Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Poland's communists ruled the country for 45 years – albeit with the help of Soviet tanks – and their successor party, the Democratic Left Alliance, twice ruled after 1989. It was one of Poland's leading political forces – and the operative term is “was” as the party has become a shadow of itself.
In a sign of just how desperate times have become for the party, its leaders made the completely unexpected decision to name Magdalena Ogorek, a little-known academic, TV presenter, failed parliamentary candidate and actress to be its flag bearer in May's presidential election.
The surprise decision was greeted with scorn by one of the lionesses of the Polish left, deputy parliamentary speaker Wanda Nowicka (who herself had been mooted as a candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) despite belonging to a rival grouping). She called Ogorek a “little fern”, a derogatory term for a woman whose main asset is her looks. “Politically, this is a person from nowhere, someone pulled out of a hat,” she continued.
But Leszek Miller, the party's 68-year-old leader whose service to the left dates well back into communist times, is desperate to rebuild his party's fortunes. He extolled Ogorek, 36, as a “symbol of change, including generational”.
The SLD has been sliding towards irrelevance ever since Miller's government was hit by a corruption scandal in 2002 which left its reputation in tatters and led to the rise of the Polish right, which has ruled the country since 2005. The core of the party's electorate are older men who fondly remember communist Poland. The problem is that this is a group which is being winnowed by advancing age, but the SLD has been unable to turn itself into a modern European social-democratic party. Because the bulk of its voters are socially conservative, the SLD has been less than full-throated in its support of issues important to younger voters like broader rights for gays.
Unable to find a role for itself in a system now dominated by two conservative parties, the ruling Civic Platform and the opposition Law and Justice party, the SLD has seen its share of the vote steadily shrink. It now regularly pulls in less than 10% of the vote, a fraction of the 41% it managed in 2001. The SLD has lost most of its centrists to Civic Platform, while some of its older and more conservative and populist supporters have drifted rightwards to Law and Justice.
The SLD has also been engaged in a battle over dominance on the left with Janusz Palikot, a publicity hungry millionaire who created his own party and took 10% of the vote in 2011, defeating the SLD. Palikot, formerly a Civic Platform MP, adopted a stridently anti-clerical and pro-gay tone, while also supporting small businesses. But the party has crumbled under the mercurial Palikot, driving out Nowicka and other MPs and it now looks unlikely to return to parliament in this autumn's elections.
Those parliamentary elections seem to be uppermost in the minds of SLD strategists. There is no realistic chance for Ogorek to win the presidency. The hugely popular incumbent, Bronislaw Komorowski, is supported by Civic Platform and is the overwhelming favourite to return for another five-year term. For the smaller parties, the presidential election allows them to try to build support before October's parliamentary vote.
The gamble is that Ogorek represents a break with the faces and personalities (like Miller and Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski) who have dominated Polish politics for decades and that she will appeal to younger and disenchanted voters. The pool of those is large – in the 2011 parliamentary elections, only 49% of voters bothered to turn up.
“One thing is certain, the the Alliance, which has to think of the presidential vote in terms of the parliamentary vote and mobilising the electorate for that second election, is risking a lot by putting up such a surprising candidate,” writes columnist Eliza Olczyk in the Rzeczpospolita daily.
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