The fight for Poland's left

By bne IntelliNews February 21, 2014

Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw -

Poland's elections for the European Parliament, scheduled for May 25, will above all be a contest between the ruling centre-right Civic Platform and the conservative Law and Justice. However, another rivalry is being played out on the left - between the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and Your Movement (Twój Ruch) - which could have big repercussions for the 2015 parliamentary elections.

"The European Parliament elections could decide on the hegemony on the left," Joanna Sawicka, a political analyst at Polityka Insight, a Polish think-tank, tells bne. "If [Your Movement] fails to cross the electoral threshold, it could cast doubt on its future."

The SLD is no newcomer to Polish politics; it originated as a social-democratic alliance in 1991. Its current leader, Leszek Miller, who was re-elected to the post in December 2011, is also a veteran of left-wing politics, with a career dating back to the Communist Party (PZPR). Over the last two decades Miller has held many positions, including prime minister in 2001-2004, and experienced many ups and downs. Further revelations in the Washington Post in January regarding a secret CIA prison built on Polish territory in 2003, when Miller was prime minister, appear so far to have left him unscathed.

Your Movement, the younger of the two, was founded in 2011 by Janusz Palikot, a former Civic Platform politician known for his outspoken liberal and anti-clerical views. Initially called Palikot's Movement, the party changed its name to the apparently more inclusive Your Movement in October.

The SLD has been leading on the left for two years, after a low point following the 2011 parliamentary elections when the party won a mere 8.2% of the vote. (In the same election, Palikot's party finished with 10%). Since early 2012, its ratings have been in the 8-12% range, while Your Movement's have hovered around 2-6%. Yet a TNS Polska poll for TVP's "Wiadomości" news programme, published on February 12, put Your Movement one percentage point ahead of the SLD (11% and 10% respectively). Although further polls will be needed to verify this surprising result, it suggests that SLD's dominance is not carved in stone.

In this context, the elections to the European Parliament will be a test for both parties. SLD will be trying to win as many MEPs as possible; last time round, it won 12.3% of the vote, which gave it seven MEPs. For Palikot's party, the focus will be on crossing the electoral threshold of 5%.

Your Movement will be running as part of Europa Plus, an alliance of left-wing groupings set up in February 2013 by Palikot and others specifically for the European Parliament elections. It is presenting itself as a pro-European party, with the slogan "More Europe on the banks of the Vistula," a reference to Poland's main river. Yet the name of the alliance - and whether the words "Twój Ruch" should feature in it - has already proved contentious. Moreover, the role of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Poland's president in 1995-2005, is ambiguous. The former SLD politician was one of the founders of the Europa Plus alliance, yet he will not be running for the European Parliament himself.

Miller did not join the Europa Plus alliance because he was counting on marginalising Palikot ahead of the parliamentary elections, when he hopes to form a coalition with the Civic Platform, says Sawicka. "So far the polls suggest that this strategy could work."

The real deal

The European elections are of course a warm-up to the real race, which will be the parliamentary elections set for late 2015. Polls indicate these will be won by either Civic Platform or Law and Justice - yet neither of these may have enough seats to govern alone. This is where the SLD, currently third in most polls, could come in - as long as it maintains its dominance over Your Movement.

A coalition between SLD and Law and Justice is difficult to imagine - as Miller himself has said. "We would have to recognise that the Polish president [Lech Kaczynski] was murdered in Smolensk; that it was a terrorist attack, not a plane crash," he said in an interview with Rzeczpospolita published February 13, referring to the party's obsession with the conspiracy theory that the Russians somehow were involved in the fatal air crash that killed the president, the twin brother of the Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Miller went on to cite other differences, but admitted that there are people within his party who wouldn't turn down the chance to form a coalition with Law and Justice.

An SLD coalition with Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform is more plausible, if Tusk's party can overturn the polls and beat Law and Justice. But the SLD seems to be hoping that Civic Platform will see it as a more equal partner and, according to Sawicka, it changed its strategy toward the ruling party last autumn. "Miller began attacking the Civic Platform and Tusk, hoping to attract voters away from the weakened ruling party," she says.

A December poll by Millward Brown conducted on behalf of TVN Fakty, a news programme, would seem to support the idea of change in the relationship between the two parties. Asked whether Tusk or Miller would make a better prime minister if the Civic Platform were to form a coalition with SLD, 43% of respondents plumped for Miller, with only 31% choosing the current prime minister.

In the meantime, Miller flew off to Sochi on February 12 for the Winter Olympics, which neither Tusk nor Poland's president, Bronisław Komorowski, are attending. "Politics shouldn't be connected to sport," he told the Polish press before his departure, adding that calls to boycott the Olympics are a relic of the Cold War.

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