Tourists walking into Warsaw’s Old Town now invariably stop to look at the view across the river and take pictures of the national stadium. It is a symbol of the city’s success, a reminder of last year’s Euro football championships when Poland’s capital showed itself to the world as one of Europe’s growing and thriving cities. The building of a national stadium was the most prominent in a series of large investments made under the Presidency of Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (from Platforma Obywatelska – PO), who has governed Warsaw since 2006.
So how is it that within a year of this tournament finishing, a social movement of Warsaw’s citizens had managed to collect over 230,000 signatures forcing a referendum to remove Gronkiewicz-Waltz from office? And then, how is it possible that at this referendum, which took place last Sunday, the turnout was less than the 29.2% needed for it to be valid? In order to answer these questions we have to place Warsaw in the context of Poland’s general economic slowdown and a political situation where an incompetent opposition is unable to defeat an increasingly weak government.
Gronkiewicz-Waltz was re-elected as President of Warsaw in 2010, alongside most of her contemporaries in Poland’s major cities. These ruling administrations had been boosted by a large inflow of EU funds, allowing them to invest in their cities at a level not seen in decades. However, from the beginning of 2011, the national government began to pass the burden of deficit reduction onto local governments, through insisting that they balance their income and current expenditures. This was combined with a sharp economic slowdown in 2012 that decreased local government income, forcing them to reduce investments and introduce spending cuts.
Warsaw has not been exempt from this. In last year’s city budget, income fell by 480mln zloty and expenditure was cut by 40mln zloty. This policy of austerity has included a large decline in investments, that went down from 42.4bln zloty in 2011 to 35.2bln zloty in 2012 (and is predicted to fall below 30bln zloty this year).
The Warsaw government was not just reducing some excess spending from the boom years, but introducing new austerity easures. These included a significant increase in the cost of public transport, closing some bus lines and continuing the policy of commercialising parts of the health service. The education budget has been cut, with the government announcing at the beginning of this year that it would be closing 21 schools in the city. It is also abolishing the maximum limit of children allowed in schools, laying off teachers, combining many classes in schools and nurseries, farming out the preparation of school meals to external private firms and reducing the number of extra lessons and activities given to children in nurseries, including for those with special needs.
These hardships have also brought to light the wastefulness of the Warsaw government. Was it necessary to spend 2bln zloty building a national stadium near the city centre that will cost the government 21mln zloty this year to maintain and where last year’s Madonna concert brought a loss of nearly 5mln zloty. Was it wise to simultaneously invest 500mln zloty on building a second stadium in Warsaw for Legia Warszawa, whilst this national stadium stands empty for the majority of the year. Also was it really responsible of Gronkiewicz-Waltz to agree to spend 3.5mln zloty on a lavish New Year’s Eve Party in the city or give 300mln zloty to clerks as ‘rewards’ since she came to office? This excess spending is particularly difficult to accept when we consider how she has even failed to begin the process of building a hospital in the southern district of Ursynów (an area with no hospital where 150,000 people live) that she had promised would be completed by 2011.
Gronkiewicz-Waltz was displaying the worst traits of the PO government. Impassive to the realities of life outside her office, she came across as increasingly out of touch and arrogant. It was in these conditions that hundreds of volunteers took to the streets to collect the signatures for a referendum. This campaign focussed on the damaging effects of Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s policies, which resonated with a large section of the capital’s population. The campaign was also not strongly connected to any particular political party, with the most prominent political figure being the Mayor of the district of Ursynow – Piotr Guzial – an independent politician who had once belonged to the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).
Whilst this largely grass-roots movement was able to collect the signatures to force the referendum, it could not create a structure necessary to run a successful campaign to oust the President. This void was filled by the main opposition party the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Rather than continuing the strategy of reaching out to broad layers of Warsaw society, by concentrating on socio-economic matters, PiS did what they always do and focussed on the narrow concerns of their core electorate. Their campaign scandalously made reference to the Warsaw Uprising; as if an armed uprising against Nazi occupation in which 200,000 people lost their lives could be compared to a referendum where less than a third of the people can be bothered to vote. The campaign became a tired repeat of the familiar battle between the two parties of the right in Poland; and with PO calling for a boycott of the election, the vast majority of the electorate decided to take no part.
PO has made an art out of remaining in power by simply not being PiS. And PiS seem determined to make it as easy as possible for them to continue doing this. It maybe hard to mobilise people to continue voting for PO, but it was not too difficult to persuade them to simply not vote at all. In the run up to the referendum money was suddenly found to push ahead with previously stalled investments such as the ring-road and halt the price rises on public transport. Gronkiewicz-Waltz even deemed the situation serious enough to step outside her office and smile at the masses.
The other significant factor contributing to the survival of Gronkiewicz-Waltz was the role played by the left. After some deliberation, the SLD announced that it would not be encouraging its supporters to participate in the referendum. Only 7% of those of those who had voted for the SLD in the last elections took part in the referendum, helping to keep the turnout low. Janusz Palikot’s new reformed party (Your Movement) was unable to convince its voters that they should help PiS defeat PO. Also other parts of the left (Krytyka Politiczna, the Greens and individuals such as Ryszard Kalisz) could not mobilise sufficient numbers to influence the referendum.
Despite having its own peculiarities, the referendum was a microcosm of current national politics in Poland. The economic slowdown is causing a decline in living standards for large sections of society. Neo-liberal policies are worsening essential public services such as health and education upon which millions of people rely. Yet the dissatisfaction felt towards the government is not finding a positive political expression. In the next local (2014) and national (2015) elections a low turnout may help PiS to increase its share of the vote. But PiS has proved itself incapable of expanding its support and offering a positive programme for the country’s development. PO and PiS behave like two participants in a beauty contest claiming the other is the most ugly.
The Warsaw referendum has also shown how there is, as yet, no serious alternative to the left of the SLD. Under the leadership of Leszek Miller every move is carefully calculated with pragmatic precision. The decision of the SLD not to participate in the referendum can be interpreted in two ways. Some on the left claim that it shows how the ambitions of the SLD extend no further than entering into a future coalition with PO. By helping to save Gronkiewicz-Waltz the party has increased its political capital and it will be better able to negotiate positions in future governments at a local and national level. Like PO and PiS they are unable to win support beyond their core voters and can only consolidate the 10% or so of the vote that they continue to hold.
Although this view holds some validity, it does not tell the whole story. The SLD placed a number of demands upon Gronkiewicz-Waltz after deciding to abstain in the referendum. These included such things as securing the interests of tenants in reprivatised buildings; halting the commercialisation of the health service; repairing the education system through reducing class sizes, stopping the closing of schools, restricting the firing of teachers and increasing support staff; reducing inequalities in development between city districts and refunding in-vitro treatment from the city budget. If the SLD is serious about these policies then any future coalition with PO is excluded. The challenge for the left (in all its forms) is whether it can create a broad coalition that can give positive expression to the frustrations and needs of society.
Despite over 90% of those who turned out on Sunday voting to remove her from office, Gronkiewicz-Waltz will remain President of Warsaw for at least another year. For now the loser has taken all.