Analysis: jockeying for position in ruling camp

The elections are over and Poland faces three years without any major electoral contest. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and its allies must now decide how to consume the fruits of victory.

The election marathon of holding local government, European, Parliamentary and presidential polls in the space of 18 months was completed in July with Andrzej Duda’s victory. The parties that are grouped under the Law and Justice-United Right umbrella: Law and Justice (PiS), Agreement, led by former Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin, and Solidarity Poland, led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, can now look forward to three years of governing without the pressure of imminent elections.

But all is not sweetness and light in the ruling camp. The Presidential election’s second round was a close run thing and there are different interpretations of why this was so.

The one coming from the liberal wing Agreement is that the ruling block has lost support among the young and urban voters because of the emphasis on social transfers and insufficient attention having been paid to small business and issues such as housing and health care. On the other side is Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidarity Poland who argue that the party was insufficiently bold on defending conservative values and national economic interests.

It is in this framework that the move by Minister Ziobro to attempt de-ratification of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women should be seen. This was a convention that was always criticised on the right in PiS and among more radical groupings of the right such as Confederation. This is because of the convention’s assertions on the church and traditional family as being factors which contribute to the problem of violence in the home and against women and because the convention defines gender as a social and cultural rather than biological phenomenon.

But Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has kicked the issue into touch by submitting a request to the constitutional court to rule on whether the convention is in line with the Polish constitution. Such a case may take some years to process. The PM did not want to confront Mr Ziobro, but he did not want to have the diplomatic problem of defending a decision to de-ratify an international agreement. The proposal made by Mr Ziobro had already been criticised by the EC and the Council of Europe, along with a whole plethora of human rights organisations.

The PM wants the party

Mr Morawiecki is reported to be increasingly ambitious within PiS itself. There are rumours that he will become its deputy leader at the party congress in the autumn. This, argue his adherents, would be just deserts for his tireless campaigning during the elections and successful management of government and the economy.

But some of those close to the party leader Jarosław Kaczyński as well as the former PM Beata Szydło may feel threatened by Mr Morawiecki’s rise in the party. They will want to emphasise how important Mr Kaczyński is to the preservation of the United Right project and to PiS itself. Influential MEP and head of President Duda’s campaign Joachim Brudziński said recently that without Mr Kaczyński the ruling camp would fall like a “house of cards”.

Mr Kaczyński himself is well aware of how authority can ebb away from a leader once he looks as if he might be leaving. Even worse if a leader actually announces a departure date like Tony Blair and David Cameron did in the UK. He then becomes a lame duck leader with everyone looking towards what may come next.

Rearranging the deckchairs in the government

Both Mr Kaczyński and Mr Morawiecki are reported to be seriously considering streamlining the government. There is even talk of reducing the number of ministries by half.

But this is where conflict with the smaller allies really begins. Both Solidarity Poland and Agreement currently have two ministers each in a 24 person cabinet. If that cabinet is reduced by half they would each be likely to lose one of ‘their’ ministries.

The two parties together with the dominant PiS are currently discussing the text of a long-term agreement. The number of ministerial portfolios will undoubtedly be a major issue in these deliberations. So will the rights of the smaller parties with regard to the share in state funding that PiS receives and the number of places on the slates of candidates in future parliamentary and local elections.

On the number of ministerial posts, participation in state funding and share-out of places on election slates Mr Ziobro and Mr Gowin are allies. On government policy and political direction less so.

Broadening the coalition?

Mr Kaczyński and Mr Duda have both recently said that the government’s political base could do with broadening. The majority in the Lower House is currently small (235 out of 460 seats) and the ruling party is actually in a minority in the second chamber, the Senate with 48 out of 100 seats.

This is why the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and Confederation would be attractive acquisitions as coalition partners. Especially the PSL, as it would open up the prospect for winning back control of the Senate as well as taking control of several provincial councils in which PSL is currently in coalitions with the Civic Platform (PO).

Agreement, led by former Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin have welcomed any such prospect arguing that Confederation would add to the coalition on issues of economic freedom and the PSL would help to balance against excessive radicalism. But Mr Ziobro would welcome Confederation only as a bulwark against attacks on Polish sovereignty and backers of cultural conservatism.

Any broadening of the coalition is a real long shot at this stage as PSL and Confederation do not wish to become satellite parties to PiS. And Mr Gowin is himself under pressure within Agreement from those who want ever-closer ties with PiS. Deputy PM Jadwiga Emilewicz recently argued that Agreement needed to work to strengthen PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s position within the government and the United Right.

Agenda setting

In a recent article the influential MEP Patryk Jaki, a prominent member of Mr Ziobro’s party and former deputy Justice Minister, argued that the ruling camp should not cut and trim but radicalise. His analysis was that “hostile socialization” was taking place among the young and in urban areas because of the dominance of liberal media, academia, corporations and non-governmental organisations. He feels that the ruling majority should address these areas ensuring greater balance and representation of conservative and traditional values in all institutions and walks of life.

This is a clarion call to a cultural and identity struggle that Agreement and others within the PiS camp will be wary of. They will tend to point to the international image problems this may create and will argue that what matters to urban and young voters is not so much ‘culture wars’ but bread and butter issues such as housing, health, education and employment.

One likely source of intense debate and deliberations within the ruling camp in the coming months will undoubtedly be the issue of Polish sovereignty and position within the framework of the EU. For instance, Mr Ziobro remains sceptical whether the provisions Poland signed up to at the last EU summit in Brussels over the budget and recovery fund will enable it to resist pressures on rule of law. Pressures not just over judicial reform, but over Polish legislative and constitutional provisions on same sex partnerships (not recognised in Polish law), abortion (highly restrictive) and sex education (parents in Poland have the constitutional right to refuse it for their offspring).

The financial settlement for Poland at the last EU summit was highly favourable. But all that could be eclipsed by any attempts to reduce Polish sovereignty in these sensitive areas. Even the states that make up the USA, a federal state which the EU is not, have the right to legislate freely on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage and sex education.

Another issue which could arouse controversy both within the ruling camp and with the opposition is local governance. Many urban local authorities are in the hands of parties or independents which remain hostile to the ruling camp. Any moves to constrain the powers or resources available to local government are likely to meet with considerable resistance not only from the opposition. Agreement and President Andrzej Duda have also voiced opposition to measures that could centralise power.