Thursday, March 31, 2011

What POlling problem

The senior ruling Civic Platform (PO) was on the rocks mere weeks ago. Its polling rating was hammered by a tsunami of bad news, whether its botched handling of a Smolensk crash report or a pension reform that alienated core voters. PO members were also tapping into the George Walker Bush School of gaffes and offending widely.

But PO leader Donald Tusk, the prime minister, can give one loud 'stuff you' to everyone who began writing the party's obituary. The latest opinion polls have shown the PO either recovering or holding at levels that would have made any Polish political party in the past 20 years mad with joy with only just over 6 months to go before general elections.

The PO's support jumped to 46% in a survey done by GfK Polonia for the daily Rzeczpospolita, up from 43%. For comparison, with about half a year to go before the 2007 general elections, the then senior ruling Law and Justice (PiS) polled at 24%. About 5 months before the 2005 polls, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) polled at just 7%. The PO is clearly doing well.

Why? Tusk, ever a canny political operator, is reaping the dividends of a recent media offensive. Tusk blitzed the media with justifications and defences and schmoozed viewers on a popular weekend breakfast current affairs program (see picture). The PO leader might be more tarnished than he was, but he remains popular and, more importantly, effective (just ask Biedronka).

The battle over the pension funds might have put off some PO voters, but most don't understand or don't care enough. And if they did, who else is there to vote for? PiS? Clearly not. The SLD? They lack unity, vision and execution. The Polish People's Party (PSL) is small time and it looks increasingly like the two new splinter groups will be wiped out.

The PO also benefits from its much ballyhooed boast of Poland being 'the only EU country to grow in 2009.' As blah-inducing as it is to hear ad infinitum, it does help. Employment is growing strongly, wages are rising, pensions are climbing, unemployment is set to fall, and public finance concerns are likely to be papered over at least till after elections.

Yet, the pension anger could still come back to haunt the PO, particularly if it compels voters to stay home. PiS's electorate tends to be more disciplined. The PO could also conclude it has passed its test and can cruise to victory. The party still needs to offer a compelling reason to vote for it, much like it did in 2007 when it offered a clear alternative to a chaotic PiS as well as promises of fast economic growth and wage rises. Price hikes could pressure consumers.

In the end, the PO probably continues to poll at higher levels than it would actually receive in elections, but there's no denying Tusk has deftly charted his party's course through a rather treacherous recent stretch. Whether he can guide the PO to an outright victory in the autumn, however, remains a big ask and one I feel is still asking too much.

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