The unexpected success of Poland’s agrarian-centrist party in last autumn’s parliamentary election suggests that there could be a niche for a moderate conservative-centrist grouping among voters uncomfortable with the country’s right-wing ruling party and liberal-left opposition. But, critics argue, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, the agrarian party remains a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping rooted in provincial transactional politics.
Challenged in its heartlands
The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was formed in 1990 as the organisational successor to the former communist satellite United Peasant Party (ZSL), although it attempted to legitimise itself by claiming to have roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the Nineteenth Century. Peasant parties were prominent in inter-war Polish politics and the movement provided the main political opposition to the communist takeover in the late 1940s. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 25% of Poles were employed in the farming sector, mostly in peasant smallholdings that survived as an independent economic sphere throughout the communist period. This provided the Peasant Party with a substantial segment of the electorate that it could appeal to on the basis of a clear socio-economic interest and collective identity. Consequently, the party was junior coalition partner in the governments led by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) between 1993-97 (with its leader Waldemar Pawlak prime minister from 1993-95) and 2001-3. Its support peaked in the 1993 election when the party secured 15.4% of the vote and 132 seats in the 460-member Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber.
The party returned to office in 2007 when it became the junior governing partner of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO – currently Poland’s main opposition party) a coalition that lasted two terms until 2015 when it was ousted by the current ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Over the years, Law and Justice severely eroded the Peasant Party’s traditional core rural-agricultural electoral base and the agrarians had a near-death experience in the 2015 parliamentary election when they only just crossed the 5% representation threshold for individual parties securing 5.1% of the vote and 16 seats, the party’s worst result in any post-1989 poll.
During the 2015-19 parliament, the Peasant Party found it difficult to carve out a distinctive niche for itself as the political scene polarised sharply around bitter disputes between Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition. The government’s critics accused it of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law, while Law and Justice supporters argued that the opposition represented the interests of well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. At the same time, the Peasant Party continued to face an existential challenge in its rural heartlands from Law and Justice. The ruling party strengthened its position in the countryside by delivering on its generous social and welfare pledges, notably the flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which provided a significant boost to low income families living beyond the large urban centres who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s economic growth.
For sure, in the autumn 2018 regional elections the Peasant Party scored 12.1% of the vote, significantly higher than its national opinion poll ratings. But the party has always performed better in local elections – partly due to its strong grassroots organisational base of around 100,000 members, but also because there is generally a higher turnout in rural areas in these polls – and this was actually its worst performance in regional elections since 2002. Moreover, although the party remained in power (in coalition with Civic Platform) in eight out of the 16 regional authorities it lost control of some of its most important strongholds, notably the Lubelskie and Swiętokrzyskie provinces in South-Eastern Poland. This considerable loss of influence was important because the agrarians are primarily an office-seeking grouping that, critics argue, has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level. Regional authorities play a key role in disbursing EU funds and are thus a major source of party patronage. The party then proceeded to alienate a large segment of its socially conservative core rural and small-town electoral base when it contested last May’s European Parliament (EP) election as part of a broad anti-Law and Justice ‘European Coalition’ (KE) dominated by socially liberal and culturally left-wing parties.
Wooing the moderate conservative centre
As a consequence, the Peasant Party decided to take a risk by contesting last October’s parliamentary election independently and, in one of the biggest surprises, comfortably crossed the representation threshold securing an impressive 8.6% of the vote and 30 seats. This was partly due to the fact that, in spite of its relatively modest financial resources, the party’s talented leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz ran a very energetic and dynamic election campaign. He was, for example, the only party leader to participate in the live televised debates where he performed very effectively. Following its 2015 election defeat, the party realised that, rather than simply hoping that something would turn up, it had to be more pro-active and decided to make a radical break with its old guard electing Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz – one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists – as its new leader. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz tried to present himself as a conciliatory and consensual political figure, and his party as a constructive opposition capable of acting as a moderating influence on the bitterly divided Polish political scene. An October 2019 survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found him to be the most trusted opposition politician with 34% approval and 21% disapproval ratings.
Moreover, following the EP election fiasco Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz realised that the party had to have a more distinctive appeal if it was to survive and recover its support. He therefore developed a new strategy based on the Peasant Party heading up a broader, centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (KP) electoral bloc (although, in order to avoid the higher 8% threshold for formal electoral coalitions, its candidates actually stood on the party’s electoral lists). The aim here was to reach out to new electoral constituencies such as Civic Platform conservatives who felt increasingly uncomfortable supporting a party that was pivoting towards the cultural left. The parliamentary election exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency found that 9% of 2015 Civic Platform voters had switched to the Peasant Party and that these switchers comprised more than one-fifth of the latter’s total 2019 electorate.
The party also persuaded right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz – who achieved a sensational result in the 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping was elected as the third largest in the previous parliament – to join the Polish Coalition’s ranks. Although teaming up with the quintessentially pro-establishment Peasant Party severely undermined Mr Kukiz’s credibility and core appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner, the agrarian grouping won over 22.8% of the rock star-turned-politician’s declining grouping’s 2015 voters, bringing in a small but valuable swathe of new supporters. This probably contributed to the Peasant Party’s increase in support among young voters from 3.8% in 2015 to 10.3%. For sure, Mr Kukiz’s six deputies remain an unpredictable element within the Peasant Party’s parliamentary caucus and Law and Justice may try and poach some of them as it did successfully during the 2015-19 parliament. At the moment, however, they are virtually invisible in terms of their public profile and appear to have become almost completely absorbed by the agrarian grouping.
Although the Peasant Party continued to lose support among farmers – its vote share fell from 18.6% in 2015 to 17.1%, while Law and Justice’s increased from 53.3% to 67.4% – it held its own in rural areas more generally increasing its vote share there from 9.4% to 12.3%. At the same time, the Peasant Party compensated for losses in its traditional rural-agrarian heartlands by broadening its demographic base through crafting a centrist appeal directed at the moderate conservative intelligentsia and middle classes in both rural and urban areas. Consequently, it increased its vote share in larger towns (with populations between 200-500,000) and cities (with more than half-a-million inhabitants) from 1.4% and 1.5% to 6% and 5.5% respectively and, for the first time, won parliamentary seats in some of these urban agglomerations. In particular, the party increased its vote share among entrepreneurs – many of whom were concerned about Law and Justice’s costly social spending and welfare programmes, especially its plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023 – from 3.8% to 9.9%. In did so by stressing the importance of protecting businesses against excessive bureaucracy and high taxation; one of the party’s flagship policies was a proposal to make national insurance contributions voluntary for entrepreneurs.
A serious presidential challenger?
Now Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz wants to build upon the party’s parliamentary election success, and continue his political project of broadening its appeal, in May’s crucial presidential poll, Poland’s next major electoral test. Presidential elections have traditionally been those in which the Peasant Party’s core supporters have taken the least interest; in 2015 its candidate performed disastrously finishing sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. But the party’s supporters hope that it can cash in on Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s personal popularity (which has increased since the parliamentary election) and that he can secure a respectable result this time around.
For sure, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz currently appears to have little chance of winning: the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys places him fifth averaging 7% support. However, too many premature political obituaries have been written for the Peasant Party in recent years and it would be a mistake to under-estimate its leader in this poll. Ironically, the fact that the party has always scored its worst results in presidential elections means that Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz starts with very low expectations, so if he runs an effective campaign and manages to achieve a percentage score in double figures it could still portray this result as a major success. Indeed, some commentators argue that, because of his ability to pick up more support among moderate conservative-centrist voters than the liberal or left-wing opposition candidates, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz would actually have the best chance of defeating the Law and Justice-backed incumbent and favourite Andrzej Duda in a second round run-off, which is required if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes in the first round.
Still rooted in transactional politics?
Previous Peasant Party leaders have also talked about rebranding the party as a broader centrist formation in the way that some West European agrarian parties evolved from class-based organisations into more ‘catch-all’ groupings (the party has, for some time, used ‘People’s Party’ as the English translation of its name). Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz is also aware that, in addition to the specific challenge that the party faces from Law and Justice for its traditional electorate, longer term demographic trends show that Poles are moving away from rural areas and the proportion working in agriculture is declining as modern farms operate increasingly as agro-businesses rather than traditional peasant smallholdings. But, until recently, plans to modernise the grouping never went much beyond an aspiration and it always remained, at root, an interest-based rural-agricultural ‘class’ party.
The 2019 parliamentary election suggests, however, that there is a moderate socially conservative and traditionalist electorate in Poland that is uncomfortable with both Law and Justice’s redistributionist socio-economic policies and radical state reconstruction programme, and Civic Platform’s increasing drift towards the moral-cultural left. The election could, therefore, be a key landmark in Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s long-term political project of transforming the Peasant Party from an agrarian interest group into a modern conservative-centrist party. Nonetheless, the party’s critics argue that, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, it remains at its core a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping strongly rooted in a provincial transactional politics.
Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak
This post originally appeared on the Polish Politics Blog. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the British Poles Portal.
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe? (Routledge, 2012)