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Poland - Parliamentary

The conservative opposition running favourite in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Poland

The conservative opposition running favourite in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Poland

29/09/2015 - Analysis

Just a few months after the unexpected victory of Andrzej Duda in the presidential election on 10th and 24th May last the Poles are returning to ballot on 25th October next to renew the two chambers of their parliament. All of the polls forecast victory by the main opposition party Law and Justice (PiS) in a country that is still divided between the industrial west which leans rather more to the Civic Platform (PO), a liberal party in office for the last eight years, and the east, which is more rural and closer to the conservative forces embodied by PiS Justice.

The most recent poll by CBOS and published on 25th September and published by CBOS credits the PiS with 34% of the vote and Civic Platform with 30%. The Kukiz'15 group created by the candidate in the last presidential election, Pawel Kukiz, is due to come third with 9%; of the vote. The United Left (ZL) is due to win 5% of the vote - i.e. below the 8% voting threshold vital for a coalition to be represented in parliament - likewise the People's Party (PSL). However if Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party does come out ahead on 25th October it is not certain that it will be able to form a majority. The future of Poland therefore depends on the results of the "small" parties in these elections. Indeed Civic Platform might come second and yet retain office by joining forces with the People's Party for example. This scenario was that in the most recent local elections on 16th and 30th November 2014.
Today the country is under the influence of a wave of populism that has engulfed all of Europe. On 10th May last the protest candidate Pawel Kukiz1 won 20.80% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.

Poland's recent history is one of European success, symbolised by the appointment on December 1st 2014 of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk (PO) as the President of the European Council. However the country is at a crossroads and in a month's time will make a vital choice between two opposite paths, personified for the first time in the country's history by two women.

The outgoing government in difficulty

Civic Platform is in a poor position as the parliamentary elections draw closer. The party lost the most recent presidential election although outgoing Head of State Bronislaw Komorowski was forecast as the winner by all of the polls. "We have been in office for eight years and we have made some mistakes. We have to admit this and apologise," declared Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz recently.

The scandal of illegal phone tapping that started in June 2014 notably shook the party and destabilised the government which was led by Donald Tusk at the time. The weekly Wprost published recordings that revealed an agreement had been made in 2011 between the then Home Affairs Minister, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and the President of the Polish Central Bank, Marek Belka. The latter promised to support the government's economic policy if the Prime Minister accepted the dismissal of his Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski. After the scandal caused by these revelations Donald Tusk's government had to undergo a confidence vote which it finally won on 25th June 237 votes in support 203 against. The investigation that followed the publication of these conversations led to the arrest of several people including a businessman who is said to have communicated the recordings to the weekly Wprost in revenge for restrictions set by the State on coal imports.

On 8th June last businessman Zbigniew Stonoga published the 2,500 pages of the investigation file on his Facebook page including interviews which compromised many politicians and economists. These conversations significantly damaged the government's image and that of Civic Platform. The Prosecutor's Office acknowledged the authenticity of the documents that had been put on line. "On behalf of Civic Platform I beg your forgiveness," declared Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz who immediately demanded and achieved the resignation of the leader of parliament Radoslaw Sikorski, and of three of her government ministers, Bartosz Arlukowicz, (Healthcare), Andrzej Biernat (Sports) and Wlodzimierz Karpnski (Treasury). They were replaced by specialist heart surgeon Marian Zembala, rowing world champion and gold medal winner Adam Korol and Andrzej Czerwinski.

Eva Kopacz is now trying to convince the Poles that she understood the lesson of the defeat of the outgoing President (PO) in the last presidential election and that her party is going to listen more to the population's grievances. Worn down by eight years in office Civic Platform, which is almost paralysed by the scandals and defeats of the last few months is struggling to embody the image of renewal to which the Poles are aspiring. Winning a further mandate will be difficult for the outgoing team.

For a long time Civic Platform used the fear created by a possible return of Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a campaign argument. Today the party still wants to "protect Poland from a coalition that will bring chaos" according to Ewa Kopacz in the daily Rzeczpostpolita. She warns of a spending spree with new taxes announced by PiS, maintaining that Warsaw could find itself in an Athens-like situation if the opposition comes to power.

PO would like to stand as the guarantor of the country's stability and intends to counter Law and Justice's authoritarian style. To do this it stands as the party of individual freedom whilst its main rival wants to over legislate and control the life of the Poles. Hence Ewa Kopacz recently said that although she went regularly to church she did not want her life to be controlled by a confessional State like the one PiS would like to establish - in her opinion - if it wins the parliamentary election on 25th October next. In order to win more ground PO is trying to make societal and cultural issues the focus of its campaign.

PO is also promoting its results after eight years at the country's helm. "We have one of the highest growth rates in Europe. Thousands of kilometres of roads and motorways have been built. Our cities have been made beautiful and we have built stadiums and given Polish women the longest maternity leave in the EU."

Indeed the country has experienced uninterrupted growth since 1992. The GDP has grown by 25% since 2008 the year in which the world economic crisis began. Of the 28 EU Member States Poland is the only country not to have suffered recession in the last few years. The growth rate is due to reach 3.5% in 2015 and 3.7% in 2016. Salaries have also risen over the same period: + 18%!

However the high growth rate has caused a great deal of inequality. Although all Poles are aware of the progress achieved since the fall of Communism not everyone has the feeling that they are benefiting from the results of growth. "On paper Poland is doing well but you cannot say the same of the Poles," says Kazimierz Kik, a political expert at the University of Jan Kochanowski in Kielce.

The party in office is not making any wild promises. Its programme aims to improve living standards for all Poles: increase minimum wage and weak retirement pensions, easier access to work, notably for young people (who might also be exempt from income tax until the age of 30) and the building of new homes. It is trying step away from its image of being an employers' party and is also planning that a 2 billion zloty fund (471 million euro) be devoted to the revaluing of public sector wages that have been frozen since 2010.

Ewa Kopacz has also promised to reduce the number of short-term contracts in application across the country. Indeed Poland has the highest number of short term contracts in the EU: 28%, which represents 1.4 million workers (500,000 more than five years ago). This situation creates vulnerable situations and strengthens divisions within the working population.

Finally the outgoing Prime Minister is proposing to exchange the existing healthcare contributions and retirement system paid by employers and employees by a new tax.

In August Ewa Kopacz decided to travel around Poland on a train which was baptised Kolej na Ewe, - "Train for Ewa" but also "It is Ewa's turn". She started her journey in Silesia, Poland's main mining area in the south of the country which is experiencing high unemployment and where many towns are falling into ruin.

In January the government faced the discontent of a majority of the Poles after her announcement on the 8th January of a plan to restructure the coal mines planning for the closure of four of them in Silesia. After several days of strikes the unions and the government came to an agreement which planned for the upkeep of the State's mining activities. The plan was withdrawn on 17th January the day after it was adopted by Parliament.

Coal represents 90% of Poland's energy consumption. The mines employ 100,000 people in all. The company KW, the owner of the mines that the government planned to close has 14 mines in all and employs 48,000 people. Coal prices are declining in Europe due to fuel imports from the USA and the low price of Russian coal. The restructuring of the mines which started in the 1990's is far from complete. It is one of the most difficult tasks that lies ahead of the future government.

Has the time come for PiS?

On 20th June last the leader of Law and Justice Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared to everyone's surprise that he would not be the party's candidate for the post of Prime Minister in the next parliamentary elections. He announced that the candidate would be 53 year-old Beata Szydlo, Deputy Chair of the party, MP, and especially responsible for the –victorious - campaign of Andrzej Duda in May last. "If anyone can rally a team and make it win, she is the one," maintained Jaroslaw Kaczynski adding, "Poland needs a new generation of politicians and new faces. Beata Szydlo is both young and experienced."

PiS has therefore found a solution to counter Ewa Kopacz by choosing another woman, rather than the controversial party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to compete against her for the post of Prime Minister. Many wonder however about the place that Beata Szydlo will really occupy if the party comes to office. Will she be another Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the ephemerous leader of the Polish government (October 2005-July 2006)?

PiS is a conservative, clerical party that supports economic control by the State. A Eurosceptic movement and therefore against greater European integration it defends Polish national identity, traditional values and the country's sovereignty.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is now inspired by the methods used by his Hungarian neighbour Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Alliance of Young Democrats-Civic Union, FIDESZ-MPP), and notably regarding his 2010 decision to tax multinational companies and businesses in economic sectors with high foreign involvement (energy, telecommunications, finances and large retail outlets). He hopes to introduce a new tax in Poland on banks and retail businesses similar to that in force in Hungary and limit the profits being transferred abroad by non-Polish companies established in the country. Two thirds of the banks and most of the country's retail outlets are held by foreigners. Currently they are taxed at a rate of 19%, since Poland is implements a flat income and corporate tax rate. However a tax on foreign businesses would be damaging for the country's credibility and investments: the latter have declined significantly in Hungary over the last few years.

Beata Szydlo maintains that the new tax will enable her to finance her electoral promises (reduction of the retirement age, tax rebates for private parties and small business, free healthcare for the over 75's and new benefits paid to families with children) that she has estimated at 39 billion zlotys (9.3 billion euro) whilst the economists estimate them at more than double this figure.

Fond of presenting itself as the defender of the weak, PiS also wants to introduce a new tax band on the highest revenues, and, conversely reduce taxes for the poorest Poles. The party is very critical of the state of the country's infrastructures, notably the schools and transport. "Depending on whether you live in a big town or in a village, you do not have the same chances of finding work, or of having the same access to a doctor and a school, or a decent wage, to guarantee the security of your close ones and offer a future or guarantee the security of your family," repeats Beata Szydlo.

If PiS came to office this would herald a change to Warsaw's European policy. The party is a member of the European Conservative and Reform group in the European Parliament with which the British Conservative Party also sits. "The European Union is our house and we need it but we have to do what others are doing and take care of our own interests," repeats Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The latter is "absolutely against joining the single currency in any foreseeable future" and supports a referendum on the issue. Beata Szydlo also said that the first thing she would do would be to abolish the post of the person responsible for Poland's entry into the euro. "Forget the bad idea of introducing the single currency if we want to prevent Poland from becoming a second Greece," she stresses.

Will the parliamentary left disappear?

Poland, the country in which around one quarter of the population says that it is left-leaning, is specific in that it has no left-wing party that rises beyond 10% in terms of voting intentions. This political movement might simply disappear from Parliament after the election on 25th October. The claims made by the parties on the left are in fact close to those made by PiS, which succeeds in defending solidarity, nationalism and Christian values and embody opposition to the party in office.
In the last parliamentary election the left achieved the weakest score in its history (8.24%). In the local elections in November 2014 it came fourth. Finally Magdalena Ogorek, the candidate supported by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) only won 2.4% in the first round of the Presidential election last May.

On 18th July last several left-wing parties decided to join forces in view of the upcoming election on 25th October: the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) led by Leszek Miller, Your Movement (TR, Twoj Ruch) led by Janusz Palikot, former PO member who failed to take advantage of its success in the previous parliamentary election on 9th October 2011 (it won 10.2% of the vote and came third); Boguslaw Gorski's Socialist Party; the Greens and Labour Union (UP) led by Waldemar Witkowski. These parties are running together under the banner of the United Left (ZL, Zjednoczona Lewica).

The coalition programme that comprises 15 main points focuses on social justice but remains extremely vague. It suggests an increase in the minimum wage to 2 500 zlotys (594 €) as well as an increase on retirement pensions, a reduction on income tax for the poorest and finally a reduction in the retirement age which is set at 67 at present.

The coalition might suffer however due to competition on the part of left-wing parties which have refused to join them: Razem (Together), a party created by young radical intellectuals inspired by Podemos in Spain and Bialo-Czerwoni (Red and White) and launched by Grzegorz Napieralski, the former SLD leader (2008-2011) and Andrzej Rozenek, former spokesman of Ton Movement. This new social democratic party is trying to attract those disappointed by PO.

Last may Ryszard Petru, an economist, who is linked to the craftsman of transition years of the 1990's towards capitalism, Leszek Balcerowicz, recently founded Modern PL in the hope of attracting young graduates and entrepreneurs and the PO's electorate.

The Polish Political System

The Polish Parliament is bicameral: the Diet (Sejm), the lower chamber comprises 460 MPs and the Senate (Senat), the upper chamber 100 members. The two chambers can meet in the National Assembly (Zgromadzenie Narodowe) on three occasions only: when the President of the Republic is sworn in, if the latter is under trial before the State court or when the head of State is unable to exercise power on health grounds.

Elections take place in Poland every 4 four years. With the exception of lists representing the national minorities any political party has to win at least 5% of the vote cast to be represented in the Diet (8% for a coalition).

The 460 MPs are elected by proportional vote based on the d'Hondt system For the Diet Poland is divided into 41 constituencies which each elect between 7 and 20 MPs. The parties and groups comprising at least 15 citizens are allowed to put forward lists in the elections. The lists must receive the support of at least 5000 voters in the constituencies where they are running. The electoral law obliges 35% of the candidates on these lists to be women.

The 100 Senators are elected by direct universal suffrage in single-member constituencies. Candidates running for a Senator's post must have the support of at least 3,000 voters in their constituency. The minimum age to be elected MP is 21 and 30 for a Senator.

The Poles were called to ballot on 6th September in a triple referendum launched by the former Head of State Bronislaw Komorowski on 10th May last, on the eve of the first round of the voting in the Presidential election, focusing on the introduction of a uninominal majority method of voting in a double ballot in the election of MPs (instead of the present proportional system) and on the upkeep of the State financing of political parties and also on the establishment of the presumption of good faith on the part of a tax payer who is under investigation by the tax authorities.

Turnout of at least half of those registered was necessary to make the popular consultation binding; this was ridiculously low since on 7.8% of the Poles went to ballot. PO campaigned - weakly - in support of the uninominal majority ballot and against the funding of public life by the State.

Just one referendum has ever brought more than 50% of those registered together - and that was on the country's entry into the EU on 7th-8th June 2003 - out of the four that have organised in Poland since the country became democratic again.

7 political parties are represented in parliament at present:
– Civic Platform (PO), Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz's party created in March 2001 comprises 197 MPs and 61 Senators;
– Law and Justice (PiS), an opposition party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, found on 13th June 2001, comprises 134 MPs and 32 Senators;
–The People's Party (PSL), a centrist, agrarian party and member of the outgoing government coalition. The oldest political party in Poland (founded in 1895) it is also the one that has the most members (around 120,000). Chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechocinski, it has 38 MPs and 2 Senators;
– Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Social Democratic Party created in 1991 and led by Leszek Miller, with 35 seats (no Senators).
- Polska Razem - Zjednoczona Prawica, right-wing party led by Jaroslaw Gowin has 16 MPs and 1 senator
– Your Movement (RP), a liberal, anti-clerical party founded in 2011 by Janusz Palikot, has 11 MPs (no Senators);
- Bialo-Czerwoni (Red and White) has 4 MPs
The German minority has one seat.
4 Senators are registered as independents.
24 MPs and 2 senators are non-affiliated

Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The author
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
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