of government in the history of Poland after the system change in 1989, had good grounds for such a resolute statement, disdainful of the opposition of the time. The coalition had excellent ratings in polls surveying the public opinion and electoral preferences. Additionally, President Bronisław Komorowski seemed an almost 100% favourite for re-election for the second term of office as the head of state.

A year later the reality was completely different than forecast. First Komorowski – to the utter amazement of most of politicians and observers – lost in the second round against Andrzej Duda, candidate of the Law and Justice, who had been predicted to fail miserably. Later, in the autumn parliamentary elections the Law and Justice had a landslide win that enabled them to rule independently with the support of smaller groups in the Sejm.

Two years have passed since then, i.e. half of the term of office of the Parliament. Despite the fact that it nearly immediately started a political war on many fronts – both domestic and international – Law and Justice is just fine. Which is more, the ratings of the ruling camp are not only not dropping but have been growing in comparison with the electoral results of 2015. The situation is similar in the case of social approval for the most important political pair in the country – President Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło. And the ratings of the opposition and its leaders seem to be dropping from month to month.

The September survey conducted by the Kantar Public institute shows that 38% of persons declaring their participation in parliamentary elections intend to vote for PiS; 16% – for the Civic Platform.

The anti-system party Kukiz'15, established slightly over two years ago after the spectacular success of the rocker Paweł Kukiz in the presidential elections (he came third in the first round, having received nearly 21% of votes), would have won 9%, whereas the liberal Nowoczesna (Modern Party) under the leadership of an economist Ryszard Petru – 8%.

The left-wing opposition party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which ruled several times in the 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century, today outside Parliament, would not have exceeded the electoral threshold, receiving 4% support.

The former coalition party, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), would be slightly below the threshold – 4%, and the radically left-wing party, as fresh on the Polish political scene as Kukiz’15, Partia Razem (Together Party) – 3%.

The survey carried out by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) indicates, however, that President Andrzej Duda enjoys the greatest (74%) social trust. He was followed by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (57%) and Paweł Kukiz (51%). The leader of the Civic Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna, came second in the mistrust ranking (49%) – only the current Minister of National Defence, Antoni Macierewicz, for many years in the position of one of the most controversial Polish politicians, was lower (54%).

In other polls, the ruling Law and Justice even broke through the 40% support barrier, which in the next elections would have provided the party with a fully independent rule. The Civic Platform, on the other hand, did not manage to go above the 20% mark in any of the polls.

“The results are shocking to us,” commented Rafał Trzaskowski, one of the most valued Civic Platform younger generation politicians (45), a former Member of the European Parliament, Minister of Administration and Digitization and Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Such polls motivate us to work harder,” he added.

Trzaskowski judged that it was necessary for the opposition parties to turn to the younger electorate. “We must reach them with our programme – among other things through tax reliefs, but also consolidation of the opposition. Today you may be under an impression that we are not speaking with the same voice on the most important issues,” said the Civic Platform politician.

However, it is difficult for the main opposition party to seek support among the younger electorate in so far as – which is apparent from the polls mentioned – most of the youth are either politically passive, or lean towards groups of radical nature, such as Kukiz'15, Together Party, or the radical right-wing movement of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, currently a Member of the European Parliament. Which is more, sociological analyses prove that a significant percentage of people aged 18-30 support Law and Justice and intend to vote for this party in the 2019 elections.

“It is too divided and there are not enough fresh ideas which would create an alternative to what is exists,” said the former President (1995-2005), Aleksander Kwaśniewski, about the opposition. “Today unification takes the form of substitute discussions. The important thing is to have a dialogue. The slogan that Law and Justice must be removed from power on its own is not enough. Good political ideas are a necessity,” added Kwaśniewski.

Indeed, when observing the events taking place in Poland you may be under the impression that the opposition has adopted the stance of a constant critic of the ruling camp’s activities, without presenting its own political and social ideas. And the hopes that the moves made by Law and Justice will be seen the way that the opposition perceives them are illusory.

In recent months, the basic subject of criticism has been the reform of the legal system and the judiciary by the Law and Justice party. It started with the actual takeover of the Constitutional Court by the nominees from the ruling party, further Acts – including the two which, to Law and Justice’s surprise, were vetoed by President Duda – were aimed to restrict the independence of the judiciary system even further and make it dependent on the executive. A wave of street protests went through Poland in defence of courts and democracy. Tens of thousands of citizens took part in them. However, the reform of the judiciary is continued, and civic protests have not translated in any way to electoral polls as well as sympathies towards the government and the opposition.

The situation is similar as regards the more serious conflict between Warsaw and Brussels/Strasbourg. The European Commission and other EU institutions conduct formal proceedings today that concern the rule of law in Poland, the issue of the firm reluctance of the government in Warsaw to accept refugees from North Africa, the issue of illegal – according to the Commission – felling of trees in the Białowieża Forest and several other issues. Poland is threatened by serious fines and various sanctions from the EU. Despite this, the popularity of the government is not decreasing in the least, and it is even growing.

What are the reasons behind this paradox? According to experts, most of the Polish electorate are simply not interested in such matters as the judiciary (and most Poles have a negative opinion about its efficiency anyway) or European politics. What really affects voters are matters directly affecting their everyday lives. Thus the popularity of the government as the initiator of the 500+ programme under which large families receive significant benefits from the state budget. The fact that the Law and Justice has stuck to the promise from their manifesto and returned to the old pension system under which women can retire at 60, and men – at 65 is another influencing factor. During its rule, the Civic Platform, despite clear signals that society has not received it well, forced the reform under which Poles – regardless of their gender – were to retire at 67.

Of course, the popularity of the government is also due to Poland’s economic situation which is much better than forecast by the economists. The budgetary surplus, the growing Gross Domestic Product, the decreasing inflation, the record-low unemployment, the stable interest from foreign investors all constitute an excellent incentive to support the government. Even if a significant share of economic experts claim that in the long term the good ratios may be difficult to maintain.

Political scientists also emphasise that the opposition lacks even just one charismatic leader who would be able to gain the sympathies of the electorate. Neither the leader of the Civic Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna, endlessly announcing that his party would finally present some alternative programme for the country, or the head of Nowoczesna, Ryszard Petry, can aspire to this role. The latter additionally clocked up a serious moral slip-up by parading around with a new partner (also a Member of Parliament for Nowoczesna) during their holiday trip to Madeira. Formally Petru is still married – after the romantic escapade his ratings plummeted sharply.

Most political scientists are leaning towards the opinion that it is necessary for the Polish opposition to find new faces and leaders as soon as possible. Nothing, however, seems to indicate this. So for now Jarosław Kaczyński may – although he is not doing so – repeat Donald Tusk’s sentence spoken three years ago. There is no one to lose against.
W.Ż.