Analysis: party leader and opposition’s stress tests

The ruling majority leader Jarosław Kaczyński assembled his troops at an event on Thursday, to sum up the successful presidential campaign. But he signalled that he was going to bring in changes many of them will not like, such as a radical reduction in the number of ministries and changes in the Law and Justice party’s (PiS) hierarchy in the autumn.

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The meeting which took place on Thursday night looks to be the beginning of a stress test of the ruling United Right majority made up of PiS and its two smaller allies; the Agreement party led by Jarosław Gowin and Solidarity Poland led by Zbigniew Ziobro. The stress test is the restructuring of the government which is to reduce the number of ministries by half.

Currently, both the smaller parties have two ministries each. Agreement has the Ministry of Development headed by Deputy PM Jadwiga Emilewicz and the ministry of higher education formerly ran by Jarosław Gowin, but since his departure from the government during the dispute over the timing of the presidential election, managed by Wojciech Murdzek MP. Solidarity Poland also has two ministries, the Justice ministry headed by party leader Zbigniew Ziobro and the ministry of environment managed by Michał Woś.

Internal stress tests

Under the proposal to reduce the number of ministries by half each of the smaller parties is to lose one ministry. The main party in the ruling camp, PiS, will of course “lose” several more. The likely changes are tipped to include combining the ministries of Environment with the Climate ministry, the ministry for digital affairs with the ministry of the interior, the Maritime economy ministry with the Development or the Transport ministry and the creation of a large ministry of Education and Culture that will bring together four of the current departments: education, high education, Culture, and Sport.

The head of the PiS parliamentary caucus Ryszard Terlecki did not hide that there was irritation within the ruling camp at the behaviour of Jarosław Gowin and his allies during the dispute over the election date. As a result of the refusal of some of the Agreement’s MPs to support an election being held in May the ruling camp found itself in a difficult position and had to swallow a delay.

The decision to cut the number of ministries for each of the two smaller parties will hit Mr Gowin’s party the hardest. Mr Gowin’s allies want him to return to the government and that would mean that the present Deputy PM would lose her government post should that come to pass. The Agreement party is itself facing an autumn congress at which there could be a clash between the allies of Ms Emilewicz and Mr Gowin. Or the current Deputy PM may follow Marek Zagórski’s example and choose to become a member of PiS to keep her post.

Jarosław Kaczyński has also signalled that at the PiS congress due in November he expects major changes in the leadership of that party. He has toyed with the idea of retiring in the past, but that is most unlikely. Much more likely is him moving to give more power and authority within the party to PM Mateusz Morawiecki by making him the deputy leader of the party.

It is a move that will concern the allies of Beata Szydło, the former PM, currently an MEP, who remains highly popular within the party. Many in the party see her, rather than PM Morawiecki, as the party’s presidential candidate in 2025. She also has good relations with Zbigniew Ziobro who supports her declared skepticism over whether the current PM’s European policies will work.

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Main opposition sets out its stall for the years ahead

The main opposition Civic Platform (PO) looks to have adopted similar tactics to those it has been using for the last five years. Most of its MPs did not attend the inauguration of President Andrzej Duda’s second term arguing that the election was unfair and that they are not willing to legitimise a president who, they allege, has broken the constitution. They have been criticised for this by other opposition parties as well as many commentators.

At face value, it seems odd that the opposition should snub a President who will never have to contest an election again. If they could improve relations with him they could at least have some hope of stopping some of the ruling party’s legislative agenda via his interventions. But that would spoil a narrative of ‘total opposition’ which they are still committed to. Moreover, there is a logic in maintaining that narrative given the situation both the opposition and the ruling party are in.

Maintaining a radical oppositionist perspective helps in maintaining polarisation which keeps the PO in the saddle as the main opposition force. This is what most of those who voted for the PO’s candidate in the presidential election expect of that party. But moreover, it is also necessary to maintain a narrative the PO uses on the international stage of Polish democracy and EU membership of being under threat.

It is important to remember that the PO governed Poland for eight years and still has a range of assets at its disposal. On the international stage, it is part of the influential European People’s Party (EPP), currently led by the former PO leader and PM Donald Tusk. In Poland, it controls many city local authorities and some provinces. It receives sympathetic coverage from large parts of the commercial media and is supported by many professionals, managers, and much of Poland’s judicial establishment as well as many celebrities.

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The international card

The main opposition’s hope on the international stage hinges on the fact that a rule of a law compliance mechanism has been agreed at the EU summit in July, quite an irony has given that a rule of law mechanism has been installed that is in contravention to EU treaties, ie. in contravention to the EU’s legal system. Like PM Morawiecki they understand that the veto weapon available for Poland and Hungary is a double-edged sword on both the international and domestic stages. Any veto could restrict the access to the EU funds anyway and cause a domestic political crisis.

This is the fear of Zbigniew Ziobro and Beata Szydło. They argue that if Poland and Hungary back down over judicial reforms that would not be the end of the matter. It might encourage the EP and EC to put pressure on issues such as LGBT, abortion, and sex education. If Hungary and Poland back down on these too then the pressure could turn to pressurising both to accept the Euro. And if there is surrender over the Euro next may come the need to accept a European Defence Force which might not tolerate the presence of US troops in countries that "might upset the Russians".

The tactic of playing for time hoping that most if not all of the EU's budget and recovery fund allocations may be consumed before anything really happens may not work. The EC and EP realise that this budget period (2021-2027) is their window of opportunity for moving towards ever closer union as the funds give the integrationists considerable leverage over Central Europe. In a future in which Central Europeans become net payers into the EU budget that leverage will be reduced and Euroscepticism may grow.

The opposition realises this too. It is prepared to pay the price of some unpopularity in the immediate future in order to be able to benefit from any potential PiS climb-downs or defeats in the EU. And nothing would delight it more than to fight a future election as a referendum over Polish membership of the EU.

This is why delegitimisation of the ruling party and its government both at home and abroad will remain the strategy of the main opposition. The ruling camp’s post-election reorganisation is a stress test to get the troops ready for the fight ahead.