Analysis: whiff of election in the air?

By Chris Mularczyk

Law and Justice (PiS) is in conflict with two satellite parties that make up the ruling block over legislation on both animal protection and indemnity for state officials during the pandemic. But the conflict has been exacerbated by tensions within the ruling block over European policy, tactics on culture wars and the proposed restructuring of the government.

Ruling party figures say coalition now in grave danger

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The refusal by the Solidarity Poland and Agreement parties to back a measure that bans fur farming and limits ritual slaughter as well as a law that would indemnify state officials for their actions during the pandemic has caused a crisis within the ruling block. The leadership of PiS are threatening to call a snap election in order to discipline the two minor parties.

The crisis intensified when the two satellite parties failed to support the animal protection legislation in the Lower House of the Polish Parliament. All 20 of Solidarity Poland’s MPs voted against it and the members of Agreement abstained. The minister of Agriculture Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski and some other PiS MPs voted against the measure too. Agreement deputies mostly abstained, with only Deputy PM Jadwiga Emiliewicz voting in favour.

The animal protection legislation was passed because most of the opposition decided to support it. Earlier PiS had to suspend work on the pandemic indemnity law as there could be no majority for it without support from the satellites. They account for c40 of the 235 MPs PiS has in the 460 seat parliament.

An emergency meeting of the PiS parliamentary caucus took place on Thursday to which neither Agreement nor Solidarity Poland deputies were invited. The leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński told his MPs that “the tail can’t wag the dog” and that he was no longer prepared to tolerate disloyalty.

Earlier on Thursday talks about reconstruction of the government and future legislative plans between PiS and the satellite parties were suspended. Ryszard Terlecki, head of the PiS parliamentary caucus, said there was no sense in continuing them for the time being. He warned that the reconstruction of the government may go ahead without the satellite parties and warned that early elections could be in the offing.

Animals, a bone of contention

The animal protection legislation proved controversial inside the ruling block. The proposals to ban fur farming and constrain ritual slaughter provoked protests from the farming community which at the last election backed PiS en masse.

But the legislation to indemnify public officials for their actions during the pandemic was also resisted and may prove to be a bigger problem between the coalition partners. Solidarity Poland led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro called it “a short cut around legislation” which they could not support. The draft proposed that all officials be exempt from legal responsibility if they acted for the purpose of combating the pandemic.

Early election?

Opposition MPs do not feel an election is in the offing. They feel that a minority administration would be more likely if either or both Agreement or Solidarity Poland leave the coalition. The small but vocal Confederation who opposed the government’s legislation however want an election. “Bring it on” declared one of its representatives on social media.

PiS do not really want an election but are prepared to use it as a threat to bring their coalition partners back to heel. The smaller satellite parties would be hard pressed to stand on their own in such an election and would in all likelihood have to find electoral alliance partners to stand a chance of survival.

Mr Ziobro is known to wish for Jarosław Kaczyński to become PM in order to remove PM Morawiecki from office. There are three reasons for this. He believes it would make it easier for the coalition to function to have the leader of PiS actually running the government. Second, he wants to see a firmer approach to both the EU and to ‘culture wars’. Third, he sees PM Morawiecki as a rival for future leadership of the Polish right and wants him sidelined.

Mr Kaczyński is playing hard ball by holding a pistol to the heads of his coalition partners. He has the comfort of his party owning the PiS label under which all of the election victories have come. His party would still be a big force in the next parliament, though an early election would put its majority in the next parliament in doubt.

The PiS leader will remember all too well what happened the last time PiS decided to go for an early election in 2007 when it fell out with its then coalition partners. The election was lost and the party was out of power for 8 years.

But history does not have to repeat itself. PiS is now a far stronger political force. Moreover, all the opposition parties, possibly with the exception of the radical right Confederation are not in a good place to fight an election.

Opposition parties coy on the matter

The biggest opposition party, the Civic Platform, is in the middle of a leadership and identity crisis. The Left are still smarting from a heavy defeat in the Presidential poll and internally divided between the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the youthful Together party. The Polish Coalition is facing a split between the dominant within it Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the quixotic rock musician’s followers of “Kukiz 15”.

All of the opposition parties are also looking anxiously over their shoulders at the new “Poland 2050” movement launched by presidential candidate Szymon Hołownia off the back of his 14 percent in the first round of that election. But Mr Hołownia and his followers are an organisation in the making and not really ready for a parliamentary election.

A crisis that is containable but real

In all likelihood this crisis within the ruling camp can be resolved. Some believe that for Mr Kaczyński to swallow guarantees of places on guru election slates for the satellite parties might be enough. But for that to happen either Mr Kaczyński must overcome his growing irritation with the satellite parties or they must accept a degree of subordination which makes it hard for them to preserve their identity. So the crisis in the ruling block is real.

It is true that minority governments are nothing new in Poland. PiS could survive on the basis of getting support from different parties for different measures. But with three years of the parliamentary term still left it is unlikely that PiS would wish to govern for such a long period on that basis. This is why a minority government would in all likelihood be just a prelude to early parliamentary elections.