EU election: Polish campaign dominated by Ukraine crisis

Eye of the tiger: Polish PM Donald Tusk. EPA/Jozef Jakubco

The EU election is the Polish government’s first real strength test since it was elected in October 2011. The poll on May 25 kicks off an electoral marathon, which will culminate in the autumn of next year with the next election for the Polish parliament.

In Poland, the election has been overshadowed by events across the country’s eastern border with Ukraine, with questions of national security firmly atop the political agenda. The turmoil in Ukraine has also helped the ruling party to recover some popular support, which was beginning to wane.

Before the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, most commentators assumed that the Polish EU vote would be a typical “second-order” election: a referendum on the performance of the government, fought primarily over domestic policy issues, which voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free protest vote.

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Before the Ukrainian crisis escalated, the outcome seemed easy to predict. With the governing centrists Civic Platform (PO) polling 5-10% behind the the main opposition, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, only the scale of the PiS’s victory appeared to be in doubt.

Ukraine totally altered the dynamics of the campaign. Donald Tusk, the prime minister, responded very swiftly; he seized upon the issue of Polish and European security to successfully portray his government as fully in control, and as a key player in the international community’s response.

He used Ukrainian developments to highlight his claim that the government’s project of putting Poland in the so-called “European mainstream” was bearing fruit. Campaigning on the slogan “A strong Poland in a secure Europe”, all of Mr Tusk’s campaign visits were focused on promoting the party’s “security agenda”. He also tried to tie the Ukrainian issue to the future of the whole European integration project.

Contrasting the ruling party’s strong pro-EU stance with the PiS’s apparent Euroscepticism, Mr Tusk argued that Poland’s security depended upon its position in a strong, politically and economically integrated EU capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats.

Neck-and-neck

The PiS was completely wrong-footed by the PO’s skillful reframing of the campaign in security terms. With the heft of incumbency, Tusk was able to project himself as an international statesman, holding urgent meetings with European and world leaders – and the opposition had no way to respond to this effectively. All of this paid off in the polls, which started to show the two main parties running neck-and-neck for the first time in almost a year.

Polls taken by CBOS, between April 22 and May 4. Comparison is with CBOS poll of April 30. Results presented here disregard undecided voters (38%). Europa.eu

PiS counter-attacked by trying to link security with domestic socio-economic policy issues, arguing that only they could reform and re-build the country to ensure the prosperity and good governance that were necessary to guarantee national security. They also argued that Tusk’s administration was itself partly responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, contrasting what they claimed was their accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow.

This counter-offensive resonated with many voters’ sense that the Tusk government had failed to deliver on many of its ambitious early promises. Nonetheless, a disciplined PO campaign focusing relentlessly on national security has meant that the ruling party could still pull off an unexpected election victory.

A radical sideshow

Apart from the contest between the two main parties, the other major development in the Polish EP election has been the rise of the economically libertarian, socially conservative and radically Eurosceptic Congress of the New Right (KNP). Led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene, polls show the party could cross the 5% threshold required for securing EU representation.

Korwin-Mikke is notorious for having voiced some of the most controversial views in Polish politics, including appearing to agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained “Ukrainian terrorists” who took part in the Kiev demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government. He retains a small but extremely dedicated core of supporters – especially among some younger voters, who have lent the KNP a strong Internet presence – and appears to have become the most attractive choice for protest voters looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment.

Nonetheless, the KNP’s potential electorate is an impulsive and unstable one. Even if it is able to retain its support until polling day, this could evaporate quickly – leaving its leader isolated in Brussels as an extremely marginal maverick voice. Korwin-Mikke is a high-profile side-show in an EP campaign where the most important question remains: which of the two main parties will emerge as the winner on May 25?