Thursday, January 27, 2011

Surprise surprise?

My pardner here believes Civic Platform is set to win the general elections set for October with some ease. He is probably right [as he usually is - Editor's note], but I'd like to go through a list of things that might come back to bite our Numero Uno showman, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in the ass come October.

Before I begin, I have to mention three things. First, a lot will depend on the campaign. Poles have a short political memory and are easily manipulated into heated arguments about the least important issues. It is entirely possible a "substitute topic" will be brought up just before elections that entirely changes all calculations.

Second, the Civic Platform is a poor campaigner. The party really ran only one decent campaign and that was for the 2007 parliamentary elections it eventually won. Things might be more tricky this time around. Or not. This will depend on how mad Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski really is.

Third, there are varying degress of victory and defeat. For me victory would be a result giving the Platform an outright majority. A tie or the status quo would be when they would have to form a coalition with a smaller party, the current partner the PSL or one of the new parties. Defeat would be to be forced to court the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance in order to retain power. Utter defeat would be to lose the chance to create a two-party coalition government. 

So here are the things that can blow up in the prime minister's face: 

Arrogance - It is unwise for a PM anywhere to say out loud "there is no one around that I could lose to," but in Poland, where the passion for the underdog runs deep, it might be even more dangerous. And it seriously seems Tusk believes he is invincible, a feeling visible in his handling of issues like public finances, pensions, the Smolensk crash, etc. This could be the harbinger of a poor campaign as the October elections will be seen merely as the rubber-stamping of the Civic Platform's greatness and not as a battle to rule.

Economy - Unemployment remains high, the overall tax burden is heavy, just over half of working age Poles actually do so, and public finances remain a big problem. The government has supposedly hit its 7.9 percent public-finance-deficit-to-GDP target, but it did so despite the fact the economy expanded by some 4 percent, not the 1.2 percent originally forecast. That makes a big difference. The recent proposed pension changes do give the government leeway on the fiscal front and will mean spending won't have to be cut ahead of the elections. But the proposed change itself, in addition to the other problems, has already pissed off some of the Platform's core electorate.

Should macro conditions deteriorate in 2011, especially in terms of unemployment and public finances, the government might face some heat from its electorate and from the media. 

Zloty - Poles love Swiss franc- and euro-based mortgage loans = they hate a weak zloty. FX market volatility tied, for example, to problems in the euro-zone might be interpreted as a government failure. If you add that a weak zloty would increase pressure on public finances (due to foreign debt exposure) all of a sudden Poland could swing from the "green island" of growth in Europe to the "sub-prime of Europe." Or at least the media could present it that way. 

Pensions - And more broadly unkept promises and the lack of promised reform. A direct result of this is a loss of the Civic Platform's core electorate: young, pro-market, well-educated, well-paid, big city Poles. With all the discarded reform plans, with all the botched privatisation attempts, with all the "pragmatic compromises," the Platform is alienating its electoral base. 

Russia - Smolensk and the total collapse of Poland's foreign policy. Clearly Poles now believe reconciliation is not the way to talk with Russia. Tusk is seen as weak; Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski is invisible. It remains to be seen how long the effect will last, but the longer the Smolensk crash will be played out as a political game, the more the Civic Platform's electorate will be fed up with it (Law and Justice's electorate will on the contrary thrive on the issue). 

Turnout - This is one of the biggest question marks. It is believed lower turnout will favour Law and Justice. I would rather say that it will be key how motivated the young, urban electorate will be to vote. Too much Smolensk and it might turn out they will fail Mr. Tusk this time around. 

Bogeyman strategy - This is the biggest IF. Clearly at the moment the Platform is focused on repeating its tried and true winning strategy of scaring its electorate with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a strategy that has given it parliamentary and presidential election victories. However, the 2010 presidential win was really close, partly because Kaczynski was surprisingly soft and moderate. That would probably be the best strategy for Kaczynski to beat the Platform at the moment.

Luckily for the Civic Platform, Kaczynski has gone in the totally opposite direction since the presidential election. Can he change yet again? Unlikely, but Law and Justice has always found a way to reinvent itself during election campaigns, tends to run strong ones, and it cannot be ruled out it will do so again.


  1. I wouldn't agree Poles have a short political memory. Kulczyk still can't catch a break after all these years.

    More interesting question seems to be, will PO need a coalition partner after the election? and who could it be?

  2. First, Kulczyk is not necessarily a political figure. Second, I don't think it is Poles that don't allow him to get a break - he managed to float his oil venture on Warsaw bourse no problem. It is rather the government that doesn't want to risk it.

    Also if you look at some parties (SLD anyone?) you will see many people that have some "shady" political episodes in their past and are still there. Not to mention examples of local politicians being sentenced of corruption or accused of molesting that still do well in polls.

    As for the coalition partners - PSL is obvious choice, SLD when PSL will not provide majority. In my view outright majority is not possible.