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Liberal opposition is re-establishing itself

“In Europe, one is either at the table or on the table, being eaten,” Grzegorz Schetyna told an audience of a hundred or so people last week in the sleepy southwestern Polish town of Legnica. Mr Schetyna, the leader of the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party, was there to convince voters that only his party can return stability and international respect to Poland, after a year and a half under an increasingly illiberal nationalist government. In part that means assuring voters that PO will defend “normality, rule of law and democracy” inside the country. But it also means talking about the European Union, affirming the need to repair Poland’s reputation and bargaining position in Brussels, and perhaps trying to catch a bit of the pro-EU wave that has shown up recently in elections in the Netherlands and France. The Economist explains.

Before PO was ousted by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party in late 2015, it had been in power for eight years. Donald Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister until he left to become president of the European Council in 2014, was extremely popular. But without the charismatic Mr Tusk the party was thrashed by PiS, and it has seemed disoriented and unable to mount a strong opposition, even as the government has installed lackeys throughout the bureaucracy and on the constitutional court.

This began to change in March, when Poland’s government tried to block Mr Tusk’s re-election as European Council president. Mr Tusk, as popular in Brussels as he had been in Warsaw, won the support of every other EU country, and the government and PiS ended up looking ridiculous. Since then PO has courted pro-EU voters (particularly liberal types in the big cities) who fear PiS is making Poland a marginal player in Europe. If the government continues its aggressive stance, Mr Schetyna warned in Legnica, Poland could be deprived of EU aid. (A German government paper that leaked last month suggested that the union’s structural funds be given only to countries that meet standards on the rule of law. Poland is currently under review.) That would be “the biggest catastrophe”, he said.

Mr Schetyna’s party is also trying to win back voters who have plumped for PiS, mainly by imitating its policies. The PO initially criticised the government’s flagship programme of giving families a monthly subsidy of 500 zloty ($135) per child, from the second child onwards. Now it wants to make the programme even more generous by offering it for every child. The PO has also taken a harder stance on immigration. In May Mr Schetyna said on public television that he opposes Poland taking refugees. After taking fire from liberals, he has since backtracked a bit; in Legnica, he said that Poland could take in “around 50” people from Syria, mostly women and children.

Some of the party’s voters, however, are unimpressed. Today’s PO is purely “reactive”, complains Karolina Wigura, a sociologist at Kultura Liberalna, a think-tank in Warsaw. The party is abandoning the reformist spirit and open-mindedness associated with its early years, she charges. Similarly, some members of the audience in Legnica wondered why PO did not introduce a child subsidy during its eight years in government. Others, like a local group of pro-democracy activists, resent its vagueness on refugees and same-sex civil unions. “They have had their ten minutes in power,” says Radoslawa, a grey-haired translator who has protested against the government in Warsaw.

As PO edges more towards the right of the political spectrum, other parties are trying to fill the potential gap in the centre. The liberal Nowoczesna (“Modern”) party has sought to win back voters with a different platform from that of PO. Instead of an unconditional child subsidy, it proposes tax cuts for working parents. It has also taken a somewhat bolder stance on controversial social issues, such as gay rights and abortion. Earlier this month it named its candidate for the mayor of Warsaw: a young politician who came out as gay last year.

Yet PO remains the only meaningful threat to the government. With support of around 30% according to the polls, it remains behind PiS, but not hopelessly so. Nowoczesna’s support has fallen to below 10% since the start of the year, when newspapers revealed that its leader, who had billed himself as a scrupulous family man, was having an affair with one of his party’s MPs. The next opportunity for the opposition does not come until late 2018, when local elections are scheduled; national elections are due the year after. PO may at last be re-establishing itself as a serious opponent. If it wants to challenge PiS, it has a bit over a year to get its act together.

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