Whether the coming election in Poland will consolidate the monopoly of the national-conservative PiS or favour a more pluralist balance of power, it will have a significant impact on Polish political culture.
On October 13th, a parliamentary election will take place in Poland. After four years of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in government, this is a much-awaited ballot. Most probably, however, the result will not determine whether the current political course will continue—but rather how radical it will be. As of today, there is no serious competition to the PiS in sight.
In 2015, after eight years of the liberal Civic Platform (PO) in government, the tables were turned. Having won the presidential run in May 2015, the national-conservative PiS triumphed also in the parliamentary election, winning massively.
The first cabinet of Beata Szydło was truly revolutionary, not only carrying out election promises, such as introducing family allowances, but also frantically rebuilding the Polish state: the judiciary and public media. These bold steps and a confrontational tone towards the European Union left the government internationally ostracised. The second PiS cabinet, led by Mateusz Morawiecki, softened the rhetoric.
Nevertheless, rebuilding Poland remains the core message of the PiS—in its own terms, making up for the injustice of the 1989 transformation, eliminating ‘disloyal elites’ and defending the country against disastrous western liberalism, with the associated internationalism, cultural Marxism and gender ideology. This narrative of retaliation and self-defence seems very effective. Even though the PiS has recently been haunted by numerous scandals, such as abusing public funds or having close ties with organised crime, its popularity remains intact.
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Delivering election promises and improving the living conditions of many Polish families has paid off. Compared with 2015, support for the PiS has grown from 37 to 45 per cent. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, is not just fighting for another victory. Winning an absolute majority in the parliament is again what is at stake.
The PO cannot seem to recover from the defeat of 2015. Not only is there a problem with finding charismatic leadership after the departure of Donald Tusk to Brussels, but also the party cannot fix its elitist image. A secret recording scandal and unfortunate statements by top figures have left it with the tag of being out of touch with reality.
But it was the neoliberal course the PO had taken to cushion potential effects of the eurozone crisis—precarisation of employment, austerity, freezing wages in the public sector—which put society off for good. The combination of a narrowed, upper-class vision of Poland and reputational damage left the once successful PO in shambles.
Still, as the biggest opposition force against the PiS government, the PO has endeavoured to bounce back. Forming a broad block with other liberals, the post-communist left, and the Greens boosted its support to 38 per cent in the European Parliament election. However, this was not enough for the united opposition to last. The overarching ‘anti-PiS’ motto failed in the face of ideological disputes.
This time the PO will challenge the PiS in a smaller and more coherent coalition. For the party this election is not only about preventing the PiS from winning an absolute majority. It’s about keeping the faith among its members and supporters.
As a result of the 2015 election, the Polish left has lost its parliamentary representation. Not only did the more radical, grassroots, Syriza-like RAZEM party not manage to achieve sufficient mobilisation and brand recognition, but also the established post-communist, social-democratic SLD miscalculated its potential and missed the threshold by the skin of its teeth (0.45 per cent).
In 2019, the lesson has been learned. Three left-wing parties—SLD, RAZEM and Wiosna, the newly-launched social-liberal project of the renowned LGBT activist Robert Biedroń—have joined forces. Their selling point is to be an alternative on the stagnant and polarised Polish political scene, a choice beyond the militant national conservatism of the PiS and the embittered, vengeful tone of the liberal opposition.
It is a crucial moment for the left, which to everyone’s amazement managed to come together, rising above personal animosities and political differences. The better its result, the less the chance the PiS can secure absolute power in an election which is also a historic opportunity to revive the Polish left—it’s difficult to say which argument has a bigger mobilisation potential.
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The conservatives, the liberals, and the left will be the main contestants. This election, however, will also see other candidates. Worrisome tendencies have been hatching on the right fringe of the political scene.
The short-lived success of the eclectic, populist Kukiz’15 movement back in 2015 left a void, recently filled by Konfederacja (Confederation), a motley crew of nationalists, anti-vaxxers, pro-life activists, conspiracy theorists and right-libertarians. Not by accident the name recalls the US ‘alt-right’ agenda: Konfederacja is sceptical of migration and what it calls mixing of races, as well as supranational and intergovernmental bodies, such as the EU; it supports traditional gender roles in society and even calls for liberalisation of gun policy.
Konfederacja’s debut in the European election was a failure. But if successful on its own political turf, so to speak, this faction could become the only ally of the PiS in the parliament, helping it further to reconstruct the Polish state—before being absorbed by that juggernaut.
Overall, the situation in Poland is complex. The PiS has petrified its power position, but the prospect of winning a super-majority, enabling it to change the constitution, is not very likely and mostly depends on the electoral performance of the opposition.
We also witness an irreconcilable division within the society—similar perhaps only to what the ‘Brexit’ debate has left behind in the United Kingdom. On the one hand, there is hostility and a communication impasse between the government and the opposition, feeding radical tendencies on the right. On the other, there is hope and a readiness to put away pride for a higher purpose, as demonstrated by the Polish left.
Hence, two scenarios emerge: a destructive monopolisation of political power and further brutalisation of public debate or a breakthrough and balancing of the political scene beyond the PO-PiS arm-wrestle. Whatever the outcome, the vote will determine Poland’s future far beyond the next parliamentary term.
Dr Maria Skóra is a researcher and political analyst in Berlin. At the Institut für Europäische Politik, she analysing rule-of-law developments in the European Union. She is also a policy fellow at the think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum, hosting the annual Progressive Governance Summit.