Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Tusk Picks Up the Scraps

As Poland's parliamentary elections loom in the Autumn the game of political musical chairs has begun. The most significant development so far has been the high profile left MP - Bartosz Arłukowicz - joining Donald Tusk's government. Although Arłukowicz was not a member of the SLD he was an important and high-profile member of SLD leader Grzegorz Napieralski's team.

In recent days persistent rumours have also been circulating in the media that Donald Tusk is going to offer a number of other prominent left figures positions on PO's electoral list at the forthcoming elections. The majority of these are from the Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL) and include people such as Dariusz Rosati, Isabella Sierakowska and Józef Pinior. It seems that Tusk is attempting to incorporate parts of the left into the ranks of PO. Why would he want to do this?

PO were able to win the 2007 parliamentary elections by riding the popular wave of anti-PiS sentiment within the country. PO was seen as being the only party capable of defeating PiS and was therefore able to win the support of a significant section of the SLD electorate who were most concerned with removing Kaczyński's party from office. PO are now trying to repeat this trick through firstly weakening the SLD, by bringing some well-known left figures into PO and thus giving the party a left face during the elections. Secondly, they are spreading fear in the media that if PO do not win the elections then the SLD is likely to form a governing coalition with PiS. This strategy is dangerous for Tusk and PO for two reasons

1. By reaching out to parts of the left, Tusk is potentially isolating and building hostility within other sections of his party. Tusk has attempted to build a broad centre-right party capable of dominating Polish politics and within PO there exists a strong conservative wing. PO has always been a conservative party on cultural and social issues - opposing for example the state funding of in-vitro treatment for couples and refusing to liberalise the country's draconian abortion law or recognise the legal status of same sex relationships (the SLD have put forward a bill in parliament on this issue this week.) As Jarosław Gowin - the major representative of PO's conservative wing - has stated: 'I joined a conservative-liberal party, not a left-liberal one'

PO has also been built upon a political base that has a strong ideological commitment to liberal economic policies. The party has already disgruntled part of this electorate, when it partially nationalised the private pensions system earlier this year. Although in reality this electorate has no other serious political option other than voting for PO, Tusk must ensure that it mobilises its core electorate to come out and vote for it this year.

2. Also the incorporation of individuals connected to the SdPL (of which Arłukowicz was formerly a member) into PO may conversely strengthen the SLD. Let's remind ourselves of the history of this party.

The SdPL was formed as a breakaway from the SLD in 2004, in the wake of the collapse of the Miller government. Led by the then Speaker of the House, Marek Borowski, the SdPL promised to build an authentic, broad and democratic social democratic party in Poland. Many honest activists of the left were drawn to this project in the hope that it represented a potential breakthrough for the Polish left. However, it quickly transpired that the SdPL was not constructing a social democratic party but a social liberal one that sought an alliance with the now evaporated liberal centre. It is a popular political myth that Napieralski has led the SLD into a political cul-de-sac and reduced support for the party. Although the SLD should certainly attempt to broaden its political appeal, the strategy of reaching out to the liberal centre has continually reduced support for the left not increased it (see my previous post on Blairism in Poland).

Therefore while the SLD only won 11% of the vote at the 2005 elections, the SdPL gained less than 4%. Likewise when the two parties ran on a common slate with the liberal Democratic Party (PD) in 2007, the combined vote for the left was just 13%. Many on the left have not forgiven the SdPL for splitting the left and with PO looking like the destination point for many of its leading figures it will increase hostility towards them. The SdPL has now ended up as a collection of generals with no army, desperately seeking a new political home. So much for building a new kind of genuine social democratic politics in Poland.

As the parliamentary elections approach, with only the SLD as the sole left representative, it is imperative that it attempts to unify the left vote around it. Rather than trying to manoeuvre itself into positions in any future hypothetical governing coalition - with either PO or PiS - it should be clearly setting out an alternative to the right. This would mean laying out clearly a set of political principles on which it refuses to compromise in any future coalition negotiations (e.g. against the privatisation of hospitals or for the state funding of in-vitro treatment). In this way the SLD would show how it is a party of political principle in contrast to its defectors who are already involved in the unseemly game of seeking political office at all costs.

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