Can Europe Make It?

Polish prospects in the May 2014 elections

The European elections in Poland will be treated as a test of political parties' national popularity, rather than any belief in Poland's role in Europe. Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Adam J Chmielewski Michał Szczurek
19 February 2014
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The right wing Law and Justice party is expected to do well in the coming EU elections. Demotix/Michal Fludra. Some rights reserved.

Facts

With less than a hundred days to the elections to European Parliament, preparations to select candidates for the next term 2014-2019 are underway in Poland. As one of the few member states, Poland is selecting their Members of the European Parliament not from a national list but within 13 constituencies. The selection of candidates is effectively being made by political parties. Naturally, this fact determines to a large extent the not only the selection of candidates, but also the nature and possible outcome of the elections.

In the European Parliament Poland is currently represented by 50 MEPs, which will rise to 51 in these coming elections. In the present legislature twenty five of them have been elected from the nominees of the ruling Platforma Obywatelska (the Civic Platform). Its successful candidates now belong to the political parliamentary group European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP). The nominees of the Law and Justice won 15 seats; most of them are now members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECRG). The remaining ten seats were divided between nominees of the now non-existent leftist coalition of Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej-Unia Pracy (Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union), which won 7 seats; they have become members of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Three seats have been secured by members of the Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish Peasants’ Party); like their Civic Platform colleagues, they joined the EPP group. It is worth remarking that their party is a part of the now ruling coalition at home.

It needs to be said that the success of the Civic Platform in the 2009 European elections reflected its unequivocal commitment on behalf of a united Europe. The success of its nominees has been a consequence of this party’s consistent support for the strengthening of the European Union, perceived as a civilisational opportunity by citizens eager to improve the standing of their country and their material status. The national support this party enjoyed has been significantly enhanced by the then widely shared, and largely justified, fears of the possibility of a return of an irrational, chaotic and xenophobic domestic rule of the Law and Justice, more than amply demonstrated in the years 2005-2007. Yet it has had another major cause. For most of the Civic Platform candidates to the European Parliament in 2009 were selected with their competences in view, and the choice has been largely adequate. As a result MEPs who owe their seats to the Civic Platform’s nomination are amongst the most hard working parliamentarians, and their activities are both appreciated by their international colleagues and recognized at home.

Undoubtedly the most respected among them is the former prime minister Jerzy Buzek who held the seat of the president of the European Parliament during the first part of the present term. As a professor of chemistry, he focuses his parliamentary activities on the energy market, strongly advocating a low-carbon economy and emphasising the efficient use of non-renewable energy sources rather than abandoning them, which is crucial from the point of view of Polish economy. After all, he hails from the Upper Silesian region in south of Poland, a region famous for its heavy industry and the pollution it generates.

The second most influential Polish MEP is Danuta Hübner, chair of the Committee on the Regional Development. She has been the main architect of the new regional development policy which is to be implemented in the years 2014-2020. The outcome of her activities is vital for Poland and other countries which are beneficiaries of the EU cohesion policy.

Third to be mentioned is Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, former secretary in the Polish government responsible for the accession negotiations before 2004. This experienced diplomat is now focusing on the cooperation with Eastern Partnership countries and playing an important role in the resolution of the recent political crisis in Ukraine.

Among other influential Polish MEPs nominated by the Civic Platform are Jan Olbrycht, working in the Committee on the Regional Development; Róża Thun, involved in efforts toward the harmonization of the internal market of the EU, and Sidonia Jędrzejewska, safeguarding a sufficient level of financing of the EU activities in the Committee on Budgets.

The overall positive image of the MEPs nominated by the Civic Platform does not apply to the MEPs who won their seats following the recommendation of the Law and Justice. A notable exception to this rule, Konrad Szymański, is now serving his second term in the European Parliament; he has been actively involved in the decision making in the fields of the EU energy policy and the cooperation with the Eastern Partnership countries.

As for the remaining members of the Law and Justice, even though they mostly belong to the same group of European Conservatives and Reformists, they cannot be said to form a consistent grouping. This is due to the fact that their nomination to the European Parliament has been more of an act of exile by the despotic chairman of the party Jarosław Kaczyński, rather than an act of delegation to pursue the party’s agenda on this most important European forum. The ample remuneration they receive as MEPs is being treated as a compensation for their side-tracking from the Polish political stage.

In several cases, soon after their electoral success, they dissented from the hard line imposed by Kaczyński, and joined a new party Solidarna Polska which, so far, has failed to attract any significant national support. On the European level they also split from the Conservatives and Reformists political group and joined the eurosceptic, right-wing, Europe of Freedom and Democracy. With little interest and understanding of the European matters, and even smaller competences, they concentrate their attention on Polish politics and are to be seen more frequently in the Polish media than in the parliamentary chambers; in their case the European mandates they hold have been irretrievably wasted.

Undoubtedly the most active MEP among the representation of the Polish left in the European Parliament is Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg. A member of the College of Quaestors of the European Parliament, she is a deputy-chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs, a member of the Committee on Petitions and of the delegation for relations with South Asia; she is also working on women’s rights and gender equality. Adam Gierek, an another MEP of this group, is said to have won his seat due to his being a son of the former communist party leader Edward Gierek who symbolises a period in the most recent history of Poland which a great number of older citizens remember with nostalgia. Wojciech Olejniczak, former leader of the Democratic Left Alliance, has found his place in the European Parliament as a result of the internal struggle for power which he lost to Grzegorz Napieralski.

The MEPs representing the Polish Peasant’s Party failed to distinguish themselves in the workings of the European parliament in any significant way. 

Forecasts

According to the poll published on February 12, 2014, the results of the elections this year may substantially change the composition of the Polish contingent to the European parliament. The poll shows a surprisingly high willingness to take part in the vote; 59 per cent of the voters declare that they will cast their vote on May 25.

More interestingly, according to the poll, the Law and Justice party is supported by 25 per cent of the prospective voters, while only 20 per cent of them wish to support candidates of the Civic Platform. Even more interesting, traditional domination of the Democratic Left Alliance among the social democratic voters may be overcome by a coalition of leftist parties led by two political engines, hastily brought together with the European election in mind. One of these formations is Europa Plus, with Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of the Republic of Poland as its head, and Twój Ruch (which may be translated as Your Move(ment), led by Janusz Palikot, a maverick businessman and a former member of the Civic Platform who assembled around himself disenchanted voters of the leftist inclination. The diverse coalition led by Kwaśniewski and Palikot has been supported by 11 per cent in the poll, while Democratic Left Alliance by 10 per cent of the prospective voters.

The Polish Peasants’ Party may expect to gather about 6 per cent of the vote. The remaining political parties and groupings are supported by less than 5 per cent of the voters. The extreme right xenophobic groupings did not register any support on their behalf.

The numbers cited above call for some comment.

First of all, the willingness to take part in the elections, declared in the quoted poll, is prima facie incompatible with more realistic expectations for the turnout for the European elections. The expected turnout in Poland is disenchantingly low and significantly lower than the European average of 43 per cent. In 2009 it reached barely 24,53 per cent, which was still 4 per cent higher than in the first European elections in 2004, the first elections after Poland’s accession to the EU.

Even though 106 billion euros to be received by Poland within the period of 2014-2020 from the EU budget may be interpreted as an incentive for more Poles to be involved in the European matters, this cannot be seen as a sufficient reason for most of voters to exert themselves on the election day. First of all, most of them believe, even if mistakenly, that they personally did not benefit from the European handouts; secondly, they tend to perceive huge masses of money as an act of the historical justice Poland deserves anyway, thirdly, most of the Poles believe that the European funding is misused and misappropriated by the political and administrative establishment instead of being put to the common good. It seems fair to predict that the actual turnout will reach no more than 30 per cent of 30 million of eligible voters.

Secondly, the poll unavoidably reflects the present support for political parties in Poland rather than a considered popular view as to the role of the country within the European Union. Indeed, the actual electoral support in the European elections will be seen as a measure of popularity of the parties in the run-up to the general national elections in 2015. Accordingly, for this very reason, the European elections are being treated by most of the Polish political parties as a test of their national popular support. That is why the Polish parties tend to treat the elections to the European Parliament more as a sign of their national popularity rather than an opportunity to implement their own European agenda. In other words, the national perception of the electoral outcome will remain for them more important that the outcome itself.

That is why some parties are now selecting candidates who are likely to gain more votes rather than those who would be more fit for the posts of the future MEPs. The Polish public, for example, has been recently dumbfounded by the information that some parties contemplate to nominate former or still active stars of the national show business or, worse, celebrities. There are reasons to believe that these tactics, as in the case of Democratic Left Alliance, will not bring the expected results, for the voting public is not likely to buy this cheap trick. However, good news is that the number of celebrities on voting lists seems to be lower than in the former general elections in 2011. 

Thirdly, there is no denying that the ruling Civic Platform increasingly resembles a lame duck. It has heavily suffered from irreversible political fatigue, quite understandable in view of the fact that the party has ruled the country for nearly two terms. It has also suffered damages to its image due to widely publicised scandals; one of them involved minister Sławomir Nowak who unashamedly displayed a disgustingly expensive watch on his hand, and failed to account for the way it came into his possession. As a result of his inconsistent lies he lost the position of the minister of transport and is now under investigation.

The party also suffered from the internecine wars for power. Such internal struggle for power has been recently fought in the region of Lower Silesia between the present MEP Jacek Protasiewicz and Grzegorz Schetyna, former secretary general of the Civic Platform. Protasiewicz’s victory, widely publicised by the media, brought about an actual weakening of the party both in the region and nationwide. To make the matters worse for themselves, the party declared, rather astonishingly, that it will not nominate any candidates in the constituencies in which their victory is improbable, which evidently is a sign of fear of an electoral loss.

All this gives some probability to the prediction that the Law and Justice nominees will enjoy a greater backing than they did in 2009. This does not mean that the Civic Platform, in its contest for votes with the Law and Justice, should be written off as a definite loser. One has to bear in mind that this party is the only one which treats the European matters with all seriousness they deserve, and will select candidates who would be more likely to win voters’ approval than possible candidates of the Law and Justice which persists in its anti-European, and especially anti-German rhetoric.

Kaczyński’s recently announced criteria for the choice of the candidates, those of “competence and loyalty”, seem mutually exclusive since his party is composed according to the rule of loyalty rather than those of competence. It thus seems that the Law and Justice will be unlikely fully to capitalise on the presently declared and probably ephemeral support. If anything, the Civic Platform may lose some votes to the new party established by its former member and minister Jarosław Gowin.

Finally, one has to address the often raised question as to whether the Polish extreme right wing groupings, which mushroomed in Poland in the past few years, might steal some of the votes from the dominant parties. The quoted poll shows that their recent ominous ubiquity in the public sphere and the media failed to translate itself into any electoral supports. This is explicable by the evident incongruousness, widely felt by the voters, between their radical anti-European agenda and their eagerness to win well-paid seats in the European Parliament in order to overthrow it.

This justifies an overall forecast that the outcome of the Polish elections to the European Parliament will hover somewhere between the rather surprising results of the first pre-electoral polls, and the outcome of the 2009 elections, with the actual support for the Law and Justice nominees exceeding only slightly the level achieved by them in the 2009 elections.

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