By Daniel Tilles

The normally quiet summer months have seen a flurry of political activity, as factions within the ruling coalition position themselves ahead of a restructuring of the government this autumn that will set its agenda for the next three years.

This has exacerbated, and made more visible, tensions within the governing camp, with the justice minister’s party particularly active in forging an independent and radical agenda. But talk of the impending death of the coalition – and potential early elections – is greatly exaggerated.

“Chairman Kaczyński has returned from holiday; from Monday we begin working on a normal basis,” said Łukasz Schreiber, the secretary of Poland’s cabinet, at the weekend, referring to the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Kaczyński holds no government position; his only state office is as a normal member of parliament. But the fact that the government cannot function fully without his presence is a telling indication of where power really lies in Poland.

As the chairman returns to work, he is facing a busy and potentially momentous autumn. The government that he unofficially leads is set for another shakeup, and the ruling United Right coalition that his PiS party dominates has been coming under strain.

A busy summer

Poland’s summer months are colloquially known in Polish as the sezon ogórkowy (cucumber season) – a time when serious, political news takes a back seat and the media focus on more frivolous stories. What the British call “silly season”.

In an era of 24-hour online news and social media, that idea has become increasingly outdated. But nevertheless, this year has seen an exceptionally busy political summer.

The tone was set by the presidential election – due initially to take place in May – being pushed back to late June and early July. The campaign and its aftermath meant that political disputes continued well into the summer.

Although the ruling camp generally rallied in support of incumbent Andrzej Duda, helping him to victory, there were also clear signs of tension. These included the resignation from the government of Jarosław Gowin, leader of PiS’s junior coalition partner Agreement (Porozumienie), in protest against efforts to hold the election in May amid the pandemic.

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Duda’s campaign itself also hinted at the competing forces within the governing coalition, as it swung back and forth between different issues. An early focus on pragmatic matters such as infrastructure – often involving visits to project sites with the technocratic prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki – later gave way to stoking the culture war, in particular through attacks on “LGBT ideology”.

That latter direction was more in keeping with PiS’s second junior coalition partner, United Poland (Solidarna Polska). Whereas Agreement represents the more moderate, business-friendly wing of the ruling camp, United Poland and its hardline leader, justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, are keen to push the government in a more radical direction.

The parties saw their influence within the ruling coalition increase at last October’s parliamentary election, when they each doubled their number of MPs at the expense of PiS. Since then they have flexed these strengthened muscles.

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In November, Agreement pushed PiS to back away from plans to increase social insurance contributions from high earners. And Gowin’s rebellion in April not only forced Kaczyński to abandon plans to hold presidential elections in May but led to speculation that the government could collapse altogether.

Any hope that Duda’s victory might smooth over these problems – or at least bring some brief respite after a double election campaign that had lasted the whole year – was quickly dispelled when, just a week later, Kaczyński announced that there would be a “restructuring” of the government straight after the holidays. This ensured a summer of intrigue and speculation.

Significantly, Kaczyński made clear that the reshuffle would not involve Morawiecki, whose position as prime minister was safe. Morawiecki and Ziobro – who was ousted from PiS in 2011, leading him to form his own party – are the chief rivals within the government. They are vying not only for influence now, but potentially over who may emerge as the most powerful force on the right once the 71-year-old Kaczyński departs.

When announcing the imminent reshuffle, Kaczyński admitted that there were “various tensions” within the ruling camp: “I have to take into account…the ambitions of the generation of 50-something-year-olds who are waiting for their time. I do not want to block this path for them, because it would be imprudent, improper and also harmful.”

Ziobro, Morawiecki and Gowin are 50, 52 and 58 years old respectively. Other leading PiS figures with potential leadership ambitions – former prime minister Beata Szydło (57), current defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak (50), and former interior minister Joachim Brudziński (52) – are in the same age bracket.

Since Kaczyński’s announcement, Ziobro and other figures from his party have increasingly forged an independent position from the rest of the government. They have unveiled new, often major policies, without the approval of the cabinet.

In late July, for example, Ziobro drew international attention when he announced that his ministry was beginning the process of withdrawing Poland from a European convention on domestic violence. A government spokesman, however, quickly denied that the decision was agreed policy.

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Morawiecki then kicked the idea into the long grass by sending it to the Constitutional Tribunal for assessment, a tactic PiS uses for policies that it does not want to pursue but also cannot risk explicitly rejecting, such as a proposed abortion ban.

Soon after, in early August, Ziobro and party colleague Michał Woś, the environment minister, announced a proposed law that would oblige NGOs to declare sources of foreign funding.

Again, the policy was immediately shot down by a cabinet colleague, deputy prime minister Piotr Gliński. He made clear that the bill was being proposed only by United Poland, not the whole ruling coalition. And he reminded Ziobro that it is Gliński himself who is responsible for formulating the government’s policies towards NGOs.

Barred from state TV

While Ziobro has sought a more independent position and identity for his party, PiS has responded by apparently attempting to sideline it.

Last week, news website Onet reported that for over a month – since 19 July – no politician from United Poland had appeared as a guest on the main political programmes on TVP Info, the state news channel, which is under the control of PiS.

Such an exclusion cannot be put down to coincidence. Onet’s sources indicated that an order had come directly from PiS party headquarters – “in practice Jarosław Kaczyński” – for Ziobro’s people not to appear on the channel.

Kaczyński had reportedly been particularly angered by a report on TVP’s main evening news on 13 July that criticised Morawiecki’s office for placing adverts in media critical of the government.

The report, according to Onet, was the result of a “tactical alliance” between Ziobro and Jacek Kurski, the former United Poland politician now in charge of TVP.

This “act of war” against Morawiecki was “a step too far” for Kaczyński, who “ordered Kurski to cut United Poland off from TVP Info as a punishment”, writes Onet. A separate report in the newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna quoted inside sources saying the same.

This internal quarrel has now increasingly come into the open. Last week, a number of ministers from United Poland, including Ziobro, publicly criticised the education ministry for firing a school superintendent who had called LGBT a “virus” – even though his dismissal had been for other, unrelated reasons.

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A deputy minister from United Poland, Janusz Kowalski, recently criticised the appointment of a figure linked with the former government, Mariusz Zawisza, to head an energy firm.

“Maybe someone has forgotten that PiS is in power and not PO [Civic Platform, the former ruling party]!” tweeted Kowalski – a reference, perhaps, to the fact that Morawiecki, who has spent most of his career as a banker, himself served as an adviser to the PO government. He did not even join PiS until after it came to power (and after he become a minister) in 2015.

Morawiecki’s past has led to some suspicion of him within the ranks of PiS and its allies. It also means he does not have an established support base – though he clearly enjoys the backing of Kaczyński, the only person who really matters.

Unexpected resignations

Adding to the sense of turbulence was a series of unexpected ministerial resignations in mid-August. First, the health minister, Łukasz Szumowski, and his deputy announced their departure, followed a day later by the foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz.

Szumowski and Czaputowicz had not been expected to leave until this autumn’s reshuffle, and their premature departures came as a surprise. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Szumowski had promised not to “abandon ship”.

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Following his resignation, Czaputowicz gave an interview in which he criticised the government, suggesting that he had left because he was not comfortable with its “style…of confrontation”.

Tellingly, Czaputowicz also noted that, whereas “previously the prime minister was a mediator in disputes between ministers, such as between Ziobro and me on the rule of law[,]…now he has become part of disputes with, among others, Ziobro”.

What happens next?

All of the above is significant, but should not be exaggerated. Political pundits have prematurely prophesied the end of Kaczyński’s coalition before. Yet the PiS chairman has repeatedly shown himself adept at balancing the various factions within it.

Indeed, competition between his subordinates no doubt serves Kaczyński’s interests. A little creative chaos prevents stagnation. Internal rivalries also stop the emergence of an inevitable successor to Kaczyński who could challenge his position. A situation in which people believe Kaczyński’s departure will result in the collapse of the United Right helps to ensure that it will not happen before he wants it to.

It is also important to note that for dissatisfied elements under Kaczyński’s umbrella there is very little alternative.

During Gowin’s rebellion in the spring, there was some talk of him joining with the opposition to oust PiS and form an alternative administration. Yet that would have entailed building a coalition containing a multitude of parties ranging from the centre-right to the hard left – not a realistic scenario.

For Ziobro, there are even fewer options. The only other caucus in parliament that might embrace his more radical ideas is the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja). Yet they are small in number, with only 11 MPs; and any ambitions to bring them into a more radical ruling coalition would be hindered by Confederation’s aversion towards PiS.

A final, nuclear option would be to force an early election. Dziennik Gazeta Prawna reported last week that, according to anonymous government sources, Kaczyński has become so frustrated with the discord being sown by Ziobro’s camp that he would consider a snap vote.

That would, however, be a huge risk. After successful efforts to stifle the pandemic in its early stages, coronavirus cases have now risen to record levels. The reason that PiS were so keen to hold the presidential election as early as possible was that they worried the chances of victory would diminish over time as the economic efforts of the pandemic became more apparent.

Meanwhile, the opposition mounted a strong challenge for the presidency. The candidates finishing in second and third place – Rafał Trzaskowski and Szymon Hołownia – are in the process of creating new movements that would still have momentum if an election were held now, but might be spent forces by 2023, when the current parliamentary term is due to end.

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The autumn reshuffle

It is therefore very unlikely that anyone in the ruling camp would favour an early election. Instead, the current in-fighting – and the tactical leaks to the press about it – is part of the negotiations ahead of this autumn’s reshuffle, where two big issues are at stake.

First, Kaczyński reportedly wants to reduce the number of ministers in what has become a bloated administration. That would make decision making more streamlined and effective, but also mean fewer positions to hand out to keep various factions happy.

The latest reports on Tuesday morning suggest that Gowin is seeking to return to government in his old role as deputy prime minister, while also potentially taking control of an expanded development ministry. This is reportedly supported by Ziobro, who, despite ideological differences with Gowin, sees him as a useful tactical ally against PiS.

But with PiS reportedly keen to cut the number of ministries from the current 20 down to 14, 13 or even 12 (according to various reports), this could leave their junior coalition partners with only one each, down from their current two.

This is something Ziobro is currently unwilling to accept. It would also mean that, if Gowin were to return, one of his party colleagues – probably Jadwiga Emilewicz, the current deputy prime minister with the development portfolio – would have to depart (and may leave politics for the private sector, according to Dziennik Gazeta Prawna)

Second, the reshuffle will also see the government launch a new phase of activity, as it heads into three straight years without the distraction of elections (following a marathon of four campaigns – or five, if you include the cancelled and reorganised presidential elections – in the last three years).

An anonymous United Poland figure told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna that this has been the reason for their recent activity. Ziobro is keen to show that he is “active” while Morawiecki is “passive”, and to set out his vision of what policies the government should be pursuing in terms of “values and the culture war”.

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Reports suggest that discussions over the government’s renewed programme were meant to be completed in August, with the reshuffle announced in September. Now, however, it appears that possible negotiations could continue into October.

Whatever kind of new cabinet does emerge, it will reveal much about the balance of power within the ruling camp, about what direction the government will take for the next three years, and about the internal struggles that lie ahead.

Main image credits: Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Grycuk (under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL) and Adam Guz/KPRM (under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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