Having grown up in Britain’s political culture, I’m often shocked at the lack of personal accountability in Polish politics. On 7 May this year, general elections were held in the UK. The big winners were the Conservatives, who won a majority, and the Scottish National Party, who swept almost all seats north of the border. The morning after the election, the leaders of the other three main parties had all offered their resignation: Ed Miliband, despite increasing Labour’s share of the vote since the previous election; Nigel Farage, despite winning an unprecedented 13% of votes for UKIP; and Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats performed disastrously.
Compare this to what has (or rather hasn’t) happened in Poland since Sunday’s election. Ewa Kopacz, despite overseeing PO’s dramatic collapse this year (it’s easy to forget that just six months ago the party was leading the polls), has offered no indication that she will quit. Indeed, there are rumours that she will try to cling on to her position.
Meanwhile, 69-year-old Leszek Miller remains as leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), despite the failure of the United Left (ZL) coalition, which his party dominates, to win enough votes to even qualify for parliament. Janusz Palikot, the leader of Your Movement, the other main party within ZL, is also still in place. (It should be noted that Barbara Nowacka, who led ZL’s election campaign, has resigned, but she was never in a real position of power.)
Rather than take personal responsibility, Miller has feebly blamed defeat on last week’s leaders debate (in which Nowacka participated, rather than himself). But if his coalition could not survive the 1-2% drop in support that came after that event, clearly there are much deeper problems. Indeed, this is just the latest in a series of increasingly embarrassing election results for the SLD, such as the pathetic performance of Miller’s hand-picked presidential candidate, Magdalena Ogorek, earlier this year.
Likewise, Janusz Korwin-Mikke remains at the head of his party, despite it failing to reach the threshold required to enter parliament. (Given that this party, KORWiN, is simply a personal political vehicle – the clue being in the name – this isn’t at all surprising, however.)
This state of affairs is no one-off either. Although Jaroslaw Kaczynski is now celebrating his Law and Justice party’s success, this comes after he had overseen seven years of failure in every national, local and European election it contested. Despite promising on more than one occasion to quit, there was never any realistic chance of Kaczynski handing over the reins.
This lack of accountability sends a terrible message to voters. They can reject a party at the polls as many times as they like, but nothing will change. Parties in Poland often appear to be personal fiefdoms, in which positions are decided on the basis of patronage systems rather than meritocracy. Indeed, dominant leaders sometimes seem more keen to suppress rising stars for fear of competition then to reward them with any influence. Meanwhile, relatively unknown (and therefore unthreatening) figures are picked for theoretically powerful posts – Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydlo in the case of PiS; Ogorek and Nowacka for the SLD – while the likes of Kaczynski and Miller continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. This type of thing happens to some extent in any political system, of course, but much more so in Poland than in the West. It is little wonder that voter turnout rates are so low, and that there is a growing sense of disillusionment and anger with the political establishment.
As well as its negative symbolism, this failure to take personal responsibility will also have harmful practical consequences. After electoral defeat, there should be a fresh slate of candidates offering contrasting visions on how to take a party forwards (as happened in the British Labour Party’s leadership contest, which was won by a complete outsider). Instead, we are likely to see failed leaders desperately trying to maintain power and influence. PO now seems set for a bitter contest between Kopacz and the outgoing foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna. Rzeczpospolita reports that the ‘knives are out’ in an ‘internal war’ over leadership of the SLD. This will be a sad footnote to what has been an historic election for Poland.