Sunday, January 23, 2011

Civic Platform on the precipice of . . .victory?

Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform has cruised the past 3 or so years, ducking the mounds of mud thrown at it by a crabby incompetent opposition and capering over each and every potential political pitfall. Its support has remained well above 40% and has often bested 50%. This is unprecedented stuff. Polish ruling parties have traditionally seen a support bump right after they take office but then see voters slowly drift away until they lose the next elections. Tusk's party has defied this, at least so far.

The Platform's support sank a painful 9 points to 45% in a survey from GfK Polonia done on January 13-17. Rival Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice rose 4 points to 30%. Another just released survey that was done January 21 put the Platform at 37% and PiS at 28%.

Could the Platform's decline mark the beginning of the end of its apparent invincibility? A neck-and-neck race between Tusk's and Kaczynski's respective parties ahead of the planned October general elections could unleash a wave of uncertainty, particularly considering the parlous state of public finances and market players waiting to punish Poland for fiscal incontinence.

That Tusk's party can even talk of 50% is special: the challenges have been many and the escapes special. Poland was 'the only EU country to grow in 2009...blah, blah, blah' but its GDP growth still slowed sharply, from 5.1% in 2008 to 1.7% in 2009. Nearly 1 million people hit the unemployment rolls, wage growth stagnated, and the Platform needed something of a miracle to escape with its neck. It got that courtesy of a personal income tax cut actually passed before the party took office but that went into force in 2009 and some intense zloty weakening that made Polish goods cheaper abroad.

Scandal has dogged and been dodged as well. A parliamentary caucus leader and the sports minister kept strange gambling industry bedfellows and looked to be peddling influence. An interior minister tripped up. Other deputy ministers entangled themselves. Canny political operator Tusk has always met scandal with immediate dismissal: giving the public its pound of flesh in return for forgiveness.

Yet Tusk's delayed reaction to Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) report that fingered the Polish crew for blame in the April 20 plane crash in Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski could be different. Tusk was skiing in Italy when the committee unleashed its, er, big MAK attack. Though he cut short the schussing, his and his chancellery's reaction was deemed insufficient by many, even by allies. Tusk tied to go on the offensive last week, but then it turned out the Platform's number two criticised the prime minister, making the reaction look late and the party appear divided.

Other problems also exist. The Platform was at one time "pro-reform." On the back of a reform track record that only sets the standard for lethargy, many of its more ambitious voters are disappointed if not downright irate. Failure to tackle a too tight labour market, to tax farmers more, and to direct more spending to education and health and away from pensions and ancient industry provide sufficient room for a long litany of complaint. The proverbial straw could be the announced reform to pensions that looks to many like a money grab to avoid painful policy choices ahead of the elections.

None of this augurs well for its popularity, or at least would in another dimension. Let's say they are 11 dimensions. In most of those, the Platform is getting its behind booted. But in this one, the gibe about the "crabby incompetent opposition" is not just offhanded criticism. It is reality.

The reality is the Platform's support will probably sink since 50% of Poles don't support the party and its goals. But at least 35-40% do likely reckon Jaroslaw Kaczynski is nuts, his party should never be allowed back into power, the leftist SLD is not the answer, and the new groups trying to make it look like pale imitations of the old ones already extant. 

Winning by default isn't much of a pedigree, but for the Platform it's the secret of its success, at least for the next elections. After that, it's anyone's game.

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