Monday, 14 February 2011

Poland's Nick Clegg?

During last year’s UK parliamentary elections a favoured slogan became ‘I agree with Nick’. This arose during the televised debates between the leaders of the three major political parties in Britain, when both the Tory and Labour leaders were keen to win the favour of the Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg. Clegg promised to bring a freshness to British politics and won favour from the electorate by positioning his party as the only alternative to the two parties that had dominated British politics for the past few decades. In particular, Clegg stressed how the Liberal-Democrats had been less stained by the corruption scandals that had inflicted British parliamentary politics and at how his party was opposed to many of the budget cuts being proposed by the Tories and Labour.

This was Nick’s five minutes. With no party able to win an outright majority, British politics entered the uncertain waters of coalition forming – with the Liberals becoming the king-maker. Courted by both parties, Clegg (who had always been on the right of party) chose to form a coalition government with the Conservatives. He then proceeded to drop many of his previous policy commitments and sign up to the Tories’ policies of austerity. Most notably, the Liberal’s reneged on their decision to oppose tuition fees for university students, supporting the decision to allow student fees to rise to up to £9,000 a year. During the election campaign Clegg had made a great play of representing the young and supporting students – which led to the Liberal’s winning a large share of the student vote. The decision to raise student fees led to a wave of student protest, with much of the anger directed at Clegg and his party. Accordingly the party has slumped in the opinion polls with Clegg turning from hero to zero in the space of a few months.

The current position of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and its leader Grzegorz Napieralski is reminiscent of that of the Liberals prior to last year’s elections. At least part of the electorate is growing tired of the two party rule of PO and PiS and looking for an alternative to their domination. Napieralski emits the same youthful exuberance that can appeal to those looking for change and paradoxically the same polished blandness that avoids controversy. Whilst this won’t take the SLD into power alone – it could well be enough to take sufficient votes away from the two major parties so they must seek a partner(s) for coalition.

Yet there are also many differences between the situations in Poland and the UK. Although the electorate may be tiring of the current right-wing dichotomy – it has only been dominant for the past six years or so. It is worth remembering that it was just a decade ago that the SLD won over 40% of the vote in a general election. The party is still tainted by this time in government and although the faces may be new and fresh it is difficult for the SLD to credibly portray itself as the new and clean brand of political choice. Furthermore, while the Liberal Democrats benefited by going on the political offensive against the Labour government, and on many issues ostensibly positioned itself to the left of Labour, Napieralski and the SLD are reluctant to do the same.

For sure the SLD does have some policies in its programme that are distinct from PO. These include supporting introducing a tax on banks, rising taxes for luxury consumer items, opposing the privatisation of the health service and supporting increasing social benefits. However, the SLD has certainly not gone on the political offensive on these issues. Rather, Napieralski seems to be satisfied to maintain his personable image in the media without overly offending any future coalition partner before the next elections.

The party of choice for Napieralski would most probably be PO. They are closer on social and cultural issues and Napieralski would find a more natural partner for government in Tusk than Kaczyński. The current PO government has proved to be more pragmatic than its neo-liberal programme suggested. However, pressure is building within the business community, the media and from abroad for the government to be press ahead with a reform agenda and cut public spending. PO has answered these concerns by arguing that it is better that they win this year’s elections after which they would be able to make good their previous promises of reform.

However, while the present government may be willing to wait, others are growing increasingly impatient. The President of the Polish Business Centre Club (BCC), Marek Goliszewski, has recently stated that they may consider withdrawing their support for PO at the forthcoming elections and even backing SLD instead. The BCC had recently awarded a prize to the ex-SLD PM Leszek Miller – who they praised for having cut corporation tax and successfully reformed public finances when in government. Goliszewski explains:
‘I am not sure what the terms left and right practically mean in our country today. The left are those who cut taxes for business and the right are those who raise them. Business is pragmatic. It doesn’t make sense to choose someone due to the colour of their shirt but rather by what they actually do. If I had to decide between the left of Miller or the right of Tusk I would chose the first option.'

The building up of the SLD by the BCC has been accompanied by other commentators speculating as to whether a future PO-SLD government could become a true ‘reforming government’. The present praising of Miller is an amazing transformation for someone who had previously been considered persona non grata by much of the establishment. Miller is currently a close adviser to Napieralski and it has recently been rumoured that he will find a prominent position on the SLD’s electoral list at the next election.

In this situation Napieralski faces some tough political decisions. Will he be lured by the scent of political office and enter a coalition with PO? If he does so, will he position the party to the left of PO or will he take up the BCC’s challenge and become the leading reformer of this government? Before making this decision Napieralski should cast his own pragmatic eye on the lessons of history. The BCC may praise Miller nowadays, but his policies led to a collapse in support for the SLD that may take decades to overcome. He should also look at the experience of Nick Clegg and the Liberals in Britain and see how quickly a positive personal image can fade once one is inside an unpopular government. More importantly Napieralski should consider the responsibility that he currently shoulders as the leader of the major party in Poland that claims to be on the left. It may not survive another ‘Leszek Miller’ or indeed a new ‘Nick Clegg’

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