A referendum on the survival of Warsaw’s mayor might finally force Polish politicians to listen to the country’s citizens.by Martin Ehl 15 October 2013
Three million zloty ($974,000) of taxpayer money is how much it cost for the Polish governing elite to grasp that it should start listening more to the country's citizens. That was the price tag for the organization this past weekend of a referendum on recalling Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz of the governing Civic Platform (PO). The mayor survived because of low turnout and will stay in office, but she and her party received – in the words of political scientist Aleksander Smolar of the Batory Foundation – a yellow card. Civic Platform didn't win anything, but only got another chance to recover from the "disease of power" – namely, the intense fatigue from governing, which involves the loss of voter support, the inability of government politicians to respond flexibly to the economic crisis, and a certain detachment from the everyday life of ordinary people.
For Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his party, it's still the most important political victory of the second half of this year. Until now, it had seemed that the conservative opposition, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was taking a deep breath before seizing the initiative, buoyed by earlier success with a few similar referendums in other parts of the country and by catching up in opinion polls to Civic Platform.
Today, in the post-communist countries, evidently the most important political tools for supposed success are scaring voters over the prospect of political rivals taking office and a lack of one’s own vision (something we also see, for that matter, in the Czech election campaign). Tusk’s problem is that Kaczynski − whose penchant for paranoia and score-settling strained Poland’s relations with its neighbors and distracted from the business of governing − has ceased to function as a bogeyman against whom he could easily define himself. The Warsaw referendum clearly showed that: the PO relied on voters’ apathy – success was a low turnout – instead of offering some positive plan, idea, or proposal for what could be done, improved, built. How to get voters on his side with some program, and not just band together in fear of Kaczynski, is Tusk's main challenge for the election season, which begins next spring with the elections to the European Parliament, continues with local elections, and culminates in elections to parliament in 2015.
The main lesson from the Warsaw referendum for the group governing Poland – and actually not only for it – is to overcome the habit that Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz herself acknowledged: poor communication with citizens/voters.
"Not only are [politicians] not persuading people with their essential ideas,” sociologist Ireneusz Krzeminski said in an interview with The Polska Times as he summarized the referendum results. “Not only do they not inform people about their plans, about what is being prepared. But they also disregard the opinions [of citizens], something that should be important and that should help modify the plans of the politicians and officials.”
Poland’s leaders have somehow become accustomed to rejecting any criticism or different opinion without argument, without clarifying the facts. But these individual referendums about unpopular mayors, culminating in a showdown about HGW (the acronym the media have adopted to indicate the mayor of Warsaw), showed that the conservative opposition knows well how to use this arrogance of power – which, of course, it suffers from as well. At least during the campaign before the referendum, HGW got it, as suddenly she started to explain and defend many past decisions.
Tusk already holds the record for longest-serving Poland prime minister since the fall of communism and the only one to lead his party to triumph in two consecutive parliamentary elections. Recently, however, his star has seemed to dim and his program to be too focused on how own public relations.
But even since the summer, there are signs of economic recovery. The statistical office will publish official figures later this week, but the forecast of the Polityka Insight think tank, for example, indicates picked-up growth in industrial production (from 2.2 percent in August to 6.3 percent in September) and retail sales (3.4 percent in August to 4.5 percent in September). Unemployment also fell two-tenths of a percent and, in the long-term perspective, has stopped growing, which makes it possible for Poles to have a bit less fear and spend more. In general, it seems that the Poles, frightened over their prospects at the turn of this year, are now looking toward their future with greater optimism. At the same time, orders from the euro zone are growing, especially from Germany. The weakening of the zloty has helped exports, which now spur the growth of the Polish economy. This year growth should be around 1.2 percent of GDP, and next year even as much as 2.7 percent.
Paradoxically, improving Poland’s economy could become a curse for Tusk. In fact, voters – similarly to 2005, in the early times of the record GDP growth – will feel more relaxed and either they won’t come to the polls, or, angered by the previous arrogance, will vote for politicians such as Kaczynski, who talks about higher taxes and a greater role for the state in the economy. That’s why it’s important for Tusk and, in general, “post-communist” politicians to learn an important lesson from the Warsaw referendum: Voters need a positive proposition, in which they see at least a reflection of their needs – not just some political and media dirt, or the real kind that makes one’s shoes dirty every day of the year.