Polish opposition smells blood as PiS support weakens

Polish opposition smells blood as PiS support weakens
Jaroslaw Kaczynski's vendetta against longtime rival Donald Tusk led it to an embarrassing defeat.
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw March 30, 2017

Three recent polls have shown Poland's ruling PiS party still leads in terms of voting support, but its advantage has dwindled to as little as 2pp against the 10pp or more the rightwing populist party has become used to since taking office in late 2015. 

The Polish opposition is naturally flagging up the latest numbers. However, the loss of support for Jaroslaw Kaczynski's PiS appears more the result of the ruling party’s own mistakes, rather than any strengthening of other parties. There also appears little – apart from the ruling party’s abrasive relationship with the European Union  – that the opposition can find to land a palpable hit on the government.

The polls were carried out after PiS suffered a humiliating defeat on the international scene, as it failed to block the re-election of former Civic Platform premier Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. PiS’ rhetoric ahead of the vote in Brussels hinted that it counted on the support of ally Hungary and perhaps even the UK. In the end, however, Poland was left to stand alone in its quixotic opposition to its own compatriot's election to a second term.

The emerging picture was that of utter embarrassment and defeat,  in contrast to PiS’ long-standing rhetoric of “Poland rising from its knees” in relations with the EU. The defeat was such that it couldn't fail to eat into the ruling party’s standing in the polls.

In a poll by IBRiS, PiS' support dropped to just over 29%, against the centre-right Civic Platform's (PO) 27%, and 9% for the smaller liberal group Modern. A survey by IPSOS ranked support for the ruling party at 32% versus 28% for PO and 8% for Modern. Another poll told a similar story.

The populist Kukiz’15, led by former rock musician Pawel Kukiz, is also faring fairly strongly at 8%-11%. The party often tends to support the government.

If the opposition is to keep closing in on PiS, – which is becoming more than just a numbers game again with local elections scheduled for next year – it needs to offer voters more than satisfaction at PiS’ own blunders. But doing that has been a persistent problem.

Each crisis that the opposition could have exploited over the past 18 months or so has left PiS unscathed, or even stronger. Taking control of the Constitutional Tribunal and the public media, or the contentious budget vote, failed to weaken the government or empower the opposition. What had seemed a strong mass protest movement – the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) – is currently coming apart, consumed by internal conflict.

Many Poles saw these controversies as little more than a tit-for-tat battle between political elites. Meanwhile, PiS’ strategy of simply ignoring the opposition’s complaints and moving on with reforms has added to a feeling of helplessness.

However, as much as the Tusk re-election row was an even more elitist affair, it conflicted with Poles’ strong support for EU membership. The EU has given them the opportunity to travel freely to find better wages in Western Europe. At home, the EU has also left its mark via numerous infrastructure projects that the pre-EU administrations were unable to carry out.

The opposition needs to try to press PiS about the benefits of Poland’s membership in the EU and the party's commitment to the bloc’s future. This strategy may be effective in the campaign ahead of the local election because of the large impact the EU funds have had on Polish towns and the countryside. 

But that may not prove enough, as PiS has the means to counter such a strategy. The party may be sceptical about the EU, but it is also responsible for disbursing the structural funds it provides.

Dormant through 2016, EU-driven investment is expected to pick up speed. With that, economic growth will accelerate as well, boosting state revenue. Using this money to fund social transfers – which undoubtedly have had a positive impact on problems such as child poverty - will continue to strenghten support for the PiS.