Poland – The government’s decreasing parliamentary majority and the potential for presidential activism

This post first appeared on www.presidential-power.com on 16 October 2013

In recent months the Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Tusk has experienced a number of defections so that the majority of the coalition government with the Peasants’ Party (PSL) in the 460-deputy Sejm is now reduced to just 232 (for an analysis of these see Aleks Szczerbiak’s Polish Politics Blog). Decreasing parliamentary majorities are nothing unusual for Polish governments but they make governments vulnerable, not least to presidential activism.

Looking back: Decreasing majorities and presidential activism in Poland

Until Tusk’s election victory in 2007 and subsequent re-election in 2011, no Polish government had survived a whole legislative period (in fact, the average cabinet duration was 12 months, and no cabinet was in office longer than 2.5 years). Governments either suffered from mass defections [1] or lost their coalitions partner which also meant losing the majority in parliament. While the remaining parties in government could usually still count on the support of some defectors or their former coalition partners to pass legislation, the fact that presidential vetoes can only be overridden with a relative 3/5 majority (2/3 before 1997) put governments into the mercy of the head of state.

In the past, presidential activism usually increased when the government’s majority decreased. This is best exemplified by the governments of Jerzy Buzek. During the coalition of Buzek’s ‘Electoral Action Solidarity’ (AWS) with the ‘Freedom Union’ (UW) [12/1997-06/2000], the government disposed of 56% of seats in the assembly and President Kwaśwnieski vetoed 0.44 bills per month. However, when the UW left the coalition Buzek’s new cabinet [06/2000-10/2001] held only 40% in parliament. As defections continued, the president vetoed more frequently and now issued 1.2 vetoes per month. Yet as relations between president and government were cohabitational at the time, this case does not allow for drawing inferences about the current situation. More applicable in this respect are the governments under Jerzy Miller and Marek Belka between 2001 and 2005 who – like president Kwaśwnieski – belonged to the ‘Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). As could be expected, president Kwaśwnieski used his formal powers only infrequently. Nevertheless, after the SLD lost the PSL as coalition partner in early 2003 (and thus also the majority in the Sejm) informal pressure on the government mounted. The president could exert sizeable influence over government policy-making as the government would not have been able to oppose his vetoes (even with support of its former coalition partner and other government-‘friendly’ deputies). The president’s high public approval compared to the government’s lack of public support further increased this imbalance of power and amongst others allowed Kwaśwnieski to push through Belka as Miller’s successor in 2004.

Tusk, Komorowski and the potential for ‘friendly fire’

While examples from Poland’s recent political history can illustrate the problems now faced by the government of Prime Minister Tusk, his situation is different in so far as this time the majority is not in danger due to the loss of a coalition partner. In most votes, Tusk can also still rely on the deputies of ‘Your Movement’ (‘Twój Ruch’/TK – previously ‘Ruch Palikota’/Palikot Movement) but these are not enough to overturn a presidential veto. The remaining groups are also unlikely to come to the government’s rescue. Furthermore, president Komorowski’s approval ratings are at an all-time high while the government has continuously lost support since its re-election in October 2011. The president should have no interest to sabotage the government’s agenda and has held back with regard to domestic political debates (he has only vetoed 2 bills so far and none of them in the current legislative term). Nevertheless, the recent remarks about the president’s opposition to parts of the government’s overhaul of the pension system by one of his advisors might be evidence of Komorowski’s attempts to exploit the government’s vulnerability and influence policy decisions already in the drafting stages.

[1] The seat share of Hannah Suchocka’  government (7/1992-10/1993) dropped from 40% to 16% within just fourteen months.

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