Poland's govt down in the polls

By bne IntelliNews June 11, 2013

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

Poland's unexpectedly sharp economic slowdown is hurting more than business - it is also affecting the country's politics, dragging down the popularity rating of premier Donald Tusk and setting off a crisis within the ruling Civic Platform party.

Civic Platform has seen its poll numbers sink to their lowest levels since the centre-left first took power in 2007, and in recent weeks it has been overtaken by the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party (PiS). One recent survey has PiS at 28% compared with 25% for PO. In the last parliamentary election in 2011, Civic Platform took 39% of the vote compared with 30% for PiS.

Tusk faces a two-fold problem. The first is that his is the first democratic government in Polish history to win a second term in office. "The key is that no one in Poland - and I'm speaking about the period since 1989 - has gotten used to a government that lasts longer than one term," Tusk said in a wide-ranging interview with the Polityka weekly. "We have rarely been able to accept long-running and strong governments. What's more, such governments are unusual - Polish politics have usually been changeable and anarchic."

There are signs of growing frustration with Tusk and his party among the big-city moderates who form the bulk of Civic Platform's supporters. They are upset over the party's failure to push through social changes like legislation allowing for civil unions or a more liberal approach to in vitro fertilisation as Tusk steers a course between the social liberals and conservatives in his party.

Business, another key constituency for Civic Platform, is also grumbling that the government is being laggard in its reform efforts. "There seems to be a lack of vision of what to do with the economy," says Miroslaw Gronicki, a former finance minister who has become an increasingly pointed critic of what he fears is an approaching move by the government to gut pension reforms in order to shore up public finances.

Critics like Gronicki are unlikely to get much satisfaction from Tusk, who has long shied away from the dramatic and socially divisive reforms propounded by many economists. "I have always reacted negatively to cries of: More reform! More reform!," he told Polityka.

Gloomy forecasts

Overshadowing the whole political scene is the economy. Growth in the first quarter of this year came to an anaemic 0.4%, the slowest expansion since the near-recession of 2000-2001. Unemployment is above 14%, the worst level in five years, and is much higher among the young who are an important part of PO's base.

The outlook for the economy is also getting worse. Last year there were widespread hopes for a rebound in the first months of 2013 - now most economists expect a lacklustre pickup in growth only next year. The European Commission expects growth this year of only 1.3% - worse than anytime since the crisis year of 2009.

The problem for Tusk is than in 2009, when Poland managed to eke out growth of 1.8%, it was by far the best performance of any EU country. Every other member of the EU was in a recession, and the government delighted in holding news conferences displaying a map of the EU as a sea of red with Poland the only green island of growth.

This time the contrast with the rest of Europe is much less jarring. Looking around the region, the Baltic countries and Romania are expected to have higher growth this year than Poland, while Germany, Poland's largest trading partner, is expected to grow by 0.5%. The outlook for 2014 is even worse, with Poland falling behind a growing number of EU countries. That takes a key public relations tool out of Tusk's hands - he can no longer mitigate worries over slow growth at home by pointing out how much worse it is everywhere else.

Tusk has now seen both his personal popularity and the support for his government take a beating. A new survey by the CBOS polling organisation finds 57% of Poles are displeased that Tusk is in charge of the government, while 69% are critical of his government's economic policies. That is a huge difference from the recent past, where Tusk was more popular than his party. He helped lead Civic Platform to victory in the 2011 elections by embarking on a branded bus dubbed the "Tuskobus" and using his charm and charisma to sway voters.

That is shaking Tusk's control of Civic Platform, a party he co-founded in 2001. He faces at least one challenger for the party's leadership at an upcoming convention - former justice minister Jaroslaw Gowin, and could face a more formidable foe in the form of his deputy Grzegorz Schetyna.

Tusk is still the likeliest victor in this summer's contest, but there is no doubt that the shine has come off him and his party.

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