Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw -
Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, has had a rocky last few months, with his Civic Platform (PO) party trailing the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) in most polls. Beating Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party in the elections for the European Parliament in May would give the Civic Platform a welcome boost at the start of Poland's coming election season.
Certainly, the elections to the European Parliament in themselves do not confer any real power and are of no great interest to voters, with the turnout unlikely to exceed 30%, analysts say. But Wojciech Szacki, a political analyst at Polityka Insight, a think-tank, believes they will nevertheless be a very important vote for Tusk. "Civic Platform has won six consecutive elections since 2006," he says. "Interrupting this series could plunge the party into crisis and contribute to a fall in its ratings in the polls."
Things are not as bad as they could be for Tusk: support for his party has at least stopped falling. The latest poll by CBOS, published on January 16, put Civic Platform neck-and-neck with Law and Justice, with 24% and 25% respectively (though a poll by TNS Polska, published a few days later, put the difference as wide as 22% and 32%). Tusk still has time to repair the damage before the next parliamentary elections in 2015. But how well his party does in the elections to the European Parliament on May 25 will certainly set the tone for the months ahead.
A long-awaited government reshuffle on November 20 brought in some fresh faces, with Tusk's long-serving finance minister Jacek Rostowski replaced by newcomer Mateusz Szczurek. Elzbieta Bienkowska, who built a strong reputation as the minister responsible for Poland's EU funds in 2007-2013, was made deputy prime minister, prompting speculation she could be Tusk's successor. Yet her comments in January in response to train delays ("it's just the type of climate we have") suggests it may take time for her to settle into her new, more public role.
Though the European elections will reignite the rivalry between Civic Platform and Law and Justice, the main challenge to Tusk in recent months has come not from the opposition, but from rebels within his own party.
Jaroslaw Gowin, a former justice minister whom Tusk dismissed in April last year, has since set up his own party, Polska Razem (Poland Together). From the start, it has sought to cater to Poles who find Civic Platform too liberal on social issues, but are looking for a business-friendly alternative to Law and Justice. How many Polish voters tick both these boxes? For now, polls put Gowin's party below the electoral threshold for the Polish parliament (the above-quoted CBOS poll puts support for it at 3%). "We are here so that voters are not sentenced to choosing between PiS and PO," Pawel Kowal, a Polska Razem MEP told onet.pl , a Polish news site, on January 24.
Even with Gowin gone, another challenge to Tusk came from Grzegorz Schetyna, a former deputy PM and parliament speaker, and his supporters. But Schetyna's days in the Civic Platform leadership seem to be numbered: he was not re-elected to the party board this time round and it looks like he may run in the European elections, which - if he gets elected - would keep him at a safe distance from Warsaw.
If the Civic Platform loses the elections in May, it will weaken Tusk's personal position in the party, Szacki points out.
Meanwhile, Tusk is finding that bringing out the Law and Justice bogeyman to scare voters no longer works that well. Before, it was easy to point to Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party as a bunch of crazies who could only talk about the Smolensk plane crash of April 2010 that killed his twin brother Lech, who was president at the time. Yet in recent months Kaczynski has consciously toned down his rhetoric on Smolensk, making his party a more palatable choice to a wider range of voters.
But not everything is going Kaczynski's way. He will be glancing nervously over his right shoulder as Law and Justice fights for conservative voters. In the European elections, it will face competition from a handful of smaller right-wing groupings, including the nationalist National Movement (Ruch Narodowy). Support for these parties will be in the region of 10%, estimates Polityka Insight, a think-tank, but every percentage point will matter as Law and Justice strives to keep ahead of Civic Platform.
Moreover, PiS may struggle to find well-known candidates to put forward in May. Many of its MEPs elected in 2009 have since moved on to other groupings. Kaczynski has emphasised that the party's candidates will be chosen based on "ability and loyalty." Speculation in the media that Marta Kaczynska, the 33-year-old daughter of the late Lech Kaczynski, would be among them was cut short earlier in January when she said she would not be running.
Civic Platform, on the other hand, will probably be putting forward a bunch of veteran MEPs, including Jerzy Buzek, PM in 1997-2001 and president of the European Parliament in 2009-2012, and Danuta Hubner, who served as Poland's first-ever EU Commissioner. Jacek Rostowski, the former finance minister who was replaced in the reshuffle, is being considered too. But discussions about who will head the party's lists have been overshadowed by tensions between Tusk and Buzek, who is miffed after the government recently reformed the pension system (OFE) that he had introduced when prime minister.
The European elections will be the start of Poland's electoral marathon, with local elections following soon after, and presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. With this in mind, Law and Justice will do all that it can to turn the May elections into a plebiscite on Tusk's government, rather than a debate on the EU and Poland's place in it. "A Law and Justice victory could further mobilise the party's supporters, who will start believing in the possibility of beating the Civic Platform in the parliamentary elections," Szacki says.
Tusk's Civic Platform can still win, but it will be an uphill battle.
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