Political scene: the last election-free year

As Polish political parties get in gear for another electoral season next year, cracks could start to show in the upper echelons of the country’s political elite.

In 2017, political parties will slowly be getting ready for an electoral marathon starting with the local elections in autumn 2018. The things to watch are the reform of the judiciary, the implementation of the so-called Morawiecki plan, Prime Minister Szydło’s position and the state of the opposition. And Mr. Kaczyński.

Most foreigners still have to get used to something that Poles have become quite familiar with – that in our politics the actual pecking order is a lot different from a formal hierarchy. Today it’s perfectly clear that the most powerful figure in the state is the leader of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński. Although theoretically just one of 460 MPs, within his party he is usually referred to as “Prime Minister” (he served in this position between 2006 and 2007) or – less formally – “chief of state”. Knowing the actual role of Mr. Kaczyński is the key to understanding Polish politics. He decides on the strategy not only of his party, but also the government, formally led by Ms. Beata Szydło. Even foreign leaders like Angela Merkel know that Jarosław Kaczyński is the person to talk to when visiting Poland.

The kingmaker

Mr. Kaczyński holds more power than any Polish leader since the fall of Communism. In 2015 his party took control over key political institutions, winning both the country’s presidency and an overall majority in parliament, something no party has achieved since 1989. Kaczyński wishes to further increase his sway over the country, and this will be the theme driving Polish politics in 2017.

In late 2016 PiS managed to install its own judges in the Constitutional Tribunal – which gives the final say on whether legislation is within the confines of the constitution. The previous head of the Tribunal, a vocal critic of the government, had blocked some laws, leading to a public battle over the independence of the court. As it stands, PiS – with a majority in both the lower and upper houses, an in the presidential palace, and alleged control of the Constitutional Tribunal – could use this power to pass controversial laws aimed solely to further its own agenda.

Ignoring pressure from the European Commission and the Council of Europe to respect its independence, PiS staffed the Tribunal with deferential judges. The year 2017 will see judicial reform aimed at controlling regular courts. The government already has direct oversight of the prosecutor’s office enabling PiS to close unwanted proceedings and initiate politically expedient ones. The ruling party has taken control over the state media and is considering measures to limit private outlets through limits on foreign capital. PiS-friendly media have run a vicious campaign against liberal NGO, and PiS is also working on a new electoral law, which will probably limit the number of terms for which mayors will be able to serve. Some other changes in the electoral law, including the alteration of constituency boundaries of cities such as the capital Warsaw, are also expected.

The government will focus both on its social agenda and on implementing the Sustainable Development Plan prepared by deputy PM Mateusz Morawiecki. The plan is centred around, among other issues, re-industrialisation based on new industrial sectors, support for investment growth and enhancing export growth. One of the most significant changes in 2017 will be the abolition of middle schools, a move which has provoked strong opposition among teachers. The government will continue to introduce other social reforms, such as “Home+”, a key social programme to build housing for rent at affordable prices.

Polling strong in Poland

Although PiS have a history of axing a lame-duck PM to replace them with Kaczyński, the current head of government appears to be here to stay… at least for now. A major reshuffle of the government seems unlikely at present. Beata Szydło, who has an approval rating exceeding 50 percent, is the second most popular Polish politician, trailing only president Andrzej Duda. According to recent polls, the whole cabinet is enjoying the strongest support since Ms. Szydło took her post in late 2015.

The Prime Minister has also proved her loyalty to Mr. Kaczyński, who is probably the only person who could replace her and remains the supervisor of the government. Only a major political crisis, compounded by plunging support in the polls or significant protests from various social groups might lead to Szydło’s dismissal.

PiS is polling high (c. 40 percent) on the back of anti-elite rhetoric and fulfilled electoral promises, first and foremost the child allowance scheme from which Polish families get monthly payouts. The government still has to find long-term financing for the project, but it won’t stop new promises coming to fruition in 2017: the retirement age will be lowered in October, securing support for PiS among early pensioners.

Looking ahead

What about the rest of the political arena? 2017 will be a testing year for the opposition, which has had a difficult time finding its voice and sense of direction. The centrist PO (some 20 percent in the polls), which had ruled Poland for the previous eight years, has lost almost half of its supporters and new leader Grzegorz Schetyna is still learning how to manage a divided party. The liberal Nowoczesna – now third in the polls – headed by former economist Ryszard Petru, lacks experience and is yet to present its full agenda.

PO and Nowoczesna will continue to compete with each other, even though their voters expect them to unite, with the recent Sejm crisis  exposing the opposition leaders’ inability to cooperate. The third big opposition player, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), has found itself in a deep crisis due to revelations that some funds collected by KOD were transferred to a company owned by the wife of its leader Mateusz Kijowski. So government opposition is likely to remain weak in 2017, divided and leaderless. Additionally, following the PiS takeover of the Constitutional Tribunal, PO, Nowoczesna and KOD lack political fuel to protest as often and in such huge numbers as in 2016.

Mr. Kaczyński’s ultimate goal is to change Poland’s constitution and institute a more centralised state, thereby facilitating his party’s hold on power. But to amend basic law, PiS needs to gain a constitutional majority in the 2019 general election. For now, this seems to be too tall an order.

Photo Credit: Adam Chelstowski (Forum)

Wojciech Szacki heads Polityka Insight’s political desk. He is responsible for party coverage and maintaining relations with PO and PiS. He also prepares PI’s daily political briefing. From 2002 till 2012 he was a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza where he followed party politics and public opinion polls. He is a Law graduate from the University of Warsaw.

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