Can Poland’s ruling party still govern?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

IN SPITE of losing its majority, Poland’s right-wing ruling party is very unlikely to call a snap autumn election.

However, given the precarious parliamentary arithmetic this could change if the situation proves too unstable, and it may call an early spring poll if it can secure the passage of flagship economic reforms.

Mr Gowin leaves the government

Earlier this month, the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – fractured following the dismissal of deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin.

Mr Gowin is leader of the liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) party, Law and Justice’s junior partner in the ‘United Right’ (ZP) coalition, and his sacking was followed by the immediate departure of a group of his closest allies from the governing camp’s parliamentary caucus.

Mr Gowin’s departure is the culmination of months of unrest within the government. The dispute dates back to last summer when he resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election.

On that occasion, ‘Agreement’ remained within the ruling coalition, the election was postponed by a few weeks, and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following an autumn ministerial reshuffle. Nonetheless, Law and Justice remained wary of him, suspecting he had undertaken behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition, and the next few months were characterised by ‘Agreement’ deputies repeatedly contesting and voting against key elements of Law and Justice’s governing programme.

Indeed, some commentators argued that Mr Gowin was a semi-detached member of the government, and it was only a matter of time before he left it formally.

The situation escalated dramatically in August when Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired Anna Kornecka, one of Mr Gowin’s deputy ministers and also an ‘Agreement’ member, after she criticized the ruling party’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) post-pandemic recovery programme, claiming that proposed tax increases would not be limited to higher earners.

Launched in May, the ‘Polish Deal’ includes a wide range of (partly EU-funded) ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards including tax reforms favouring lower and middle-income earners. Law and Justice is hoping that the ‘Polish Deal’ will re-build support for the government and help the party win an unprecedented third term in office.

‘Agreement’ responded to Ms Kornecka’s sacking by placing three conditions on its future membership of the government. These included calls to amend plans to introduce steep increases in health care premiums and tax burdens for small and medium-sized firms, and supplement the ‘Polish Deal’ with new rules to protect local authorities, who they argue could see a substantial drop in funding.

A third condition involved amending a draft media ownership law designed to strengthen the existing ban on companies from outside the European Economic Area (EU states, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) from owning a controlling stake in Polish media firms.

The latter is widely seen as targeting TVN, Poland’s largest private television network which is controlled by the US-based media conglomerate Discovery but formally owned by a Dutch-registered company so that it meets existing Polish rules; which it would not if the new law is passed.

TVN’s news channel TVN24 provides extremely critical coverage of the government from a liberal-left perspective and Law and Justice’s opponents argue that the legislation is intended to silence the independent media; as well as damaging Poland’s image and creating a rift with the USA, the country’s main international security guarantor. Law and Justice, on the other hand, says that the new rules are similar to those in other EU countries and necessary to prevent companies from non-democratic states taking control of Polish media companies, and money launderers and the narco-businesses entering the country’s media sector.

Relying on Mr Kukiz and independents

This ultimatum proved to be the tipping point that led to Mr Gowin’s dismissal. The key question then became: how many of his allies would follow Mr Gowin in leaving the governing camp? There were originally 18 ‘Agreement’ members elected to parliament in autumn 2019 but since then deputies have been peeling away from the group. In February, for example, a pro-Law and Justice faction within ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried (reportedly with the ruling party’s tacit support) unsuccessfully to wrest control of the party from Mr Gowin.

In June Mr Bielan’s supporters formed a breakaway grouping, the Republican Party (Partia Republikańska), which four ‘Agreement’ parliamentarians joined. Although most of the party’s deputies stuck with Mr Gowin, by the time of his departure from the government he was down to a hard core of 11 and only five of these left the ‘United Right’ to form a new ‘Agreement’ parliamentary caucus (together with one previously unaffiliated parliamentarian), while the remainder continued to support the administration.

Nonetheless, the departure of Mr Gowin and his allies reduced the ‘United Right’ caucus from 232 to only 227 deputies out of 460 in total in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of parliament.

This deprived the government of its formal majority and left Law and Justice dependent upon deputies outside of the governing camp to win key votes. There are currently two independents who, although not formally part of the ruling party, normally vote with Law and Justice. The party also has a co-operation agreement with right-wing anti-establishment rock star-turned-politician Paweł Kukiz, who leads the eponymous Kukiz’15 grouping comprising four deputies, and has promised to back the government in key votes; it can normally rely on the support of three of these. Assuming, no further defections, this gives the government a de facto parliamentary majority, albeit a very narrow and unpredictable one.

Law and Justice also hopes to secure support from the 11-strong ‘Confederation’ caucus, an eclectic mix of radical free marketeers and nationalists, in at least some votes; although this is a very unreliable and controversial partner whose strategic objective is to replace the ruling party as Poland’s main conservative grouping by challenging it on its radical right flank.

The first test of the government’s parliamentary strength was a vote on the media law which, as noted above, was one of main bones of contention between Law and Justice and ‘Agreement’. Indeed, the ruling party suffered a shock defeat when the Sejm passed, by 229 votes to 227, an opposition-sponsored procedural motion that would have delayed consideration of the law until September.

However, Kukiz’15 deputies said that they supported the opposition motion by mistake and Law and Justice-nominated Sejm speaker Elżbieta Witek repeated the vote, illegally according to the opposition. The draft media law was then finally voted through with 228 deputies in favour, 216 against and 10 abstentions (including nine ‘Confederation’ deputies).

Is the ‘Polish Deal’ a game-changer?

The parliamentary arithmetic is, therefore, very precarious for Law and Justice and it has clearly taken a huge risk in forcing out Mr Gowin. The ruling party will now have to engage in numerous policy compromises and concessions, as well as using its full arsenal of state appointments and government patronage, to keep Kukiz’15, independents and potential defectors on board.

Law and Justice is particularly vulnerable to losing second-order and procedural votes through pro-government deputies peeling off to demonstrate their independence or simply being absent; especially as many ruling party parliamentarians also have day-to-day ministerial responsibilities. Moreover, to over-turn amendments voted through by the Senate, Poland’s opposition-controlled second chamber, Law and Justice needs an absolute majority of all Sejm deputies present, not just those voting for or against, so any abstentions (by, say, ‘Confederation’ deputies) count as votes against.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice is very unlikely to gamble on an early election (the next one is scheduled for autumn 2023), at least not before next spring. This is partly because a motion to dissolve parliament requires a two-thirds majority so needs opposition support.

An early election can also be called if the government resigns and there are three unsuccessful attempts to secure a vote of confidence in a successor, but this is a potentially lengthy and politically debilitating process that Law and Justice could easily lose control of. There is also a serious risk that the ruling party would lose an early election. Although – according to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys – Law and Justice remains Poland’s most popular party, its poll ratings have fallen from an average of around 40% last summer and now fluctuate around the 30-35% mark, which would leave it short of a parliamentary majority.

Law and Justice is instead hoping that its ‘Polish Deal’ programme will be a political game-changer. Up until now, it has had not had a transformative effect on the ruling party’s polling numbers. But Law and Justice believes that this is because many Poles associate the plan with the tax hikes that are required to help finance it, rather than the package of tax cuts and social spending measures from which a large majority will benefit. A June survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 23% of respondents felt that they would benefit from the proposed tax reforms, 30% thought they would lose, and 31% that the effects would be neutral.

And a key reason for this, Law and Justice feels, has been the criticisms of the programme’s fiscal elements by Mr Gowin and his allies.

This is why the party concluded that losing its formal parliamentary majority was a lesser evil than having a leading government member constantly undermining the ‘Polish Deal’. Law and Justice is hoping that when these reforms are enacted, and most Poles realise that they will benefit from them, this will push up its polling numbers. That is why it is so important for the party to secure the passage of the relevant legislation before the next election is held.

A spring 2022 election?

Whether or not the government really has a stable majority will become clearer when parliament resumes in September. In addition to securing the passage of the main elements of the ‘Polish Deal’, a key test for Law and Justice will be whether it can defend its ministers and other key appointees from parliamentary votes of no-confidence. The first trial of strength here is likely to be an opposition attempt to oust Mrs Witek, following her controversial chairing of the parliamentary session on the draft media law.

If it transpires that the government lacks a reliable majority, there could still be an autumn election. For sure, Polish experience suggests that it is possible for a party to govern for a considerable period of time as a minority administration.

To replace a government an opposition has to secure the passage of a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in favour of a specific alternative prime ministerial candidate. This will be extremely difficult in the current parliament where even a minimal majority for any alternative to Law and Justice would have to encompass an extremely broad range of parties ranging from the radical left to radical right. However, Law and Justice knows how debilitating it will be if it finds itself simply being in office administering but unable to govern effectively. It could then conclude that the only way to break the deadlock is to risk a snap parliamentary poll

In fact, even if Law and Justice finds that it can command a working majority over the next few months, with the parliamentary arithmetic being so uncertain it is still unlikely to let the parliament run its full course. If it can secure the passage of the ‘Polish Deal’ reforms and starts to see its polling support recover, the most likely scenario is probably a spring 2022 election.

Not least because, if Law and Justice can block approval of next year’s state budget, there is a more straightforward constitutional pathway to dissolving parliament at the start of next year that only requires the consent of party-backed President Andrzej Duda.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Polish Politics Blog, and has been shared on Redaction Report at the permission of the author.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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