“Today I do not miss Fidesz” – an exclusive interview with the leader of the Polish opposition
“For me it is unacceptable that Fidesz is cooperating with a anti-democratic party, the Law and Justice (PiS)”, the chairman of the biggest Polish opposition party, the EPP-member Civic Platform (PO), Grzegorz Schetyna tells Válasz Online. The former foreign minister and Sejm Marshal, whom we met at EPP’s congress last week, also says he does not miss Fidesz any more while the helm that takes the Hungarian party back to EPP is entirely in Viktor Orbán’s hands – at least this is what Mr. Schetnya deducted from the words of his old rival, the EPP’s new president, Donald Tusk. The PO’s chairman also had to face questions about his party’s rather disappointing election results lately and refuses the criticism of putting his personal interest ahead of the Polish opposition’s. An exclusive interview from Zagreb.
– We are talking a day after Donald Tusk was elected as president of the EPP. Are you jealous of him?
– No, I am proud of the decision of the congress. For me it is difficult though because we are at the edge of the Polish presidential election and he was the most important potential candidate from the opposition side. He decided not to run for Polish presidency and I had no choice but to accept his decision.
– Having elected Tusk as EPP leader does not exactly help your job at the domestic arena, does it?
– Quite the opposite. What matters is that PO’s position in EPP is strong as its former leader was elected EPP’s president which also discredits PiS‘ argument that we have no position in international structures. It is a good investment to be in the first line of EPP.
– And it also keeps your rival out of Poland.
– Tusk knows everything about Polish politics and only he can decide whether to return or not. For the moment he said no.
– Did you miss Fidesz from Zagreb?
– I miss the Fidesz I knew from the past years.
– Which years are those?
– The 90s or when we were governing between 2007 and 2015. Even in 2015, when I sat together with Péter Szijjártó in the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council as foreign minister.
Having seen their last 4 years and their cooperation with PiS, it would be difficult to say that I miss Fidesz today.
– Is it difficult because of their alteration or because they cooperate with your main rivals?
– Both. They have changed and they are cooperating with an anti-democratic party. For me it is unacceptable. We used to have normal relationship with Fidesz: Mr. Szijjártó was once asked which party was he closer to and he replied it was PO because of the close relationship. I am afraid his answer would be different now.
– There were some unmistakable hints in Mr. Tusk’s election speech in Zagreb such as: “We will not sacrifice values like civic liberties, the rule of law, and decency in a public life on the altar of security and order. (…) Whoever is unable to accept it, is de facto placing himself outside our family.” Do you think it was directed to Fidesz?
– I think so.
– Tusk later suggested it was rather a general remark.
– Everybody I spoke to during the congress said it was a message from Tusk to Fidesz.
– Should Fidesz be expelled from EPP then?
– We have been defenders of Fidesz’s position and activity in the EPP…
– … have you?
– Western Europeans often ask us what should be done with Fidesz and we have tried to explain that they are specific patriots of EPP. It was not easy but I trusted them. We will see how it will develop.
– I have interrupted you because whenever there was a decision about Fidesz in the past years, your party voted against them.
– Even if we did not agree with their policies and activities – and talked openly about that – we have defended their presence and position in the EPP.
– Clearly your defense was not so successful.
– The future of Fidesz in the EPP membership is in their hands. They should decide whether to stay or not in such a Christian democratic party with the leadership of Tusk. With him it will be easier for Fidesz to arrange a model of their relationship, as Viktor and Donald have a long relationship and they can build on that.
– Even if Tusk’s words have sounded more hostile than usual?
– He is now the EPP’s leader, not Civic Platform’s – another place, another situation. And we are not in 2010 – and Fidesz should know it.
– If everything continues like this, according to Tusk’s words Fidesz will have no choice but to leave.
– They will have to start to talk and Fidesz needs to show that EPP membership is important to them. Tusk is a great possibility to find the way out of this difficult situation.
– Six weeks have passed since you have lost the parliamentary election in Poland. Have you managed to detect the reasons?
– The results of the general elections are mixed. We have won the upper chamber of the Parliament, the Senate. While Law and Justice maintained a majority in the lower chamber, the Sejm. The coalition we have built for the European elections has split into three blocks. These three blocks had 1 million more votes at the Sejm election than PiS so if we had sticked together, we would have won the election.
– As if I heard the Hungarian opposition in 2018 about having more votes altogether than Fidesz alone. While Fidesz has two-third in the parliament and PiS has a fair majority.
– And I refer to the current political setting in Hungary as a lesson for the opposition in Poland. I repeat every day: if we work together, we will win.
– One can count on mathematics but the fact of the matter is that in Hungary the opposition has no alternative narrative and vision about the country. Your offer is similar than theirs – getting rid of Fidesz or PiS – but what then?
– We, as the Civic Platform have a clear vision and programme for Poland. Yet, the problem of the Polish opposition is that it is very hard to agree on this one vision. On the other hand, if you go in separate blocks in this electoral system, you are determined to lose.
– As leader of the biggest opposition party, shouldn’t have it been your job to harmonize those different visions?
– It is not an easy thing to do but we did it for the European elections and I have the same hope – one vision and one candidate – for the second round of next year’s presidential election. We can win this election, and this can be a gamechanger.
– The Left has got back to the Polish parliament. Are they rivals or partners for you?
– Both. For us, the key is the political center – having left-liberal as well as conservative wings – and that is how we have been conducting our policy in the past decades. However the Senate election has shown that if we stand together – one candidate against the government’s –, we can beat PiS.
We can criticise each other but during campaigns we should all stand on the democratic side and find the ways of cooperation.
– According to its critics, PO has become the party of the elites but without attracting PiS voters, you do not have real chance for victory. What can you offer them?
– After their quite left-wing social transfers, PiS has run out of promises. Their first decision following the election in October was a proposal of tax increases. I believe they will pay the price of their irresponsible policies.
The issue of attracting PiS voters is for sure complicated. One of the reasons is the Polish Catholic church which really supports PiS especially in rural Poland.
We are doing great in cities – having won 104 out of the 106 biggest in local elections in October 2018 – but villages are problematic. The church is very active there during the campaigns. Somehow our task is therefore to increase our activity in rural Poland. We need a specific offer for women and younger people. We have to engage with people for whom PiS‘ social benefits are not enough.
– We are sitting at the congress of Europe’s Christian democratic parties and you are bashing the Polish church.
– Sometimes to be a good Christian, you need to be critical about Church hierarchy. I am talking about the truth, about the situation in Poland which is indeed specific.
– Another criticism, about you personally, is that keeping your position as party chairman was more important than defeating your political opponent.
– Nonsense. I was an architect of broad coalitions for local, European and parliamentary elections and stepped aside of being a party candidate for Prime Minister six weeks before October’s parliamentary elections.
– Six weeks before an election? Did you believe it would be enough?
– It is quite natural for a party leader to be a candidate for Prime Minister’s office.
– … which is what you were hesitant about in May 2017, during our last interview.
– What I said was that it was not the position in Civic Platform that mattered. What mattered was winning against PiS. I am the party chairman and I am politically responsible for the election result. Every party member can cast a vote and decide who should be the next chairman for the next 4 years.
– Do you have any potential rival at all?
– We will see. The most important for me now is to find the best presidential candidate representing our party against President Duda. We will have our primaries after 14th of December.
– Some well-known figures in the party – Radosław Sikorski, Rafał Trzaskowski or Bartosz Arłukowicz – withdrew from the primaries before they even started. It seems that you will have the same candidate for presidency, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who failed to deliver victory in October. Why would she be a better choice now?
– We will see who our candidate is. Apart from Kidawa-Błońśka, another serious candidate emerged: the very popular Mayor of Poznan, Jacek Jaśkowiak.
– The opposition has lost two elections this year under your leadership. Has resignation ever crossed your mind?
– No. If I stepped down suggesting “it is now your problem” and went home to Wrocław, it would be an unacceptable behavior. Once we chose our presidential candidate, I will be ready to talk about the future and will decide whether to run for my party’s chairmanship again.
Cover picture: Szabolcs Vörös