Analysis: cohabitation Polish style

Opinion polls indicate that the presidential election will not be decided in the first round of voting. It is highly likely that a second round will be held and could be won by an opposition candidate. It will not be the first time cohabitation between a president from one side of the political divide and a government from another has taken place in Poland.

The President in Poland does not control the government but he can get in its way. He can veto all legislation with the exception of the state budget and for that veto to be overturned the ruling party would have to obtain a majority of three-fifths which it does not have. The President can, with the support of the opposition controlled Senate, initiate national referenda on specific legislative projects. And the head of state makes important judicial, military and diplomatic (he approves all ambassadors) appointments.

The race for the Presidential Palace tightens

The fact that the election race is getting tighter was to be expected. As the pandemic abates people have become more interested in their future economic well-being and everyday political life. The government is therefore under pressure to reassure people on the economy and that the health service can cope with the backlog of treatments and operations caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Ruling parties in Poland lose power due to scandals, splits and the failure to meet people’s expectations. The present ruling block has been successful in delivering on its promises, but that does not mean that the expectations are not now greater than the sum of those delivered promises. Moreover, divisions have begun to emerge within the ruling block, as evidenced by the spat over the election date. And every government in recent years has faced accusations of cronyism, nepotism and corrupt practices.

This is why the re-election of the incumbent President Andrzej Duda is not a done deal. The result will depend on how motivated the supporters of both sides will be and how the two sides can persuade the undecided voters to swing their way.

We have been there before

Leaving aside the turbulent first years after Poland regained its independence in 1989 and Lech Wałęsa won the presidency in 1990, there have been two periods of cohabitation in Polish democratic politics since. The first was between 1997 and 2001 during President Kwaśniewski’s reign and the second took place between 2007 and 2010 during the presidency of Lech Kaczyński.

President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, supported by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) had to share power with a government of the right and the centre (AWS and UW) that was elected in 1997 until that government was defeated in 2001. It was a period in which cohabitation worked reasonably smoothly as there was consensus between the left and most of the right in Polish politics over Poland becoming a member of NATO and in preparing its application to join the EU.

Personal relations between the AWS PM Jerzy Buzek and the President remained civil throughout. However, this did not mean that all was sweetness and light. The President vetoed legislation on removing pension rights from former officers of the communist secret police, legislation on restitution of private property and tax reform that would have paved the way for the introduction of a flat tax. But he approved, against appeals from the SLD, a controversial local government reform that reduced the number of provinces from 49 to 16.

The second period of cohabitation was between 1997 and 2000 and was much more turbulent. President Kaczyński was a co-founder of the Law and Justice (PiS) and Donald Tusk, who became PM after the early parliamentary elections, was the leader of the Civic Platform (PO). While personally they were capable of getting on, their parties were by 1997 in deep conflict.

The President and the government clashed the most over foreign policy. President Kaczyński and the PM fought over who should represent Poland at EU summits and about relations with Russia. That disagreement over the policy towards Russia led to there being two visits to honour the Katyn dead in April 2010, with the presidential one ending with the tragic air crash.

An additional factor during that period was the way President Kaczyński was attacked in the media. This was something new in Polish politics. Until then both presidents Wałęsa and Kwaśniewski had been afforded considerable respect in the media as heads of state. That was not upheld during President Kaczyński’s reign, nor since. As Polish politics became more polarised so have the media, local government, the judiciary and many other walks of life too. Cohabitation today would mean turbulence

As the polls tighten, ahead of the election that has to take place in the next few weeks, the spectre of cohabitation looms again. The polarisation of Polish politics that has intensified since 2010 would be likely to make that cohabitation very difficult for the Polish state as a whole.

The constitution gives the president the right to be consulted on all foreign and defence policy issues. He could return to the dispute that took place during the Lech Kaczyński presidency and attempt to represent Poland in the European Council.

Since the ruling PiS and the PO, whose Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski is shaping up to be the main challenger to the incumbent President Andrzej Duda, are in serious conflict over the EU and other foreign policy issues this could weaken Poland’s ability to punch its weight at the international level. Theoretically the President would be legally bound to accept government foreign policy, but would he in practice? Or would he choose to vote differently to the government’s line in European Council meetings on issues such as Hungary being sanctioned under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty or for EU funds to be tied to observance of the rule of law and/or for EU funds to be distributed directly through local authorities by-passing central government?

It would also be difficult to envisage a president from the opposition being as keen on international cooperation within the framework of the Visegrad four and the Three Seas Initiative as has been the incumbent. Rafał Trzaskowski has already gone on record arguing that he believes the Weimar Triangle of Poland, France and Germany to be more important.

The fact that the President and the opposition were from one side of the political spectrum could also be weaponised. The President, with Senate’s approval, could initiate national referenda on his election promises such as raising health spending to 6 percent of GDP and legislation on major reform of public media. Theoretically he could also call such referenda on controversial issues such as abortion and civil partnerships for same sex couples, but that he would probably avoid so as not to be accused of being partisan.

One area in which a president from the opposition would come under great pressure from his own side would be judicial reform. Mr Trzaskowski has already said that, if elected, he would question both the appointments of Małgorzata Manowska as chief justice of the Supreme Court and the appointment of Julia Przyłębska as head of the constitutional court. But in order for that challenge to be effective he would have to have the support of the European Court of Justice to the inevitable challenge that would come from the present government.

Cohabitation therefore is likely to lead to substantial turbulence. Turbulence that could last for three years, since the Parliamentary elections are due in October 2023 and the President cannot dismiss a government or its individual ministers. But Poland is a country that is used to political, international and economic turbulence that its place on the geopolitical map makes it susceptible to.