Tusk faces backlash from party, populace

MIN READJun 4, 2013 | 21:08 GMT

Sinking in the polls, Prime Minister Donald Tusk is now being openly challenged by members of his own party.

Since taking power in 2007, Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO) party have never been so unpopular. A recent spate of opinion polls show opposition party, the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) now steadily ahead of PO by anything from 3 to 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, a May SMG/KRC survey revealed 58 percent of Poles believe Mr Tusk is a “burnt out” political leader, while only 17 percent see him as the best man available to run Poland.

The opposition PiS ruled between 2005 and 2007 along with a far-right party and a rural-nationalist party. The coalition was known as the “scandal-a-week government” and had a reputation for being backward and petulant. But the fear that PiS could regain power – a tool that Civic Platform and Prime Minister Tusk have used extensively to gain support – has dissipated. While 43 percent of Poles still say they are afraid of PiS returning to power, more than half say they are not.

This is especially true of the young, hit hardest by Poland’s 14 percent unemployment rate. Some two out of three voters between the ages of 18-24 have no qualms with PiS running the country. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński is now backed by more young people than is Prime Minister Tusk.

This must be particularly worrisome for the prime minister, who has always presented PO as the party of the young: forward-looking and modernist, in contrast to PiS’s image as a throwback to the pre-World War II era of nationalism and romantic ideology.

Back to their roots

Mr Tusk also has to deal with his former justice minister and current rival, Jarosław Gowin. Mr Gowin, regarded as the leader of a strongly conservative faction within PO, was dismissed from his post in April and has hardly been quiet since.

Last week, he held a press conference with John Godson, another conservative PO MP, urging reform within the ruling party in view of upcoming internal elections. This summer, PO’s 40,000-plus members will decide whether to keep Mr Tusk as party leader or to dump him.

Mr Gowin, who is expected to run against the PM, said he is “not fighting for the party’s leadership but its identity, soul and program.” He then castigated his party colleagues saying PO needs to “go back to its roots.”

“Let’s once again be an [economically] liberal, [socially] conservative, republican party of great hope and serious reform,” said Mr Gowin. “Our roots were steeped in removing the barriers blocking Poles, and in common sense regarding family issues and social values,” he added. The former justice minister also sent an open letter to PO members in which he accused them of “arrogance, thinking solely along party lines” and the “morally doubtful exploitation of the privileges of power.”

Mr Gowin likewise took his party to task on its economic policies. “We were supposed to be the party of low taxes, but we increased VAT, increased custom duties, froze the level of tax-free income and increased social security contributions for the disabled,” said Mr Gowin.

“Many say these actions were necessary because of the crisis, but the Swedes managed to decrease taxes despite the crisis,” he added. He also criticized his party for increasing bureaucracy and being slow to pass legislation making it easier for firms to exploit Poland’s shale gas reserves.

Mr Godson concurred with Mr Gowin in his assessment of PO. “The PO I see today is different from the one I joined 10 years ago. We were chosen to serve and not to be barons drinking wine and smoking cigars,” Mr Godson said.

Mr Godson later told WBJ that “PO needs to focus on the major needs of society, power is about serving. We should return to our roots.” He has not ruled out exiting the ruling party altogether.

The prime minister, meanwhile, dismissed Mr Gowin’s letter, saying the former minister-turned-critic must have started his campaign for party leader, but “seems to be running for the leadership of another party, and not Civic Platform.”

Nevertheless, Mr Gowin is right that PO was established a decade ago as an economically liberal, but socially conservative party. But since then, two of PO’s other founders (Donald Tusk being the third) have been eased out of the party, which has now shifted ground somewhat to the center on social issues. Mr Gowin and Mr Godson oppose this move.

One of PO’s founders, former Finance Minister Andrzej Olechowski, told news station TVN24 that he agreed with Mr Gowin. “When can one open a discussion in PO if not during an internal election? At other times, it is just not possible,” he said.

The good days are over

The ruling party’s MPs habitually complain of being sidelined by Mr Tusk in both government and party affairs. Resentment towards the PM has thus been growing steadily in his party, the difference being that his position has now weakened sufficiently enough to embolden his critics.

As for public opinion, there are several reasons for the ruling party’s present slump.

Poland’s economy grew a mere 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Unemployment is high, at 14 percent. Educational reforms meant to encourage parents to send their kids to school at 6 instead of 7 have been bungled and widely criticized. Some parents are now collecting signatures to force a referendum on the issue.

PO’s popularity has always been greatest in the big cities, especially in its stronghold, the capital Warsaw.

The capital is governed by Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz of PO, but Varsovians are growing increasingly exasperated with the slow pace of construction on the city’s second subway line and the transportation nightmare that involves. Many of Warsaw’s streets are blocked due to construction work and the delivery date for the line has been delayed from September this year to autumn 2014.

The government has also seemed overly self-assured at times, assuming that Poland’s middle-class pragmatists will always back it on election day, given the alternative: PiS and its erratic, bellicose leader Jarosław Kaczyński who calls Poland under Donald Tusk “a Russian-German condominium.”

All these factors have combined to seriously dent the popularity of the PM and his party.

Possible scenarios

So what happens next?

“If in subsequent polls, PO’s support continues slipping and drops to 15 percent, then there is a possibility the party could disintegrate,” said Sergiusz Trzeciak, an independent political consultant and lecturer at Collegium Civitas. “Donald Tusk could still win the leadership battle and keep power for a few months longer – but what then?”

“A lot depends on whether PO’s deputy leader Grzegorz Schetyna decides to run against Tusk or for example, backs Gowin,” he added.

Mr Trzeciak said another possible scenario could be Mr Gowin quitting the party with 15-20 MPs and then “striking a political deal with PiS.” This would force snap elections, as the ruling coalition has a razor-thin majority in parliament.

Mr Trzeciak said that up till now, one of Mr Tusk’s greatest strengths was that Poland’s economy was still doing much better than others in Europe. “However, he cannot use this argument any more. His public promises are not credible any more, people believe he is simply repeating the same old tricks, he has lost his credibility,” he said.

What do markets think?

Regarding possible economic consequences of the current political situation, Przemysław Kwiecień, chief economist at X-Trade Brokers, a large Warsaw-based brokerage, said that right now, markets are “not paying much attention to what is going on in Polish politics.”

Mr Kwiecień said markets appreciate the fact that Mr Tusk’s government has made efforts to “trim down the country’s borrowing needs even though they sometimes used questionable methods, such as seizing the assets of private pension funds.”

However, he said, if PO were to find itself in so much trouble that snap elections are called, and it seemed like a party inclined to reverse the deficit-cutting trend and increase spending could likely win power, then “a negative market reaction could be expected.”

One of Poland’s greatest assets in recent years has been its political stability, no more a given in today’s troubled Europe. That stability has been guaranteed by the current coalition government, which has by and large functioned smoothly so far. It would be a pity for Poland to lose that competitive advantage.

However, that stability has come at the price of a lack of bold action. In a recent interview with WBJ, Leszek Balcerowicz, the chief architect of Poland’s economic transformation, called for urgent reform to tackle youth unemployment, housing problems, productivity and a shortage of private investment in Poland.

Don’t waste those skills

But it would be unfair to say Mr Tusk has done nothing to tackle important issues. Last week, the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, passed legislation extending the period of paid parental leave from 24 to 52 weeks in an effort to tackle Poland’s looming demographic crisis.

Time will tell if this particular measure is effective, but on the other urgent issues, one can point to few tangible efforts on the part of the government.

Donald Tusk was the first prime minister to win back-to-back elections in Poland’s post-communist history. He is still easily the most skillful player on the political scene. But after six years of lax governing, it is time Mr Tusk employ his considerable talents in reforming Poland and making it more competitive, and not just in winning elections.

And for Poland’s sake, let us hope that Mr Tusk is not indeed burnt out.

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