The social partners and the elections

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September-October 2005 saw both a parliamentary election and a presidential election in Poland. This article examines the role of trade unions and employers' organisations in the elections. While they did not actively involve themselves in the electoral process, some of their members ran for elected office, in some cases successfully, on behalf of many parties, and the governing bodies of various social partner organisations expressed clear preferences in both elections .

Poland experienced a politically intense autumn in 2005. The electorate voted for a new parliament in late September. In what has become a rule of Polish politics after 1989, affirmed in every election, the governing party was trounced, with the 'post-communist' Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) winning a mere 11% of the vote (although even this modest showing was greeted with satisfaction by the party, which had fared much worse in opinion polls following a number of high-profile problems). The parliamentary election was won by the conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), with the liberal Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) a close second. As promised before the election, representatives of these two parties have embarked on talks geared at assembling a coalition government. These talks, however, have been delayed due to the fact that the first round of the presidential election, held in early October, failed to produce a clear winner. PO’s Donald Tusk slightly overtook PiS’s Lech Kaczyński, and the two politicians faced a run-off vote on October 23. The winner will become President for a five-year term.

If past experience - especially that of trade unions - is any guide, direct involvement in politics by the social partners since 1989 brings advantages as well as disappointments. For the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) its flirtation with a political wing, Solidarity Electoral Action (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność, AWS), was a particularly painful episode; having scored a resounding victory at the polls in 1997, AWS spent the next four years losing support and was well-nigh voted out of existence in 2001, with the fallout of this debacle affecting the NSZZ Solidarność union proper. The close relationship of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) with the SLD party, meanwhile, paid dividends for many years, bestowing upon the union a strong voice in parliament; between 1991 and 1999, SLD operated as a coalition body in which OPZZ was a key part.

The parliamentary elections

The number of deputies with trade union affiliations elected in the September 2005 parliamentary election was lower than in the 2001 election. This is due to a number of reasons - including the poor electoral showing of the left (with its OPZZ stalwarts), but also a certain reluctance by trade unions to become involved in the electoral fray.

In the 2005 election, the OPZZ union did not express its support for any one party, although seven politicians from OPZZ’s affiliated unions entered parliament on the SLD ticket. Among them are some prominent figures in the labour movement, such as: Krystyna Łybacka, recommended by the Union of Polish Teachers (Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego, ZNP), the largest affiliate of OPZZ; Tadeusz Motowidło, backed by the Trade Union of Miners in Poland (Związek Zawodowych Górników w Polsce, ZZG); and Ryszard Zbrzyzny, chair of the Trade Union of Copper Industry Workers (Związek Zawodowy Pracowników Przemysłu Miedziowego, ZZPPM) (PL0510102F). It should be noted, however, that OPZZ members also ran for parliament as members of other parties - such as the Polish Social Democrats, (Socjaldemokracja Polska, SdPl), an ex-SLD splinter group - which did not clear the 5% support hurdle and will not be represented in parliament.

NSZZ Solidarność likewise refrained from endorsing any single political party, although its sympathies clearly leaned towards PiS, as illustrated by the large number of NSZZ Solidarność members on the PiS ticket, many of whom will sit in the new parliament. Thus the PiS representation in parliament will include such regional NSZZ Solidarność leaders as Tadeusz Madziarczyk (union board member for the 'copper heartland' region), Tomasz Latos (board member for the Bydgoszcz region), Andrzej Ćwierz (board member for the Przemyśl region) and Stanisław Szwed (deputy chair of NSZZ Solidarność's Podbeskidzie board and a member of its national commission, formerly an AWS deputy). Some sectoral activists from NSZZ Solidarność also had successful campaigns, including Leonard Krasulski, chair of the National Beer Brewing Industry Section and deputy chair of the National Foodstuffs Industry Section.

The fact that the PiS representation in parliament includes a number of trade union members may be of relevance when the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) gets around to debating a number of proposals for labour law reform, the heritage of the outgoing government. During the final phases of the electoral campaign, when PO and PiS were running each other very close, the latter sought to distinguish itself from its rival by underlining its social sensitivities and by stepping up anti-liberal rhetoric. PO, on the other hand, is likely to favour a more liberal labour law regime. Accordingly, the debate may be a heated one.

Turning from the lower house of parliament, some prominent union activists also won PiS seats in the Senate, such as Stanisław Kogut, the head of the Railways National Section of NSZZ Solidarność.

A short time before the elections, speculation was rife about a possible electoral alliance between the Trade Unions Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ) (PL0212109F) and Self-Defence (Samoobrona Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, Samoobrona), a populist party. No such alliance emerged, however.

The presidential election

In the presidential contest, the national commission of NSZZ Solidarność issued a ringing official endorsement of Lech Kaczyński, the PiS candidate, declaring his views to be 'the closest to the expectations of our union'. This position received the imprimatur of the national convention of NSZZ Solidarność delegates, which - meeting on 14 October - called on its members to vote for Mr Kaczyński. It might be recalled that, over 19990-1, the PiS candidate (now the mayor of Warsaw) served as deputy chair of NSZZ Solidarność, commanding the loyalty of a firm bloc within the union's structures. Mr Kaczyński’s assurances that he will oppose all attempts at liberalisation of employment law also did not go unheeded.

As for the other trade unions, they withheld their endorsement in the presidential campaign. Marek Borowski, the only left-wing candidate remaining on the field after Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz withdrew from the presidential race, did not receive the official support of OPZZ.

The presidential candidature of Henryka Bochniarz, the chair of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers 'Lewiatan' (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych Lewiatan, PKPP Lewiatan), supported by the Democratic Party (Partia Demokratyczna, PD), attracted some controversy. Her poor showing in the presidential election, at just over 1% of the vote, seemed to corroborate the fears as to her ability to muster broader support. The PD activists - recruited from among the former Freedom Union (Unia Wolności, UW) and from among reform-minded politicians from the ruling camp - did poorly in the parliamentary election and were never quite in agreement as regards the presidential candidature of Ms Bochniarz. Ms Bochniarz herself, meanwhile, does not intend to retire from political life. In the meantime, she and the PD called on their supporters to vote for Mr Tusk, the PO candidate, in the presidential run-off.

Commentary

This exciting electoral season has proved, for one thing, that the social partners in Poland are not exactly shy about involving themselves in partisan politics. In the case of NSZZ Solidarność, the turn towards 'classic' trade unionism observable after 2001 seems to have abated, and it again declared its political sympathies. Given the electoral results, a major reshuffle among the Polish left may well be in the offing, and the political affiliations of OPZZ are certain to be affected. As regards the chief of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers, her future political career remains an open option. (Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH])

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