Poland set to vote for harder line on refugees

Governing PO party may be victim of its own success as voters seek change

A woman walks by an election billboard in Warsaw featuring Poland’s prime minister Ewa Kopacz,  whose ruling PO party is trailing in polls. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

A woman walks by an election billboard in Warsaw featuring Poland’s prime minister Ewa Kopacz, whose ruling PO party is trailing in polls. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

 

When Poland’s 30 million voters are asked to choose a new government on Sunday, prime minister Ewa Kopacz knows she may fall victim to third-term itch.

On paper, her liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO) has done many things right in the last eight years. While neighbours struggled with financial crises, the Warsaw coalition kept Poland out of recession and presided over a period of previously unthinkable, two-term political stability.

The Polish economy is set to grow by more than 3 per cent this year, and salaries are rising. But so, too, is the perception that Poland is a country of urban, liberal haves and rural, conservative have-nots.

Kopcaz, a 58-year-old paediatrician, succeeded the influential PO co-founder Donald Tusk as prime minister last year. But political scandals and in-fighting have sapped her coalition of its reform zeal.

After eight years, Polish voters are restless with a government many think has run out of steam. Polls show the ruling PO trailing in second place by about 12 points, with 36 per cent of voters instead likely to back the opposition Law and Justice (PiS).

Western standards

The PO has campaigned under the slogan “strong economy, higher wages”, promising simplified, family-friendly tax reform and an end to low-benefit temporary work contracts.

“Let’s change the fate and standard of living of Poles and let Poles feel western standards in their own pockets,” said Kopacz on a recent campaign stop in the western city of Poznan.

But, faced with an opposition hungry for power, the incumbent PO has been on the back foot.

Many voters now take for granted the modernisation of Polish infrastructure in the last eight years. Instead, this election is being fought on PiS promises of greater social spending, in particular on pensioners, something Kopacz argues will tear a hole in public finances.

Polish election: poll of polls

Polish parties

Beyond their pockets, Kopacz has warned voters they face a choice on Sunday between a “tolerant and diverse” Poland under the PO or, in a swipe at PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a country of “division and hatred . . . filled with fanaticism, isolated, facing away from Europe, full of complexes”.

The polarising Kaczynski has taken a back seat in this campaign, fielding instead the 52-year-old Beata Szydlo, who masterminded this summer’s successful presidential election campaign of PiS candidate Andrzej Duda.

With moderate rhetoric and low-key, paternalist style, voters have warmed to Szydlo and a PiS campaign that is both anti-establishment and conservative. The party has made a broad play, offering support both for conservative farmers struggling under ongoing Russian sanctions and promising tax relief for centrist-voting young urban families.

Meanwhile, the PO, after two terms in power, a first in democratic Poland, has succeeded in annoying almost every voter group.

Older voters still seethe at how it increased the retirement age to 67 in 2013. PO’s plundering private pensions last year to fill a public pension fund, meanwhile, incensed the PO’s liberal, middle-class voters.

Business leaders complain that PO was not ambitious enough in reforms, with little appetite to tackle privileges for farmers and miners. Angry trade unions have shifted their allegiances to PiS, while younger voters – key to PO’s previous victories – have drifted either to PiS or to new fringe parties.

Suspicions that the government has been too long in power were, for many voters, only confirmed by leaked secret recordings of PO politicians sharing indiscreet gossip and fine wines in expensive restaurants.

“There is a growing feeling that Poland could do better under a new management and that the PO became ‘a party of government’ with no ideas or vision and small-scale corruption,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, senior policy fellow of Warsaw’s Centre for International Relations.

Refugee crisis

On the EU agenda, a PiS-lead government could give a boost to David Cameron’s reform agenda ahead of the British UK referendum. The EU standoff with Russia is unlikely to be assisted by the return of PiS though; despite initial involvement in the Ukraine crisis, Warsaw has been largely sidelined in talks with Moscow.

 

The most pressing issue where a change will be felt is likely to be the refugee crisis. The PO government has opposed obligatory migrant quotas but agreed to accept about 5,000 of the 120,000 people to be shared out between the EU’s member states.

“We will show solidarity with those people who are fleeing harm’s way or death,” said Kopacz in a television debate this week, though she promised to prioritise refugees over economic migrants.

Szydlo and the PiS, meanwhile, have taken a consistently harder line in the refugee issue, suggesting the PO government has kowtowed to Berlin.

“Poles have the right to be afraid,” said the challenger, “because they still do not know to what we are being committed.”

Though PiS retains a clear lead and a further shift to the right almost inevitable, opinion polls are a volatile affair in Poland – almost as volatile as the PiS coalition headed by Kaczynski that governed for two years a decade ago.

The only certainty after Sunday is that any new Polish government will be another coalition. But its makeup – and its politics – will hinge on how many parties pass the 5 per cent threshold to take seats in the 460-seat parliament, the Sejm.