EU elections: Polish opposition prepares for battle

File photo. People hold placards 'Constitution' during their protest in front of the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland, 11 October 2018. Members and supporters of Polish opposition parties, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy and Citizens of Poland protested against changes in the judicial law and the Supreme Court. [Jakub Kaminski/EPA/EFE]

Opinion polls since Poland’s local and regional elections in October and November 2018 have consistently put the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) in the lead with between 30% and 40%, depending on methodology. The largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO), led by Grzegorz Schetyna, is at 22%.

Piotr Kaczynski, formerly a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels in 2007-2012, explains the Polish political life in his blog 2019EUelectionsPoland.com.

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Who’s strong, who’s not

The last vote and the opinion polls since then have been consistent: the PO is the biggest opposition force, but not the only one out there. If PO runs alone in the European elections in May, they could lose.

.N (.Nowoczesna), a party once polling better numbers than the PO, is today almost non-existent. There are still liberal MPs in the Sejm, but there is no future for the party if it goes alone.

It constitutes, however, an important ‘added value’ to the Civic Platform. PO’s 22% and .N’s 2% are slightly lower than the 26% a joint coalition of those two parties usually commands in the polls. But the two have been fighting since seven Nowoczesna MPs moved to the PO.

Then there are two once-mighty parties, the agrarian PSL and SLD.

In the fall of 2018, PiS ran a major campaign aimed at eradicating PSL support in rural Poland. The PiS failed, but the PSL were still weakened. In 2014, PSL had almost 24% of all members of the sejmiks’ (regional council members). In 2018, this was halved to 12%.

PSL leader, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz still holds the key for the fate of the future coalition in the European elections. PSL should take a decision in the upcoming days or weeks. WKK said in December: “We are ready to go alone”, but left the door open to talk with other partners, too.

WKK remains personally popular. In a recent poll, he was the most popular opposition leader: 26% of the public favoured him as future prime minister while only 10% chose PO’s Schetyna.

With PSL, the PO-N can ‘take on’ the PiS leadership in the opinion polls. Should SLD join the pack, in what PiS politicians like to call the Total Opposition, it could turn into a winning force.

The SLD is a post-communist left, now fighting for survival. The party failed to enter the Sejm in 2015, elected MEPs into the European Parliament in 2014, and now faces a stiff challenge from the new party led by Robert Biedroń. They may be forced into a coalition with the PO and others to stay relevant.

Do they differ?

What unites them is their belief that the PiS government has been destructive for the country. What divides them is everything else.

PO is a centre-right party with a free-market perspective and is respectful of the relationship the state has with the Catholic Church. PO is most popular among the wealthier, urban and educated population. .N is a liberal party, sharing many of the features of the PO electorate, but with more focus on equality issues.

The PSL is a party of the farmers, while the SLD has shrunk to represent certain parts of the society closer to the military and the former members of the Communist Party (PZPR).

The buzz of the unknown

When Biedroń, a former MP (2011-2014) for the liberal party, and a former gay rights activist, ran for the mayorship of Słupsk, experts and political parties did not give him much chance.

When he won in 2014, he gained respect among the Polish left-wingers. His popularity has been driven by a celebrity status which few Polish politicians enjoy. Two years ago, when pollsters started canvassing people about who could or should be Poland’s next head of state in 2020, Biedroń got 26-33%. Today he says he wants to be Poland’s prime minister.

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Biedroń will not go with the opposition, he first needs to see how strong he is. The European elections will be indicative. He quotes Macron, and is equally critical of PiS, PO and the Catholic Church.

When Macron was looking for new partners around Europe, Biedroń’s name came up. But trans-European coalitions have not been formed. Before his party joins ALDE, the Greens or any other group, it first needs to prove worthy of the public vote.

The structure, money and the buzz seem to be there. But the recent experience of parties created on the basis of their leader’s popularity – Palikot, Kukiz and Petru (Modern) – is that they tend to be short-lived.

The absent…

…is Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. His mandate ends in December. His popularity among the opposition is massive, but he cannot run, or lead the opposition because of his European functions.

However, he has dropped a few hints. In December, rumours spread through Warsaw that there is a secret deal between Tusk and Schetyna. Apparently one of the options is for Tusk to finish his European term three months earlier, in time for the Sejm elections.

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