How salient was the European issue in Polish politics?

Given that foreign affairs rarely impact upon national politics, Europe had a surprisingly high profile in Polish politics last year. This was partly as a ‘valence’ issue where parties competed over which of them was the most competent to advance national interests within the EU. However, to some extent it also emerged as a substantial issue in its own right with parties presenting different visions of the future of the European integration project and Poland’s role within it. Whether Europe becomes a significant dimension of party competition in this year’s presidential and parliamentary election depends as much, if not more, upon developments on the international scene as on domestic factors.

An issue in its own right?

The issue of Poland-EU relations was highly contested in recent years by the two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. However, these divisions were often not over the future of the European integration project as such. Rather they were subsumed within domestic politics, with the two parties treating relations with the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU.

However, there was also some evidence that, particularly since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis, the Polish debate on Europe was becoming more about the substance of European integration than simply an extension of domestic politics by other means. While Civic Platform supported closer German-led integration within the EU, Law and Justice started to articulate a more fundamental, principled critique of the ruling party’s support for deeper European integration. For example, it increasingly gave the impression that the party could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the euro; although it is worth bearing in mind that when the party was in government in 2005-7 Law and Justice’s rhetorical Euroscepticism often gave way to a more integrationist approach.

A surprisingly ‘European’ EP election

Moreover, the May European Parliament (EP) election, the biggest political event during the first half of 2014, might also have been expected to raise the profile of the EU issue in Polish politics. However, although the EP election was part of a Europe-wide electoral process to an EU institution, experience suggested that, like all previous Polish elections, it would be dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter were framed as valence issues. Important as it would be as a test of party strength, most commentators assumed that the EP poll would simply be another typical ‘second order’ national election that voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote against the governing party which, at the start of 2014, was running around 5-10% behind Law and Justice in the polls.

In fact, the dynamics of the EP poll were transformed and it turned out to be a surprisingly ‘European’ election because of the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. This was to dominate the campaign and re-configure patterns of support for the two main parties, with Civic Platform finishing narrowly ahead on 32.1% of the vote and Law and Justice on 31.8%. To some extent, Europe was once again used as a valence issue with the two main parties competing over the shared objective of persuading the EU to develop a robust response to the crisis. Civic Platform leader and prime minister Donald Tusk quickly recognised that the threat of armed conflict on Poland’s border would change voters’ priorities radically and re-calibrated the Civic Platform EP campaign accordingly. The ruling party tried to use events in Ukraine to highlight its claim that, in contrast to its Law and Justice-led predecessor, the Civic Platform government’s approach of locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ was effective in promoting Poland’s interests at the international level. It tried to position the Tusk administration as a key player in determining the European and international response to the crisis, mobilising the EU and its allies to react to the Russian threat in a decisive manner.

The ruling party made a similar argument when, at the end of August, Mr Tusk was unexpectedly appointed as the next President of the EU Council, presenting it as a vindication of the government’s broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies. Indeed, for many commentators sympathetic to the government, Mr Tusk’s appointment was the crowning achievement of its attempts to project Poland as a ‘model’ European at the forefront of the EU integration project. For its part, while congratulating Mr Tusk on his appointment, Law and Justice argued that such symbolic triumphs were meaningless if they did not lead to concrete policy gains for Poland. However, Mr Tusk’s appointment received extremely positive publicity and Civic Platform was able to present it as a great success to a Polish public which was still overwhelmingly pro-EU (an October 2014 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 84% of respondents supported Polish EU membership while only 11% were against) and proud of the appointment of Poles to any senior European posts, however symbolic.

However, Civic Platform also tried to link its EP campaigning on the Ukrainian issue to more substantive debates on the future of the European integration project. The ruling party contrasted its own strongly pro-EU stance with Law and Justice’s apparent Euroscepticism, arguing that that the latter threatened Poland’s security which depended upon the country’s position within a politically and economically integrated EU that was capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats. It claimed that Eurosceptic parties like Law and Justice played into Russia’s hands by encouraging the major European powers to develop bi-lateral relations with Moscow based on their narrow, short-term national interests that often conflicted with Poland’s, rather than adopt a common EU stance.

Law and Justice counter-attacked by contrasting what it claimed was its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve, short-sighted and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. Law and Justice leaders pointed out that it had consistently warned of how dangerous Russian President Vladimir Putin was and argued that, rather than simply relying on developing close relations with the major EU powers, Poland had to develop a so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’: playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist states to counter Russian expansionism.

A radical Eurosceptic challenger emerges

The EP election also saw the sudden emergence of a new Eurosceptic challenger party, the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which came from nowhere to finish fourth securing 7.2% of votes and winning 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs. Formed in March 2011, the Congress was the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the political scene who contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989 and was notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. The core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, was its radical economic liberalism, but it was also a socially conservative and strongly Eurosceptic party. The party opposed Polish EU membership and, during the EP campaign, Mr Korwin-Mikke argued that half of the current European Commissioners should be arrested, and promised to ‘blow up the EU from within’ turning the European institutions into a brothel! Ironically, this was actually further evidence of the ‘Europeanisation’ of the EP poll, in the sense that the party sought to mobilise support on the basis of outright rejection of the EU project.

For sure, there were other factors at work here and, to some extent, this was simply a protest vote with the New Right emerging as the most attractive repository for those looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment, particularly among younger voters and what some sociologists termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’. Such protest voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke was able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following who, in the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland (the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections), provided the Congress with a respectable EP election result. However, attitudes towards the European project were definitely an element of the Congress’s appeal and its surge suggested that high levels of support for Polish EU membership might be more fragile than polls suggest. Many of the New Right’s supporters saw the EU as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke was 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, 28.5% of 18-25 year-olds voted for the New Right, more than for any other party, comprising half of its supporters. Some sociologists argued that many of these voters were drawn from what commentators refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities. One of the main reasons for continuing high levels of Polish support for the EU was the fact that membership of the Union gave Poles the opportunity to secure access to West European labour markets. However, many of this younger, post-enlargement generation either increasingly took this benefit of EU membership for granted or actually perceived it as a sign of failure, frustrated by what they saw as an invidious choice between moving to take jobs abroad that fell well short of their abilities and aspirations, or remaining in a country which they felt offered them few prospects for the future.

An election issue in 2015?

The extent to which Europe might be an issue in the two big electoral contests that will dominate Polish politics in 2015, the summer presidential and autumn parliamentary polls, depends largely on international developments. In 2014, it was the Ukrainian conflict, and later Mr Tusk’s appointment to the EU presidency, that, unusually, moved foreign affairs and Poland-EU relations to the top of the political agenda. It would require similarly extraordinary events to do the same in 2015, although it is quite possible that the Ukrainian conflict could escalate once again or the Eurozone crisis re-emerges as an issue.

There could also be domestic factors that move the European issue up the political agenda. Given the ongoing risk of Eurozone turbulence and increasing public hostility to Polish adoption of the single currency (an October 2014 CBOS survey found only 24% of respondents in favour and 68% against), the government has chosen to downplay the issue. However, Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski remains an enthusiastic supporter of Polish accession to the Eurozone, seeing it as essential for Poland to be part of the EU’s decision-making core, and he may decide to give the issue a higher profile in the presidential campaign. The presence of Mr Korwin-Mikke and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections also means that debates about the future of European integration might emerge as, at the very least, a secondary issue. However, if Europe is salient the most likely scenario is that it is, once again, likely to be a valence issue subsumed within domestic politics.

Aleks Szczerbiak (a.a.szczerbiak@sussex.ac.uk) is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

2015 Greek Snap Election: Touching on Europe, Pointing out Greece

Two years after the crucial 2012 general elections in Greece, an upcoming snap election is going to be held again. On January 25th Greek people will be have to make a big decision: to continue with the conservative government of New Democracy or to give a chance to the leftist SYRIZA party to govern for the first time. The once stable Greek party system has gone through a significant transformation during the last five years and more changes are likely to be seen in the near future; the 2015 elections will bring about innovative patterns in Greek politics as we knew them so far.

Although it was only in office for two-and-half-years, the current Greek coalition government of New Democracy and the social democratic PASOK had to dissolve the parliament after failing to gain the majority needed for the selection of a President. The government’s candidate for President, Stavros Dimas, was supported by only 168 MPs out of 300 and 12 more were needed in order to avoid elections. According to the Greek constitution, the failure to elect a President leads automatically to general elections. Opposition parties took advantage of this rule and voted against the government’s candidate, despite the governing parties’ pledges for agreement on the matter. After the voting result, Antonis Samaras, Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader, accused the main opposition party SYRIZA and the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn of leading the country into early elections which the Greek people did not really want.

The Importance of the Election

Samara’s announcement about the snap election triggered an immediate chain reaction. Financial and stock markets were not happy with the news, while discussions about so-called ‘Grexit’ started straight away among European leaders and political actors in the event of SYRIZA becoming the largest party. As all the opinion polls have shown so far, the recently successful left-wing SYRIZA has maintained a lead over the well-established centre-right New Democracy, although the difference between the two is currently narrowing. Under these conditions, just as with the 2012 Greek elections, the upcoming poll is very important for both Europe and Greece.

European actors are divided between two different reactions. First, there are those who fear a far-left Greek government which will not be willing to negotiate the bailout in existing terms and will put the whole Eurozone in danger. Right after the announcement of the election, several news reports started talking about a possible ‘Grexit’ and the EU’s and Germany’s reaction to it. On the other hand, there are those who actually hope for such a far-left government to gain power in Greece. SYRIZA in government may result in an anti-austerity discourse much anticipated by the left-wing leaders of Europe, which were disappointed by Francois Hollande’s limited degree of influence. Left-wing parties that increasingly gain power in other European countries, such as Podemos in Spain, are now facing a realistic chance to winning the 2015 upcoming elections. According to these voices, this might lead to a new era of a fight against austerity, privatization plans, and Troika bailout programmes.

Certainly, the 2015 snap election in Greece is also particularly important for the country itself. The long-standing Greek two-party system was already shaken in the previous 2012 election. Back then, new patterns of fragmentation and polarization, along with a coalition government that no one would have imagined a few years ago, were the outcomes of two consecutive elections. New parties, such as Democratic Left and Independent Greeks, were created and managed to gain seats in the parliament. Extreme right-wing forces also appeared in the Greek Parliament and, of course, SYRIZA gradually became a significant political power. While the previous elections occurred in probably the most difficult time for Greece regarding its economic situation, the upcoming elections find the country in an advanced stage of the bailout agreement and proceeded negotiations with Troika. In 2012 the country was still trying to secure its position in the middle of the crisis and Greek voters were awkwardly swinging from one party to another. In 2015, voting behaviour will be a less hot-blooded process and the outcome will form a more complete picture of what transformations are really taking place in the Greek party system.

Touching on Europe, Pointing out Greece

For now, the short pre-election period has introduced a highly polarised debate between the two major opponents: New Democracy and SYRIZA. This debate is interestingly initiated by, but not shaped around, the European issue. Surely, the impact of the Eurozone crisis on Greek politics can still be seen in any type of political discussion? However, it is not Europe per se but the European issue tied up with domestically salient issues that are shaping the political game. The salient issues that started being important in previous years because of the crisis are still present, but they are used by the main parties in different ways in order to attack the opposition and attract voters.

First, New Democracy uses the European issue in two main ways: to promote its own effective crisis management when in government and to create a feeling of insecurity in case SYRIZA were to become the governing party after the January 25th poll. New Democracy’s key argument is about Antonis Samaras’ competent policy making in previous years. Successful negotiations with the Troika and the EU, and even a better financial situation for the country, were, it is argued, guaranteed because of the coalition pro-Memorandum government. At the same time, the party poses the same argument in order to attack SYRIZA. By pointing out the left-wing anti-austerity profile of SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras, New Democracy is aiming to create an environment of insecurity and fear about Greece leaving the euro and its economy collapsing if SYRIZA achieves an electoral victory.

On the other hand, SYRIZA also uses the European issue for its own purposes. Alexis Tsipras does not lose a chance to argue about the ineffectiveness of the austerity measures and bailout agreements imposed by the Troika and implemented by the Greek government. For SYRIZA, it is all about an anti-Memorandum and anti-austerity discussion. These arguments, however, are not used only against the EU’s behaviour, but also against New Democracy’s policy making during the tough economic crisis. As Alexis Tsipras claims, a victory for SYRIZA will help bring economic growth and social equality in the country, elements that vanished during the crisis because of the fruitless negotiations of the Greek governments with Europe.

For both parties, Europe means something different in the pre-election period. For New Democracy, it is a chance to praise their own profile due to its effective crisis management and attack SYRIZA for their irresponsible behaviour on the economic and European front. For SYRIZA, it is an opportunity to build on the anti-austerity sentiment among the Greek public and argue for a new era of economic development without the need for the European ties that the previous governments forced on the country.

However, the debate on the actual European issue still remains quite abstract and the discussion is hardly ever about the European integration project per se. For instance, despite the polarised pro-/anti-austerity debate, no mainstream party, except for the Communists, expresses an open anti-European or even anti-euro attitude. SYRIZA’s anti-austerity arguments focus mainly on the incompetence of the Greek government, while New Democracy’s pro-European discourse is largely about its own ability to deal with Europe efficiently. Not even the far-right Golden Dawn, which represents the most extreme views in the Greek parliament at the moment, is openly against European integration. Thus, a pure debate on Europe is not only vague and lacking in specifics, but also hardly evident at all unless linked to leading domestic policy questions. Europe thus plays a role in Greek politics mostly when it is tied up with domestic salient issues.

New Lines of Competition

While Europe is watching the developments on the Greek politics front, the increasingly polarised debate between New Democracy and SYRIZA introduced new lines of party competition in the Greek party system. With PASOK, the former centre-left main opponent of New Democracy, being now just one of the minor parties in the parliament, SYRIZA has established its dominance and evolved into the greatest political power in Greece. In addition, the new political parties that were created during the Eurozone crisis will now show whether they are capable of stabilizing their position. As the latest polls reveal, Democratic Left, which was a member of the joint coalition government in 2012, will most likely not even make it to the parliament, while the new right-wing Independent Greeks also face serious problems. The far-right Golden Dawn, some of whose MPs are in prison accused of forming a criminal gang, is likely to be a noteworthy force in the Greek Parliament. At the same time, the newly formed centrist Potami party is likely to gain a significant number of seats and be a member of the new coalition government.

Whatever happens on the day after the election one thing is certain: party competition in Greece will never be the same. Such was the impact of the Eurozone crisis on Greek politics that not only did it shake the traditional lines of competition, but it also pushed the system towards completely innovative patterns. PASOK, one of the most established centre-left parties of Europe, will hardly get more than 5%. Coalition government, while out of the picture before 2012, seems the most realistic option. Innovative governing formula with new parties joining the government is much awaited. It seems that Greece has entered a new political era which the upcoming elections are left to confirm.

Nikoleta Kiapidou (nkiapidou@ymail.com) is a doctoral researcher at the Sussex European Institute in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.

An earlier version of this post was featured on the LSE EUROPP blog.