What does Andrzej Duda’s victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak 

The right-wing challenger’s unexpected victory in last month’s presidential election has shaken up the Polish political scene but its impact on European politics more generally depends on the outcome of the autumn parliamentary poll. If the opposition wins then this could herald a major change in Poland’s European and foreign policy. If the current ruling party remains in office, the country faces a possibly turbulent period of cohabitation with conflicting foreign policy narratives coming from the two main state organs.

Mainstream or ‘own stream’? 

The shock victory of Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping – over incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, who was backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, in last month’s presidential election has led to speculation as to whether there will be a significant shift in Poland’s international relations. The Polish President is not simply a ceremonial figure and retains some important constitutional powers, notably the right to initiate and veto legislation. However, the President’s competencies are much more limited than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister, so Mr Duda’s victory will not result in any immediate change in Poland’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, if it is followed up by a change of government after autumn’s parliamentary election then there could be major implications for the country’s relationships with the rest of Europe.

The current Civic Platform-led government’s strategy has been to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. By locating Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core, the current government claims that it has, in contrast to its Law and Justice predecessor, been effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment last autumn of the then Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the government’s strategy of positioning Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project. 

On the other hand, while it supports Polish EU membership Law and Justice is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) party committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty, especially in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust in advancing its national interests within the EU rather than simply following European mainstream politics which it sees as being driven by Germany. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis, the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of Civic Platform’s support for German-led closer European integration. 

Knowing that he was potentially at a disadvantage on foreign affairs against a more experienced incumbent, Mr Duda was wary of highlighting international issues during the presidential campaign. However, when he did address European and foreign policy Mr Duda also argued that Poland needed to be more assertive in promoting its interests and form its ‘own stream’ that could counter-balance the major EU powers. He called for Poland to ‘recalibrate’ its relationship with Germany which, he argued, should not be pursued at the expense of subordinating the country’s interests. Mr Duda also said that he wanted to revisit the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy, where he claimed EU policies were damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro 

Civic Platform and Law and Justice’s different approaches towards European integration can be seen in their attitudes towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the Civic Platform-led government has toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it does not have a target date and that this will not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remains committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as is realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core. For its part, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until its economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, given the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency.

During the presidential election Mr Duda tried to tap into strong public opposition to joining the eurozone – while there is still overwhelming public support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country adopting the single currency – and make this into a campaign issue. For example, he visited supermarkets on each side of the border between Poland and Slovakia to show that household groceries were considerably more expensive in its eurozone member neighbour. Mr Komorowski, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic supporter of the single currency who had previously urged the government to accelerate its preparations for eurozone accession; although, sensing his vulnerability, tried to downplay the issue during the election. 

However, although a Law and Justice-led administration will be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. In fact, although the issue of Polish-EU relations was highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such but were rather simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with the two parties treating 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 Union. 

A more robust Russian policy? 

The difference between the two parties’ foreign policies can also be seen in their approach to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally they appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government has, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, been constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this has, it argues, been a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Mr Duda and Law and Justice want to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. They would like to use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. During the election campaign, Mr Duda also called for a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and indicated that he would consider providing military aid to Ukraine within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the ruling party’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, during the election campaign Mr Duda identified himself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – who was the Law and Justice-backed President between 2005-10, and in whose chancellery Mr Duda worked as a senior legal advisor – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. Mr Duda is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia. 

Conflicting foreign policy narratives? 

If Civic Platform wins the autumn election and remains in government, which is still a distinct possibility, then Poland faces a period of up to four years of political cohabitation. Although, according to the Polish Constitution, foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, it also gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role while failing to delineate the two state organs’ respective powers precisely. Moreover, the President can exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. He also ratifies international agreements, so can block treaties negotiated by the government, and is the country’s highest representative and can, for example, try and participate in meetings of the EU Council. So the government has to factor in his position and there is a danger of two conflicting European and foreign policy narratives coming from Warsaw.

Indeed, the previous period of cohabitation between the Civic Platform government and Mr Kaczyński in 2007-10 saw an ongoing power struggle between the government and President, with the former accusing the latter of attempting to pursue a parallel foreign policy. One of the most high profile disputes occurred in October 2008 when Mr Kaczyński and the government clashed bitterly over who had the right to determine the composition of the Polish delegation at that month’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. This ended as a major political embarrassment for Poland as Mr Kaczyński attended the summit against the wishes of the government, which even refused the President use of the official government aircraft forcing him to charter a private jet. Mr Kaczyński and the government also had a number of high-profile disputes over the substance of Poland’s EU policy, the most dramatic being when the President delayed Polish ratification of the Lisbon treaty for eighteen months in 2008-9.

The parliamentary election is the key

Mr Duda’s unexpected presidential election victory will certainly have an impact upon Poland’s relationships with its European partners but its full ramifications depend on the outcome of the parliamentary election. Experience suggests that Law and Justice is often more rhetorically than practically Eurosceptic and that foreign policy divisions between the two main parties are an extension of domestic politics by other means. Nonetheless, if Mr Duda finds himself working with a government with whom he shares a common programme then Poland will certainly be more assertive in pushing forward its interests at the international level independently of the major EU powers. If, on the other hand, we are in for re-run of cohabitation then there is a danger of ongoing clashes between a Law and Justice President and Civic Platform-led government over both their respective competencies and the substance of European and foreign policy.

Aleks Szczerbiak 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.

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Electoral Choices in Central and Eastern Europe

In their preview of the elections to the European Parliament posted on the EPERN Blog on March 31st, Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak rightly stress that ‘“Europe” remains a very diverse and multi-dimensional issue’ and – from views published after the results were announced – this seems to be just as true for those commenting on the elections as it does for the voters themselves. While the political establishment in France and the United Kingdom trembled in the face of advancing hordes of Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters, those living on planet Brussels expressed relief that a higher election turnout had actually brought positive results. European Parliament (EP) Liberal leader Verhofstadt noted with apparent pleasure that, for the first time, turnout was ‘going up and not going down as we have seen in the last 30 years’ while leader of the Socialists and Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, was equally pleased that the forecast ‘big disaster’ did not happen (EurActiv May 26). Such sanguine views were possibly not shared by Nick Clegg or François Hollande. The higher turnout thus welcomed in the EU as a whole was, further, a less than spectacular rise of 0.9% on the modest 43% achieved in 2009. Perceptions of the election results were, indeed, mixed.

It was, too, in terms of turnout that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) generally attracted most attention. Slovaks maintained their reputation as the Europeans least inclined to vote with a turnout of only 13% (www.results-elections2014.eu/en/country-introduction-2014.html). All other CEE countries, with the exception of Lithuania (where the vote was combined with one for the presidency), also showed levels of turnout below the EU average. Compulsory voting laws in Belgium and Luxembourg (countries where 90% participated in the election) raised the voting average in Western Europe and the EU overall, but turnout in the countries of CEE as a whole was still strikingly low and declined from the 2009 level in eight of the ten countries that were EU members at that date. Apart from Lithuania, it was only Romania that saw a higher turnout (to a modest 32%). The low turnout was doubtless associated with the fact that in no post-communist country was there a populist Eurosceptic victory like that of UKIP and Front National or, for that matter, Beppe Grillo’s M5S in Italy, the Danish People’s Party or Syriza in Greece, all of which captured more than 20% of the vote.

This, in turn, reflected the fact that the surge of Euroscepticism and dissatisfaction with the EU apparent in Western Europe was not seen in CEE. As in other respects, Hungary was something of an exception and the far-right Jobbik attracted 14.7% of the votes. But even this was way below most predictions and a marked decline from the 20.3% it had gathered in the national election in April, just a few weeks earlier. Elsewhere, populist anti-EU parties were even less successful. In Poland the Congress of the New Right gained 7%, Slovenian and Slovak Nationalists 4% each, Bulgaria’s Ataka just 3%, and the Party of Greater Romania even less. Of these parties, only the Polish Congress has gained any seats.

As a general rule, it was governing parties that headed the list as they consolidated their existing position. This was clearly the case with Fidesz, which received 51% in Hungary, similar to their share of the national vote the previous month. Governing parties also prevailed in Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia and Slovakia, with between 24-46% of the vote. The ruling Social Democrats also won in Romania where more people voted than in 2009, probably because of growing interest in the presidential contest to be held later in the year and greater public awareness of shifting party alignments. Turnout, it seemed, was not affected the same way in Slovenia, where the government had recently collapsed and national elections were also imminent. In this context, it was the opposition Democratic Party that won.

Overall there were few surprises and the post-communist countries did not share the strong Eurosceptic turn apparent elsewhere (although they had also suffered considerably during the economic crisis that gathered momentum after 2008 and also – in some cases like Slovakia and Slovenia – felt the direct pressures of the Eurozone crisis). There was, too, little scope for the anti-immigrant sentiment that fed the populist forces seen in the West (hardly surprising, as many immigrants came from the East). All in all, the elections in CEE were not just second-order events, as has generally been the case (see Taggart and Szczerbiak), but were often seen as a routine of rather little significance. Nearly half of Czech respondents in one survey just thought that the EP elections were not necessary (EUobserver 25 May). It is, nevertheless, interesting that dissatisfaction with the national government – which is hardly negligible in CEE – has not transmuted into anti-EU sentiment in the way seen in France and the UK (the fact that the current administration is better regarded in Italy and Germany seems to have limited anti-EU electoral currents in those countries).

In similar vein, Slovak analyst Zuzana Gabrizova dismissed concern over the low turnout in that country and noted that there were just no strong incentives for people to vote (EUobserver May 25). Recent data certainly point to a more supportive view being taken of the EU in Slovakia. Much like the average EU citizen, in March 2014 60% of Slovaks perceived the situation of the European economy as bad or very bad; the overall EU figure was 58% (Special Eurobarometer 415). They were, however, significantly more inclined to trust the EU (45% compared to the 32% EU average). A European University Institute (EUI) study from 2013 (The Euro Crisis and the State of European Democracy) showed that the sharp decline in trust in EU institutions since the start of the crisis was indeed most pronounced in the original 12 members of the Eurozone, that is: excluding the CEE countries as well as Malta and Cyprus. Also significant, and largely confirming West European apprehensions, in terms of what the EU means to them personally Slovaks particularly valued the freedom to travel, study and work throughout the EU: 52% against an EU average of 44% (Special Eurobarometer 415).

Given these responses, the widely expressed view that low turnout rates are alarming and show that the ‘last remaining bit of enthusiasm for the Union seems to have vanished in numerous eastern European countries’ (EUobserver May 26) appears rather simplistic. The low propensity to vote may indeed show that enthusiasm is in short supply, but it does not necessarily mean that Slovaks and other CEE citizens are as disenchanted with the EU and as keen to leave it as are major parts of the West European electorate. Similar views, and a willingness to accept the rough with the smooth in terms of EU and even Eurozone membership, have been detected in the context of the economic crisis by the EUI study referred to above. Hungary, Romania and Latvia all applied for IMF loans and were thus obliged to follow its financial sustainability requirements, a similar path being followed by Eurozone candidates who were part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This meant that strict austerity measures had to be taken, as not doing this would have endangered prospects of Euro membership or existing Euro arrangements which were regarded as more important for governments and electorates than short-term improvements in growth and employments (See: K. Armingeon, ‘National fiscal responses to the economic crisis’, in The Eurocrisis). It was a question of priorities, which had, in turn, a distinct influence on voting patterns in the EP elections. For this reason, popular opposition to, and electoral protest against, these measures was considerably more muted than in Western Europe.

The election of a new EP was not the only one held on May 25th. Just across the border of the EU a presidential election was held in Ukraine, a country whose long-running crisis sparked in November 2013 by President Yanukovych’s rejection of the Association Agreement proposed by the EU and whose problematic relations with Russia were of far greater importance to the CEE countries than to Western Europe. The experience of Soviet Russian rule was a not too distant memory in most countries of the region, and Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs was seen as a direct security threat. In some countries, Poland and Latvia in particular, developments in Ukraine and the stance taken by different parties had a strong effect on voter preferences, although it clearly did not motivate people to vote. Nevertheless, ever since the end of World War II the countries of CEE had been faced with a clear alternative in terms of East or Western affiliation, even if their inhabitants had little or no choice in the matter. In 2004, most of them had made a clear choice for EU membership, with three more following suit in 2007 and 2013. This had been the decisive choice, and the make-up of the EP (itself a rather ambiguous body) was a matter of no great interest, a factor which goes a long way to explaining low turnout and the absence of major currents of opposition to the EU in the elections.

Paul Lewis

(p.g.lewis@open.ac.uk) is Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Studies at the Open University, UK.