Poland – The new cabinet of Ewa Kopacz and the limits of presidential influence over government formation

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 2 October 2014

Yesterday, the Polish Sejm (lower chamber of parliament) passed a vote of confidence in the new government of Ewa Kopacz by 259 to 189 votes (7 abstentions). Kopacz, the second woman to head a Polish cabinet, had been nominated by president Komorowski on 15 September after her predecessor Donald Tusk resigned in early September to take up the position of European Council president. The new cabinet includes a few surprise nominations in key ministries which – in one way or another – show the extend of president Komorowski’s influence over cabinet formation.

New Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz with her cabinet | photo via wikimedia commons

When president Lech Wałęsa appointed Hanna Suchocka as Poland’s first female Prime Minister in 1992, the new head of government reportedly had no influence over the composition of her cabinet. Rather, this was negotiated between leaders of the coalition parties and the president himself and it was evident that Suchocka (although deputy head of the Sejm’s legislative committee at the time) had been chosen for her lack of genuine political leverage. Ewa Kopacz’s nomination as Prime Minister thus stands in contrast to Poland’s first experience with a female Prime Minister. Kopacz was not only minister for health in Donald Tusk’s first government (2007-2011) and subsequently served as speaker of the Sejm, but has also been deputy chairperson of the Civic Platform (PO) since 2010 and first deputy since 2013. Rather than a stopgap, Kopacz comes to her position with more political power and experience than some of her male predecessors. The majority of ministers from the Tusk government will continue to lead their respective portfolio in Kopacz’s new cabinet. Notable changes, however, have been made in the ministries for foreign affairs, interior, and justice and give an indication of the power balance between president Komorowski and the new Prime Minister.

According to media reports, the departure of foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski and justice minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz can largely be attributed to pressure from president Komorowski. Both Sikorski and Sienkiewicz were implicated in a wiretapping scandal earlier this summer and the president had subsequently repeatedly expressed his disapproval towards their continued cabinet membership. Yet Komorowski’s pressure to remove both men from their posts is also evidence of the increasing hostility between the factions in the PO that formed around the triumvirate Tusk-Sikorski-Sienkiewicz and the president and his advisors. Their removal from the new cabinet (although Sikorski has now succeeded Kopacz as speaker of the Sejm) thus weakens the influence not only of said rival group but also that of ex-PM Donald Tusk. The dismissal of interior minister Marek Bernacki – a long-time ally of Komorowski – on the other hand appears to be Kopacz’s attempt to weaken the president’s influence over government policy.

The new appointments, too, bear marks of both Ewa Kopacz and the president. The new foreign secretary Gregorz Schetyna – although chairman of the Sejm’s foreign policy committee sine late 2011 – lacks significant foreign policy experience, yet is one of the most significant intra-party rivals of both Tusk and Komorowski. The new justice minister Cezary Grabarczyk is politically closer to the president and known as leader of a faction of regional party leaders who tended to support Donald Tusk but due to his post as deputy speaker under Ewa Kopacz also close to the new Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the fact that he has – despite pressure from Tusk and Komorowski – not been made deputy prime minister shows that Kopacz is wary of his potential influence. Last, the appointment of Teresa Piotrowska as the new interior minister is another point on Kopacz’s side of the scoreboard. Piotrowska, who first entered parliament together with Kopacz, is a close friend and political ally of the new Prime Minister, yet her nomination has widely been panned and criticised due to her announcement not to take on the oversight of the country’s special services.

Ewa Kopacz has thus managed to claim her appointees for two of the so-called ‘force ministries’ (foreign affairs, interior, defence – often staffed with presidential nominees due to political practice developed under Poland’s ‘Small Constitution’ 1993-1997), yet her success is mitigated by the lack of her chosen ministers’ qualifications. Nevertheless, she could still tip the balance of power between her and the president in her favour and thus credibly demonstrate her ambition to be an independent political actor. Yet this might prove to be only a temporary victory. She will only be able realise her political ambitions if the PO also elects her as a party leader, although these might not take place until after the next parliamentary election in autumn 2015.

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Ewa Kopacz’s cabinet consists of 19 members (PM + 17 ministers with portfolio + head of cabinet office), 11of which previously served in the same position under Donald Tusk (the ministries headed by the Civic Platform’s coalition partner, PSL, remained unaffected). There are four non-partisan members in the cabinet, all of which are have clear political links to the Civic Platform. The division of portfolios between PO and PSL remained unaffected and the PSL remains being slightly overrepresented in the cabinet.

 

Composition of Kopacz I
Prime Minister: Ewa Kopacz (PO, female, 58)
Minister for Defence & deputy PM: Tomasz Siemoniak (PO, male, 47)*
Minister for Economy & deputy PM: Janusz Piechociński (PSL, male, 54)*
Minister for Health: Bartosz Arłukowicz (PO, male , 43)*
Minister for Sport and Tourism: Andrzej Biernat (PO, male, 54)*
Minister for Administration and Digitalisation: Andrzej Halicki (PO, male, 53)
Minister for the Treasury: Włodzimierz Karpiński (PO, male, 53)*
Minister for Justice: Cezary Grabarczyk (PO, male, 54)
Minister for the Environment: Maciej Grabowski (non-partisan [PO], male, 55)*
Minister for Education: Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 50)*
Minister for Science and Higher education: Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (PO, female, 66)*
Minister for Labour and Social Policy: Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (PSL, male, 33)*
Minister for Culture and National Heritage: Małgorzata Omilanowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 44)
Minister for the Interior: Teresa Piotrowska (PO, female, 59)
Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development: Marek Sawicki (PSL, male, 56)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Grzegorz Schetyna (PO, male, 49)
Minister for Finances: Mateusz Szczurek (non-partisan [PO], male, 39)*
Minister for Infrastructure and Development: Maria Wasiak (non-partisan [PO], female, 54)
Minister without portfolio/Head of the Cabinet’s Office: Jacek Cichocki (non-partisan [PO], male, 43)*

* member of previous government with same portfolio (Tomasz Siemoniak was promoted to deputy PM).

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.

Comparing inaugural addresses of CEE presidents: Putting the country first?!

Yesterday, Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as US president drawing thousands to the West front of the Capitol and his inaugural address (full text here) was awaited by citizens and journalists around the world alike. In CEE inaugural addresses are usually held in parliament (also due to the fact that half of the president are elected there by the deputies and not by popular vote) and while presidents’ words receive their fair share of media attention, it can hardly measure up to American proportions.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev during his inaugural speech on 19 January 2012 © Office of the President of Bulgaria

Continue reading

Tweeting politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia & Ukraine – Part 2: Prime Ministers

Tweeting Politicians in Central and Eastern Europe_Part 2 Prime Ministers

Last week, I presented a ranking of tweeting presidents in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia. In the second part in my article series on tweeting politicians in the region, I look at tweeting prime ministers. Keep an eye on the SSEES Research blog where I will be posting a summary of my rankings and a few further thoughts in January next year. Furthermore, make sure to follow me and this blog on twitter (@pres_activism) to keep updated. Again, for the sake of this article I include Russia & Ukraine in the term ‘Central and Eastern Europe’. Continue reading

Fieldwork interviews: From phonebooks to fascists

This post first appeared on the UCL SSEES Research Blog on 8 November 2012

Fieldwork interviews in Eastern Europe can make big demands of young researchers. Careful preparation, creativity and persistence are the key to success, argue Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker.

Ringbound notebook

Photo: Sikura via Wikicommons

Interviews are commonly used across a variety of disciplines – from anthropology to political science, from linguistics to economics.Sometimes, they are the only way to gain important information and, even when they are used alongside other research methods, can give researchers unique insights

However, despite the added value they can bring, conducting interviews is often a more or less a self-taught skill. While there are a few text books, these often remain general, sometimes leaving researchers with more questions than they started with. Courses offered by UCL cover interviewing more directly, but nothing quite prepares research students for using this method in the field.

Given the region’s history, people in Eastern Europe can also be suspicious of (foreign) researchers inquiring about their daily lives or political views. Structures like parties or civil society organisations are sometimes not yet well established enough or sufficiently attuned to help researchers find and contact potential interviewees. And even if you get an interview, the fact that even top politicians and experts often do not speak foreign languages makes interviewing more complicated (although admittedly, this can also be an issue in Western democracies).

A key tool for preparing interviews and developing interview skills, we felt, was for PhD students working on Eastern Europe to share concrete experiences and problems. Is there an effective way to convince a busy, high-profile politician to give you an interview? What do you do to find young radical right activists and how can you safely approach them? What do you do when your interviewees give only very short answers? And when should you record your interviews?

Working with fellow UCL PhD candidate, James Dawson – having between us previously conducted interviews with politicians, activists, experts and young people in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Serbia, we convened a special event as a part of the SSEES’s PhD social science research seminar series to bring research students together in this way. Those attending the event were researching issues ranging from foreign policy to minority representation and women’s rights in Russia and several Central East European countries

Old serb woman in Kosovo enclave near Peć, Kosovo 2000

Foto_di_Signorina via Wikicommons

In discussion, we agreed that there are four stages to carrying out effective research interviews:

1) Preparing for interviews: Researchers need to make sure that they have an in-depth knowledge of the country, group or organisation where they will be conducting interviews –from important historic dates to local customs – and that they have chosen the right interview method. Questionnaires, focus groups or long, in-depth conversations all have different pros and cons.

2) Identifying and accessing respondents: Researchers must identify the people or groups they want to interview and think of ways to contact them. If you want to interview former government members or politicians, a list of people can be drawn up relatively easily from official publications or websites and these people can often be contacted directly through their offices or parties. But with less prominent respondents or members of the public, it is best to go through organisations and individuals, who might be able to help find suitable interviewees and arrange interviews.

3) Extracting information and building trust: Interview questions should be easy to understand and open-ended, but respondents must feel comfortable with the interview situation and it is the researcher’s responsibility to make sure that they do. Researchers also need to be aware of the different dynamics between interviewers and interviewees – some interviewees might be intimidated by the researcher and unwilling to disclose information. In other situations the researcher might equally intimidated by a high-profile politician or official who might in turn try to steer the interview in a different direction.

4) Recording and analysing data: The way researchers record their data differs greatly. While voice recorders are intimidating for some interviewees, they also offer the most accurate record (but need transcribing). Handwritten notes eliminate the need to transcribe but might lack details

During the event, we found that anecdotes had become a key method of explaining potential pitfalls, problems or accidental successes that could be encountered when interviewing. While stories of treating a group of little old Serbian women to tea and cookies elicited laughter they also showed how setting up a comfortable environment can produce more honest responses. The use of yellow pages and phone books to find similar last names of former top politicians, could sometimes lead to unexpected conversations with someone’s wife on the phone, but showed how contacting hard-to-reach high profile individuals was not impossible, but sometimes required creativity and persistence.

There were also some lively debates about ethics and the varying research contexts found across the region. Protecting respondents’ anonymity was discussed in some detail: interviewing in in the more authoritarian contexts of Russia and some other post-Soviet states can differ dramatically from carrying out interviews in Central and Eastern Europe. But even CEE can pose challenges. Participant observation at a summer camp in the countryside run by Hungary’s far right party Jobbik required a careful balancing of access to a high guarded group with safety risks.

Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker are PhD candidates at UCL – SSEES.

Erin focuses in her research on young political activists in Hungary while Philipp’s research is primarily concerned with the use of presidential powers in Central and Eastern Europe about which he writes an academic blog.

They are currently planning a workshop on interviewing for research students from UCL, the University of London and universities in the CEELBAS consortium for language-based area studies.