For the past ten years, Polish politics has been seen primarily as a struggle between two centre-right parties – Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS). Meanwhile, left political parties, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and Labour United (UP), which were last in power in 2001-2005, have faded into the background. (They currently hold 33 out of 460 seats in parliament.)
In 2015 they have endeavoured not only to reverse this negative trend but also to seize the initiative back from the ruling parties. The SLD had already appointed young leaders in the past: Wojciech Olejniczak in 2005 and then Grzegorz Napieralski in 2011. This year, Magdalena Ogorek was nominated as a presidential candidate, and her task was just to get a decent percentage. Now, on the eve of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 October, Barbara Nowacka has been announced as the party leader.
Magdalena Ogorek. New Leader – “Old” Party
On 14 February, the Democratic Left Alliance launched the electoral campaign of its presidential candidate, Magdelena Ogorek, a 36-year-old doctor of sciences who had appeared in films before, worked in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (2004-2006) and in the apparatus of the Democratic Left Alliance faction in the Sejm (2008-2010), where she was the assistant of Grzegorz Napieralski, then leader of the SLD. In 2011 she unsuccessfully participated in parliamentary elections, attracting only 3,751 votes.
Meanwhile, despite her intensive cooperation with the SLD, Ogorek remained nonpartisan. Even during the 2015 presidential campaign, she positioned herself, above all, as an independent candidate (Natemat.pl).
In the opinion of one of the leaders of the SLD, Jerzy Wenderlich (from Onet.pl), Ogorek had a very good chance of getting over 5% of the votes in the presidential elections. However, she let her deficiencies in political training and experience come through – her bold statements were rich fodder for aggressive and very coarse criticism. “She chatted, promised her number to Putin, complained and left,” tweeted Karolina Korwin Piotrowska from the Polish right (Twitter).
At the same time, according to experts, critique of Ogorek’s ability to resolve political issues by using personal charm was actually able to help the candidate as well as the SLD. As political scientist Norbert Maliszewski thinks, “the more Ogorek is subjected to criticism, the better it has been for her” (Twitter).
In the opinion of political scientist Wojciech Jablonski, the political phenomenon Magdalena Ogorek could be very promising for the SLD if made proper use of. “To be honest, the Alliance let the presidential campaign slide and occupied itself with preparations for the fall parliamentary elections… And Ms. Ogorek is just a candidate they get photographed with, which seems amusing in the context of the short history of Polish political marketing. At one time, a photo with Walesa was a guarantee of victory, and the same is now happening with Ms. Ogorek – I’m referring to the top echelons of the SLD – but photos with her are nothing more than that – photographs,” said the expert in commentary to Onet.pl.
The political leadership of the SLD considered it inexpedient to actively support Ogorek, staking its faith on its core electorate – primarily pensioners – who reliably ensure that the party get into parliament every time. Magdalena Ogorek herself indirectly confirmed this, once saying the party did not avail itself of the potential she had to offer. “I still don’t know what they (party functionaries – note) were thinking, insofar as the party results were, apparently, not especially important to them since 70% of the SLD’s people had already voted for Mr. Komorowski … In the end, it was clear to all that many of the figures in our party are playing on weak results for the SLD in order to (in the parliamentary elections – note) start on PO lists,” said Ogorek later (Natemat.pl).
In her opinion, the only force compelling her to take part in the campaign was the upper apparatus of the party. “In essence, I declined to participate in the campaign and then went to the party functionaries only to thank them for their votes since they reminded me every day that I should do this for them,” wrote the candidate.
Hoping that Ogorek could achieve something for the party on her own, the SLD kept itself aloof from her campaign. By the conclusion of the presidential elections, she had received 353,883 (2.38%) of the votes.
Barbara Nowacka. Something must be done…
After Ogorek’s defeat in the presidential elections, the SLD ratings reached an historical low – 3%. At the same time, gradually moving to the right, the SLD had to compete with Janusz Palikot’s party Your Movement, which proclaims as its goal the liberalization of political culture in Poland and advocates legalizing drugs and same-sex marriage.
However, this would be a competition between two equally weak rivals. Your Movement’s ratings were 1% in June. And instead of competing, the parties decided to cooperate. Prior to this, the only time the SLD entered into a bloc with other parties was 2001, which helped it win in the elections. The SLD’s partners today are Your Movement, the Polish Socialist Party, Labour United, and the Greens. The corresponding agreement was signed on 18 July, and on 17 August, the State Electoral Commission of Poland registered the coalition election committee United Left. According to public opinion polls, the unification has been effective – the leftists’ current rating is 11% (data from Millward Brown).
The SLD also made changes to its pre-election strategy: an accent was made on attracting the youth and popularising the party among people not sentimentally tied to the Polish People’s Republic. Finally, on 4 October, Barbara Nowacka was announced as leader of United Left. The new face of the Polish left is a 40-year-old computer scientist whose political career is tightly tied to Labour United and Your Movement. In 2014 Nowacka unsuccessfully participated in the elections to the European Parliament as part of the movement Europe Plus, receiving 10,290 votes.
In truth, the attempt to freshen up the image has not yet reflected very strongly in pre-election promises. They are completely habitual: reducing the number of deputies in the Sejm, liquidating the Senate, increasing pensions, reforming the education and tax systems, and total separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the state.
The leader of Left United is already being compared with other female politicians – her predecessor Magdalena Ogorek, Law and Justice leader Beata Szydlo and Prime Minister and Leader of Civic Platform Ewa Kopacz. They were and are seen as some kind of nominal representatives behind whom the real political players stand.
But Nowacka is actually waging a competent and aggressive campaign so far. In even her first interview, she determinedly attacked both the oppositional Civic Platform and Polish President Andrzej Duda, who she accused of encroaching on the freedoms of the Poles. Additionally, she challenged Ewa Kopacz and Beata Szydlow to public debate. This could be the first bout of all female politician in Polish history, but it is not to happen: not waiting for an answer, Nowacka set off for her campaign tour around the country in the “Red Bus.”
On the day before, the leader of the coalition underscored that the party has completely renounced populist rhetoric. “We do not promise pears on willows. The programme that we have is intended for the next few years and is comprehensive. We are not saying that we will give to all. We are showing clearly where there needs to be economy of means and how individual sectors must be changed (the economy – note),” said Nowacka (cited from WP.pl). In her words, the left made many mistakes during the presidential campaign but “fortunately has returned to its senses”.