A Leading Force

Photo: Peter Župník

Platforma Obywatelska [PO, the Civic Platform] has been in power for 16 months. It has avoided major blunders but also major successes. Perhaps it is for the best: it is terrifying to think what might have happened if the government had managed to push its election promises through Parliament during the months following the election and if the global crisis had hit us at the early, painful stages of reforms, and well before their benefits (if any) had been felt.

In the course of these 16 months the PO came up with a number of ideas, decisions and omissions that have managed to antagonize, to varying degrees, a wide range of target groups: doctors and nurses, customs officials, trade unionists, feminists, teachers, would-be early retirees, parents of six-year olds, dockyard workers, scientists, the armaments industry, market fundamentalists, Catholic traditionalists, the armed forces, even some employers. Just like the previous right of centre AWS-UW government, the PO-PSL [Polish People’s Party] coalition was quick to get into conflict with the very groups that comprised its electoral backbone. None of these conflicts may have been very heated, yet each of them involved a vital section of the active electorate.

Common sense suggests that the popularity of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the ruling coalition ought to be waning rapidly, and that the opposition parties ought to be growing in strength. Yet surveys show that no such thing is happening.

Apart from minor swings, opinion polls carried out by various institutions show relatively solid support for the PO. The opposition has attempted a variety of manoeuvres: it has changed its image, hairstyles, faces, poetics, clothes, rhetoric, programmes, alliances, target groups and travel routes around the country. The coalition has argued and negotiated, announced a range of new projects, only to drop them again, it has succeeded here and failed there, and in Olsztyn it has even been fighting with itself. Something seems to be happening all the time, new fronts are being opened and closed, every day someone wins and someone else loses but the balance of political forces among the four main parties PO – PiS [Right and Justice] – SLD [People’s Democratic Party] – PSL oscillates within a very narrow bandwidth.

However badly the opposition is doing and however badly the coalition is doing, nothing seems to stick to the PO. For the PO’s wide embrace includes a whole range of political attitudes, from the integrationist Gowin to the libertarian Palikot, from the mildly liberal Boni to the market fundamentalist Chlebowski, from the extremely exiguous Czuma to the always moderate Komorowski….

By cleverly positioning itself at the centre of the political scene and by building ingenious bridges between the enormous spread of its branches, the PO has left little space and oxygen for any of the other parties, particularly as they don’t seem to know what they are about. The SLD cannot decide what it means to be left-wing today, while the PiS has fallen into total, automatic opposition, throwing tantrums for the most trivial of reasons and hysterically rejecting anything the PO says, even if it means condemning their own ideas from 18 months earlier.  

Anyone who was not an apparatchik under the previous regime, is not a radical trade unionist, extreme traditionalist or a xenophobe, and who wishes to support a party that has a chance of getting into the Seym, will have great difficulty in finding their positions represented outside of the PO. Real opposition – coherent, sharply defined, with a consistent and transparent programme, such as the LPR [the League of Polish Families] on the right and the SDPL [Social Democratic Party of Poland] on the left – is either extra-parliamentary or stands almost no chance of entering the next Parliament, or both. Moreover, there is no indication that this situation is likely to change. One year ago the Platform won the election because the electorate saw it as the main anti-PiS party. These days the PO dominates the scene because nobody has managed to offer a sensible alternative.

Anchored in the centre 

However, even if the PiS or the SLD should come up with alternative programmes and sensible visions for Poland, just now it does not seem likely that Polish society would be convinced. For the Poles the recent governments led by the PiS (2005-2007) and the SLD (2001-2005) are still fresh in the memory. Too fresh to believe the dovelike smiles of the PiS Chairman Kaczy?ski (who, nevertheless, stubbornly promotes [the hawkish] politician Antoni Macierewicz and people supported by [the fundamentalist Catholic] Radio Maryja or the left-wing statements by SLD Chairman Napieralski (who tried to include [former SLD Prime Minister] Leszek Miller on the European Parliament electoral list).

At the moment, there is apparently no viable alternative to the Civic Platform as Poland’s ruling party. And we’re not just talking about the current Parliament but rather the next one, perhaps even the one after that. Yes, I know, this is what some commentators have already said once before, especially following the SLD landslide victory in 2001, when all the other parties were in a state of collapse. And, to a lesser degree, they said so after the triumph of AWS [the Solidarity Election Action, a now defunct right-wing party] in 1997. However, those were different situations. The SLD did not manage the shift from the left to the centre although Leszek Miller did try this manoeuvre by flirting with the neoliberals and neoconservatives. The AWS, in its turn, not only did not manage to position itself in the centre (which was occupied by Unia Wolno?ci [The Freedom Union]) but was unable to create a united right-wing front.

Unlike its predecessors, the Platform, as ruling party, has anchored itself firmly in the centre while at the same time retaining a strong position on the moderate right and successfully spreading its tentacles left of the centre. If we were to look for analogies, we would probably have to look at the experience of Britain where the development of political PR and an erosion of the two-party system resulted in long-term periods of domination by the Conservative Party (1979-1997) followed by the Labour party (1997 till now). The situation was similar in Germany where the Social Democrats held power continuously from 1969 until 1982.

However, the PO is in a more comfortable position because, by expanding equally to the left and right of centre, it has forced its rivals to choose between meaningless moderation and an obviously marginal radicalism. Having been pushed out of the centre that is occupied by the PO, its rivals have little room for manoeuvre and each of them has to watch their flank. On the right flank, the PiS is bogged down in a continuous war with Roman Giertych, Marek Jurek and Father Rydzyk [of Radio Maryja]. The SLD meanwhile cannot afford to allow the creation of a strong, sharply defined left that is trying to emerge somewhere between the growing Krytyka Polityczna [Political Critique] and SDPL.

As a result, the domination by the PO seems to be permanently entrenched. This certainly applies to the parliamentary election cycle. Its rivals are increasingly aware of this, as are the Platform’s politicians. And this, in turn, has started to profoundly change the fabric of Polish politics.

This situation puts Donald Tusk – party leader, Prime Minister and candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections – in a very comfortable position, at least in the short term. Above all, the Prime Minister can feel certain that no member of his crew will jump overboard. For there is nothing on the far side of the deck. The PO is like a boat anchored in dry docks. Anyone wishing to escape will perish, smashed up on the hard concrete surface of the political system. There is little danger of the M.P. Jarosťaw Gowin taking offence and leaving the party, should the parliamentary club reject his bioethical projects, or of Jacek Saryusz-Wolski slamming the party door if Danuta Hübner were offered a prestigious place on the electoral list in his stead and Jerzy Buzek landed a prestigious post in Brussels. And [the enfant terrible of Polish politics] Janusz Palikot is also more likely to suffer further reprimands humbly and promise to behave, even if he has no intention of doing so.

This unchallenged domination enables Tusk to control the situation in the rival parties as well. He has just lured away from the SLD two key candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections. He has bought W?odzimierz Cimoszewicz by supporting his candidacy for the post of Secretary of the Council of Europe. He acquired Danuta Hübner in exchange for a place on the European Parliament list. Tusk does not have to worry that his numerous voters and friends will not like it. What can they do apart from frowning quietly? And Hübner and Cimoszewicz are booty worth a sin. There are no other personalities around, so the Prime Minister can be sure that the Left will put up at least two candidates. And that will mean that the only real challenger will be Lech Kaczy?ski – who no longer stands a chance of winning, and thus Donald Tusk may win in the first round.

In the same way, the PO can afford to allow public debate of controversial issues such as euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and abortion. Even if Tusk’s contribution to the debate is somewhat bland and does not satisfy anyone, those who are dissatisfied cannot drop his party because they have nowhere else to go. This applies not only to politicians but also to voters. So what if the band of those disappointed in the Prime Minister, the government and the Platform keeps growing? They are not likely to switch to the PiS. And they are equally unlikely to start supporting Napieralski’s SLD. They might grumble, they might even be angry with the PO for nominating Anna Fotyga [Foreign Minister under the PiS government] as Poland’s Ambassador to the UN, they might fume about the government’s anti-crisis policies and all its other blunders but – as [commentator] Seweryn Blumsztajn said on his radio show – they keep repeating that as long as the PiS is still strong heavy-handed criticism of the government is not advisable, even if particular actions by individual PO politicians can be criticized.

Weakness in diversity? 

With the PiS lurking around the corner Tusk’s Platform feels like a column of settlers surrounded by bloodthirsty Indians. Everyone knows that if they let themselves be split up they can say goodbye to their scalps. However, this does not mean that the Poles do not have any de facto political options. However, the genuine alternatives, the arguments that can have real influence on life, the credible, substantive political differences are to be found within the ruling Platform rather than between it and its rivals. And this, too, has created a new situation, as yet unfamiliar on the Polish political scene.

An essential aspect of this new situation is a growing awareness among all interest groups (from the feminists and pro-life activists, trade unions, employers, professional and ideological lobbies to shady wheeler-dealers) that the only way to get anything out of this government, to influence legislation, policies, state economic policies, is to find someone within the ruling party who will represent their interests. The wide spread of the Platform would seem to be ideally suited to this. However, with increasing tensions caused by disparate interests, the broad representation which currently enables the party to maintain widespread support will become the source of growing pressure, scandals and internal rifts that could drive it to the point of disintegration.

In the short run, it might be possible to contain, for example, the controversy over bio-ethical issues within the Platform so that practically every position is represented within the ruling party. Similarly, the debate on fighting the crisis may one day follow the monetary logic of Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski, and the next day the more interventionist sympathies of Secretary of State Micha? Boni. It is possible to announce budget cuts one day, and tax increases the next. It is possible to feed the left in the morning and the right in the evening, or the other way around. However, sooner or later some decisions will have to be taken.

Tensions will grow even if they are not reflected in opinion polls for some time to come. Increasingly, they will paralyse decision-making processes (for example, those relating to the current economic crisis), impose dysfunctional, rotten compromises (as in the case of the missile shield) and push the government into seeking absurd quid pro quo solutions (nominating Fotyga to the UN Ambassadorship to please some, and Cimoszewicz to the Council of Europe to appease others).

Spread-eagled across much of the political scene, PO will thus increasingly come to resemble the single party rule of the previous regime, when factions used to play the role of pluralist representation of diverse points of view, factional wars replaced political debate and political decisions depended on who happened to have better access to the leader’s ear. Such a situation is not conducive to rational politics.

The fate of the Prime Minister 

Pleasant as it may be for the government to be treated with generosity or calculated tolerance by the greater part of the political milieu, it could also be dangerous. A government can be lulled into a sense of false security, which can even deprive it of its instinct of self-preservation The recent defeat of the PO’s candidate in the Olsztyn mayoral elections demonstrates that this process is already under way. Convinced that victory was in its pocket, the overconfident Platform put up a candidate who had little local support, thus engineering its own defeat.

Another danger for the government lurks in the inevitable attracting of parasites, which are drawn to all governments but especially to long-enduring ones. The Platform has not been and will not be an exception. If Donald Tusk is not careful in this matter, he will end up just like his predecessor Leszek Miller.

A sense of security also induces the kind of tactical thinking that is dangerous in the long run. Since we face no immediate threats, sometimes we can ease up for the sake of some peace and quiet. We don’t have to try particularly hard. We think we can get away with the odd mistake. After all, nobody will switch allegiance to the PiS just because, for example, the Prime Minister played football instead of voting in the Seym, or went skiing instead of developing plans to combat the financial crisis, or even because he brutally fired a good justice minister in an emotional fit and brought in someone as objectionable as Andrzej Czuma.

However, impunity is an illusion. Even if the PO government’s mistakes and its MPs’ excesses have not yet cost it any votes, someone will have to pay for them. And opinion polls already show who it is. While support for the Platform remains steady, the same cannot be said for its leader. Donald Tusk’s political position is weakening not only in absolute terms but also in comparison with other PO leaders.

During his year in office Donald Tusk not only stopped being the most popular member of his government (being overtaken by Radosťaw Sikorski in January) but was also the only PO leader whose net popularity (i.e. the difference between those who trust him and those who don’t) decreased over the past year – by a third. In the same period other PO leaders’ popularity increased substantially. In this respect, too, the situation is reminiscent of the previous regime. When it is impossible or difficult to change the ruling party, it is the leader who attracts most blame. Under communism the Polish authorities coined the slogan Socialism yes – distortion no; its equivalent under a democratic system of a dominant single party would be the slogan Party yes – leader no. It is therefore not out of the question that Donald Tusk will share the fate of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Willy Brandt and many other leaders of dominant parties who had to depart the scene even though their parties did not lose public support and power.

If a single party stays in power for too long the country may benefit more than the party itself, since one parliamentary term is usually not enough to carry out coherent and consistent reforms. Parties that hand over power after four years usually leave office having completed at most half of their projects. And their successors usually do not complete it either. We experienced this most painfully when Buzek’s and Balcerowicz’s government was forced out before it had a chance to complete four major reforms. The imperative of their completion still haunts us in the form of the disasters hanging over Poland in the area of social security, health system, education and local government. It is, however, impossible to tell if these reforms were any good because nobody knows what their effect would have been had they been completed.

The fate of the party 

In this respect a long-term dominant position puts the Platform under the obligation of treading particularly firmly. If the Platform hands over power in seven or eleven years it won’t be able to blame anything on lack of time, useless coalition partners, a malicious president or obstruction by opposition parties. Everything that will happen in Poland at that time will be the PO’s credit or fault.

The experience of the British Conservatives and German Social Democrats demonstrates that the longer the system of one dominant party survives the more painful is its eventual decline. However, as painful declines go, it was the centrist Christian Democratic Party in Italy that experienced the worst. After dominating the country for nearly half a century it dissolved itself in 1993 as a result of massive scandals. When the system broke down the party leaders’ careers ended in court or in political retirement. Only very few managed to pass unscathed through the sieve of the uncompromising judge di Pietro.

In democracy a dominant single party can rule for a long time – but not forever. That much is obvious. However, it is less obvious what it will leave behind. The Italian case demonstrates that it is not so much the rule by a dominant party that poses the greatest threat but rather the subsequent rise to power of its marginalized, fragmented successors who grow increasingly radicalized and who have lost all sense of responsibility. In this respect the PO, as the dominant party, bears a particular responsibility, not only in relation to what it does or does not do but also as to how its policies will affect the evolution of the political scene. Its lasting legacy will depend on what happens to their decisions when someone else takes power in Poland – sooner or later.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Polityka on 16 March 2009.