Polish PM Kopacz struggles to define premiership as elections loom

By bne IntelliNews January 15, 2015

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


A hundred days is usually enough to tell if a budding relationship is going to last, but Poles have not yet been completely sold on the merits of Ewa Kopacz as she gears up to lead her Civic Platform party into this autumn's parliamentary elections.

Since taking over from Donald Tusk as prime minister on September 22, Kopacz has been trying on personalities, ranging from a mother concerned about her children's safety, to a reassuring family doctor (her pre-political profession), to a matronly fashion plate. Her latest incarnation is as the Slavic iteration of Margaret Thatcher as she sallies forth to do battle with Poland's powerful coal miners' unions.

So far opinion polls are mixed. A recent survey by the CBOS organisation shows only 38% of Poles back Kopacz’s government, while support for Civic Platform is at 34% according to a recent poll by Millward Brown, exactly even with the opposition Law and Justice party.

Kopacz's initial achievements are a little thin, but that may be because her becoming prime minister was a bit of a surprise. She was unexpectedly chosen by Tusk last autumn after he became the new president of the European Council. Her main achievements since then have been fighting fires.

Local problems

She led her party into local elections in November, narrowly losing to Law and Justice, the first time that the nationalist opposition party has been able to claim even a sliver of victory in nine years. The ambiguous result – Civic Platform won a few more seats in regional assemblies despite losing the popular vote by less than a percentage point – served as a warning that Civic Platform could lose parliamentary elections unless it ups its game.

Kopacz was also saddled with the blowback from Radek Sikorski, the speaker of parliament and former foreign minister who has been fighting a growing list of problems that are threatening his political career.

She had to deal with health service problems that left thousands without access to doctors and controversy over nominating a powerful group of female lieutenants designated to keep an eye on ministers and ensure that they were fulfilling Kopacz's orders. She has also been dogged by tales of chaotic decision making, a contrast with the more authoritarian style favoured by Tusk.

While dealing with the rush of government business, Kopacz has been trying to craft an attractive public image to fill the void left by Tusk, who dominated Polish politics between 2007 and 2014. Her first public appearance as prime minister designate was a misstep, as she strove to show her concern for the safety of Poles in light of the growing threat from Russia. However, she ended up telling a much lampooned story that cast her as a mother rushing home to protect her children while a wild man (presumably Russian) brandished a knife on the street outside. She recovered her footing a few days later in a well-received maiden speech to parliament.

Kopacz, a chain-smoking doctor, has had difficulty establishing a balance between demonstrating steely professionalism and trying to show her female appeal. An uncomfortable photo session for a women's magazine that had her dressed in uncharacteristically fashionable clothing turned into an embarrassment when it emerged that the clothing had been borrowed and then appeared to cross the line into advertising in the magazine.

However, while the initial 100 days may have been a little lacklustre, Kopacz is showing more ambition as she aims to fatten her resume in the next months.

Hot coals

In a reference to Tusk, who had been known for eschewing lofty reformist ambitions and instead saying he was concerned about keeping “warm water flowing in taps”, Kopacz said in a new interview with the Polityka news weekly that she is aiming higher. “There where speed and determination are needed, there will be decision,” she said. “Warm water in taps is already the norm for Poles. They want more, they want it faster and they deserve it.”

As a first sign of her aspirations, she used her 100-day anniversary to announce a programme aimed at rescuing Kompania Weglowa, Europe's largest hard coal miner which has been haemorrhaging money due to rising costs and falling global coal prices. The idea is to shut four mines and sell a fifth, while gathering the remaining nine healthier mines into a new and more solvent company. Despite a very generous severance package – one of the reasons that the scheme will cost as much as €540m, outraged miners have gone on strike.

“Kopacz is perceived by many in Poland, including within [ Civic Platform], as a weak leader,” writes Tsveta Petrova, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. “Although she is personally still highly popular, she has made controversial government nominations, has communicated her worldview and positions on current issues to the public poorly, and has not managed the party well in the run up to and following the local elections. Still, Kopacz will have plenty of opportunities to turn things around: for example, the upcoming restructuring of Polish coal mining.”

She is also promising to revamp the notoriously tangled tax code, improve child care benefits, as well as tackling thorny issues opposed by the powerful Roman Catholic Church like passing a law regulating in vitro fertilisation procedures and allowing for civil partnerships, which conservatives worry will increase rights for gays.

“I'm not thinking in the categories of a transitory prime minister,” she told Polityka. “I'm creating plans for many years.”

The trick is going to be to see if that more courageous approach allows Civic Platform to build support before parliamentary elections.

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