The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Can Andrzej Duda lose the Polish presidential election?

Given his credibility in helping deliver the government’s popular social spending and welfare policies – and strong base in small-town, provincial Poland – the right-wing incumbent starts as favourite in May’s crucial presidential election. But his fortunes are linked to the ruling party’s popularity and, given how polarised and evenly divided the Polish political scene is, the election will be closely-fought and unpredictable.

Two evenly balanced camps

Notwithstanding the as-yet-unpredictable impact of the Coronavirus epidemic, over the next couple of months Polish politics will be dominated by the crucially important May 10th presidential election, with a second round run-off held a fortnight later between the two leading candidates if none secures more than 50% of the votes. The election is likely to determine the shape of the political scene until the next parliamentary poll scheduled for autumn 2023. A victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – would give the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its programme of radical state reconstruction. However, given that the party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would be a disaster for Law and Justice seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high levels of popularity. A February survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that he enjoyed a 60% approval rating, the highest of any Polish politician, while 57% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his duties (although both of these have fallen in recent months). The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found Mr Duda averaging 42% support, nearly twenty points ahead of his nearest rival Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Polls also suggest that Mr Duda would defeat all potential challengers in a second round run-off, albeit by a much narrower margin.

However, five years ago Mr Duda’s Civic Platform-backed predecessor Bronisław Komorowski enjoyed even higher approval ratings but failed to secure re-election. Moreover, last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how polarised and evenly balanced support for the government and opposition is, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. The presidential poll will, therefore, be a much greater challenge for Mr Duda than previously anticipated.

Mr Duda’s assets

One of Mr Duda’s strengths is that he is an energetic and dynamic campaigner who can connect with ordinary Poles and has made great efforts to reach out to the often-forgotten parts of small-town, provincial Poland that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartland. Earlier this year, Mr Duda fulfilled his pledge to become the first President to visit every one of Poland’s 380 administrative counties during his term of office. This vision of the presidency, showing as much respect to citizens living in smaller towns and rural areas as those in larger urban agglomerations, provided Mr Duda with enormous political capital going into the campaign. It dovetails with Law and Justice’s broader political project which some commentators term the ‘redistribution of prestige’, whereby ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and self-respect.

Mr Duda’s core appeal is as the guarantor of the Law and Justice government’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana). This has involved hugely expanding social spending and welfare policies for families and low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist transformation, while simultaneously maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the state budget deficit. His supporters also point to Mr Duda’s apparent foreign and defence policy successes, particularly in developing closer ties with the USA. Although these areas lie primarily within the government’s domain, the Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role, and he is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Law and Justice argues that Mr Duda played a key role in strengthening Poland’s defence infrastructure through the additional deployment of US and NATO troops on Polish territory. They also credit him with the lifting of the requirement for Poles visiting the USA to obtain visas, which Polish governments have campaigned for for many years.

Mr Duda is fortunate that Mrs Kidawa-Błońska – who, unless there is a major change in the campaign dynamics, is very likely to be his second round challenger – appears to be a relatively weak opponent. She was originally chosen as Civic Platform’s prime ministerial candidate in last autumn’s parliamentary election because of her reputation as an emollient and conciliatory political figure. But Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s critics argue that she lacks any significant achievements in spite of her many years in politics and is an unimpressive public speaker with untested debating skills. The election campaign is likely to be a very brutal but if she tries to adopt a more combative approach this could undermine her image as the candidate of societal dialogue and reconciliation. Moreover, although Mrs Kidawa-Błońska undoubtedly comes across as sophisticated and urbane, critics say that she also embodies the aloof urban liberal elites who, Law and Justice claims, look down upon the inhabitants of small-town provincial Poland. More broadly, Law and Justice accuse Mrs Kidawa-Błońska of lacking an alternative programmatic vision, arguing that she would simply use the presidency to sabotage the government.

Another plebiscite on Law and Justice?

However, Mr Duda will almost certainly not win in the first round and, given how divided and polarised the political scene is, no matter how weak the opposition candidate the second round is likely to be extremely closely-fought and unpredictable. Civic Platform knows that Mrs Kidawa-Błońska is not an ideal candidate but political marketing specialists are already working hard to minimise her weaknesses as a communicator. Ironically, although she has been part of the party establishment for many years, Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s lack of any real governing experience means that she is not as clearly identified in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform-led administrations. Moreover, the opposition retains several important political assets including: substantial financial resources and the backing of much of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, Poland’s cultural, legal and business elites.

Mr Duda’s biggest weakness is his vulnerability to the accusation that throughout his presidency he has been marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. In many ways this is not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agrees with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements are generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But Mr Duda cannot simply rely on the support of the Law and Justice core electorate and to attract more than 50% of the votes needs to craft a broader appeal. Except for one occasion – in July 2017, when he vetoed two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws (and even then the revised versions that he proposed were very close to the originals) – Mr Duda has not really made any serious attempts to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor able to transcend the government-opposition divide. More broadly, critics argue that Mr Duda’s presidency lacks a clear defining concept and he has been ineffective in both carrying forward any independent political initiatives and developing a strong intellectual and political support base, preferring instead to surround himself with technocrats.

Indeed, the opposition’s strategy is to turn the election into a plebiscite on the Law and Justice government by tying Mr Duda as closely as they can to the ruling party. Although Law and Justice continues to enjoy a clear opinion poll lead, the government is feeling the strain of having been in office for four-and-a-half years. A slowdown in the economy has put pressure on the state budget making it difficult for Law and Justice to offer any substantial new social spending and welfare pledges, the key to mobilising its supporters in previous elections. In January inflation hit 4.4%, the highest rate for eight years, which, apart from impacting upon living standards more generally, will have eaten into the income boost which Poles received from the government’s welfare payments and fiscal transfers; and recently approved new taxes will also start to hit Polish consumers.

While Mr Duda’s personal popularity remains higher than that of the ruling party, a key group of voters who are positively inclined towards him but do not necessarily support Law and Justice may use the election to articulate that discontent. So he needs to find a way of undermining this over-arching plebiscitary logic. In 2015, Mr Duda ran as an insurgent opposition candidate of change but, as an incumbent defending a record, it will be difficult for him to replicate the energy and dynamism of that campaign. Nonetheless, if he is to avoid the trap that Mr Komorowski fell into five years ago Mr Duda will have to once-again offer a fresh reform agenda rather than simply standing as the candidate of the governing status quo.

Moreover, Mr Duda’s re-election campaign got off to a shaky start when the opposition called upon him to veto a government-sponsored law providing a 2 billion złoties subsidy to compensate Polish state broadcasters for shortfalls in licence fee payments, and instead spend the money on improving cancer treatment. Civic Platform pounced on an apparently obscene gesture by Law and Justice deputy Joanna Lichocka (for which she later apologised) during the parliamentary debate on the draft law, turning it into viral social media meme which they said symbolised the ruling party’s arrogance and contempt for cancer patients. They accused Law and Justice of depriving the health service of funds to subside a government propaganda tool (the ruling party argues that previous administrations also used Polish state TV in this way and that its current political stance simply brings pluralism and balance to a media landscape otherwise dominated by the party’s opponents). In the event, Mr Duda approved the law but not before forcing the resignation of Polish TVs controversial president Jacek Kurski, and then announced a separate, substantial increase in health service funding.

Underlying factors still working for Mr Duda?

Polish presidential elections often see very rapid shifts in public support in a short space of time and Mr Duda’s room for manoeuvre is extremely tight. The biggest threat to him could be the de-mobilisation of his disproportionately small-town and rural electorate which is generally much less interested in politics, while the government’s opponents will be highly motivated to turnout, especially in the second round. Nonetheless, there are still a number of important underlying factors working in Mr Duda’s favour, notably his credibility in helping to deliver Law and Justice’s very popular social spending and welfare policies while the economy remains fairly buoyant. Mr Duda has also developed his own distinctive presidential style based on highly personal contacts with the electorate. A key difference with his predecessor is that Mr Duda faced a sustained attack throughout his presidency from the still-influential opposition-supporting private media, so his base of support should be more solid. For sure, Civic Platform has certainly become more tactically astute and effective at political marketing on issues such as health service funding, and a below-expectations first round result for Mr Duda could change the campaign dynamics. But Mrs Kidawa-Błońska is still trying to mobilise voters primarily on the basis of opposition to the government and has not articulated a convincing alternative vision of the presidency that could decisively rally voters to her cause in a tight second round run-off.

What are the prospects for the Polish Peasant Party?

The unexpected success of Poland’s agrarian-centrist party in last autumn’s parliamentary election suggests that there could be a niche for a moderate conservative-centrist grouping among voters uncomfortable with the country’s right-wing ruling party and liberal-left opposition. But, critics argue, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, the agrarian party remains a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping rooted in provincial transactional politics.

Challenged in its heartlands

The agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) was formed in 1990 as the organisational successor to the former communist satellite United Peasant Party (ZSL), although it attempted to legitimise itself by claiming to have roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the Nineteenth Century. Peasant parties were prominent in inter-war Polish politics and the movement provided the main political opposition to the communist takeover in the late 1940s. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 25% of Poles were employed in the farming sector, mostly in peasant smallholdings that survived as an independent economic sphere throughout the communist period. This provided the Peasant Party with a substantial segment of the electorate that it could appeal to on the basis of a clear socio-economic interest and collective identity. Consequently, the party was junior coalition partner in the governments led by the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) between 1993-97 (with its leader Waldemar Pawlak prime minister from 1993-95) and 2001-3. Its support peaked in the 1993 election when the party secured 15.4% of the vote and 132 seats in the 460-member Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber.

The party returned to office in 2007 when it became the junior governing partner of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO – currently Poland’s main opposition party) a coalition that lasted two terms until 2015 when it was ousted by the current ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Over the years, Law and Justice severely eroded the Peasant Party’s traditional core rural-agricultural electoral base and the agrarians had a near-death experience in the 2015 parliamentary election when they only just crossed the 5% representation threshold for individual parties securing 5.1% of the vote and 16 seats, the party’s worst result in any post-1989 poll.

During the 2015-19 parliament, the Peasant Party found it difficult to carve out a distinctive niche for itself as the political scene polarised sharply around bitter disputes between Law and Justice and the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition. The government’s critics accused it of undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law, while Law and Justice supporters argued that the opposition represented the interests of well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. At the same time, the Peasant Party continued to face an existential challenge in its rural heartlands from Law and Justice. The ruling party strengthened its position in the countryside by delivering on its generous social and welfare pledges, notably the flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which provided a significant boost to low income families living beyond the large urban centres who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in the country’s economic growth.

For sure, in the autumn 2018 regional elections the Peasant Party scored 12.1% of the vote, significantly higher than its national opinion poll ratings. But the party has always performed better in local elections – partly due to its strong grassroots organisational base of around 100,000 members, but also because there is generally a higher turnout in rural areas in these polls – and this was actually its worst performance in regional elections since 2002. Moreover, although the party remained in power (in coalition with Civic Platform) in eight out of the 16 regional authorities it lost control of some of its most important strongholds, notably the Lubelskie and Swiętokrzyskie provinces in South-Eastern Poland. This considerable loss of influence was important because the agrarians are primarily an office-seeking grouping that, critics argue, has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level. Regional authorities play a key role in disbursing EU funds and are thus a major source of party patronage. The party then proceeded to alienate a large segment of its socially conservative core rural and small-town electoral base when it contested last May’s European Parliament (EP) election as part of a broad anti-Law and Justice ‘European Coalition’ (KE) dominated by socially liberal and culturally left-wing parties.

Wooing the moderate conservative centre

As a consequence, the Peasant Party decided to take a risk by contesting last October’s parliamentary election independently and, in one of the biggest surprises, comfortably crossed the representation threshold securing an impressive 8.6% of the vote and 30 seats. This was partly due to the fact that, in spite of its relatively modest financial resources, the party’s talented leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz ran a very energetic and dynamic election campaign. He was, for example, the only party leader to participate in the live televised debates where he performed very effectively. Following its 2015 election defeat, the party realised that, rather than simply hoping that something would turn up, it had to be more pro-active and decided to make a radical break with its old guard electing Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz – one of a new generation of young, articulate party activists – as its new leader. Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz tried to present himself as a conciliatory and consensual political figure, and his party as a constructive opposition capable of acting as a moderating influence on the bitterly divided Polish political scene. An October 2019 survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found him to be the most trusted opposition politician with 34% approval and 21% disapproval ratings.

Moreover, following the EP election fiasco Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz realised that the party had to have a more distinctive appeal if it was to survive and recover its support. He therefore developed a new strategy based on the Peasant Party heading up a broader, centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (KP) electoral bloc (although, in order to avoid the higher 8% threshold for formal electoral coalitions, its candidates actually stood on the party’s electoral lists). The aim here was to reach out to new electoral constituencies such as Civic Platform conservatives who felt increasingly uncomfortable supporting a party that was pivoting towards the cultural left. The parliamentary election exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency found that 9% of 2015 Civic Platform voters had switched to the Peasant Party and that these switchers comprised more than one-fifth of the latter’s total 2019 electorate.

The party also persuaded right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz – who achieved a sensational result in the 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping was elected as the third largest in the previous parliament – to join the Polish Coalition’s ranks. Although teaming up with the quintessentially pro-establishment Peasant Party severely undermined Mr Kukiz’s credibility and core appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner, the agrarian grouping won over 22.8% of the rock star-turned-politician’s declining grouping’s 2015 voters, bringing in a small but valuable swathe of new supporters. This probably contributed to the Peasant Party’s increase in support among young voters from 3.8% in 2015 to 10.3%. For sure, Mr Kukiz’s six deputies remain an unpredictable element within the Peasant Party’s parliamentary caucus and Law and Justice may try and poach some of them as it did successfully during the 2015-19 parliament. At the moment, however, they are virtually invisible in terms of their public profile and appear to have become almost completely absorbed by the agrarian grouping.

Although the Peasant Party continued to lose support among farmers – its vote share fell from 18.6% in 2015 to 17.1%, while Law and Justice’s increased from 53.3% to 67.4% – it held its own in rural areas more generally increasing its vote share there from 9.4% to 12.3%. At the same time, the Peasant Party compensated for losses in its traditional rural-agrarian heartlands by broadening its demographic base through crafting a centrist appeal directed at the moderate conservative intelligentsia and middle classes in both rural and urban areas. Consequently, it increased its vote share in larger towns (with populations between 200-500,000) and cities (with more than half-a-million inhabitants) from 1.4% and 1.5% to 6% and 5.5% respectively and, for the first time, won parliamentary seats in some of these urban agglomerations. In particular, the party increased its vote share among entrepreneurs – many of whom were concerned about Law and Justice’s costly social spending and welfare programmes, especially its plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023 – from 3.8% to 9.9%. In did so by stressing the importance of protecting businesses against excessive bureaucracy and high taxation; one of the party’s flagship policies was a proposal to make national insurance contributions voluntary for entrepreneurs.

A serious presidential challenger?

Now Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz wants to build upon the party’s parliamentary election success, and continue his political project of broadening its appeal, in May’s crucial presidential poll, Poland’s next major electoral test. Presidential elections have traditionally been those in which the Peasant Party’s core supporters have taken the least interest; in 2015 its candidate performed disastrously finishing sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. But the party’s supporters hope that it can cash in on Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s personal popularity (which has increased since the parliamentary election) and that he can secure a respectable result this time around.

For sure, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz currently appears to have little chance of winning: the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys places him fifth averaging 7% support. However, too many premature political obituaries have been written for the Peasant Party in recent years and it would be a mistake to under-estimate its leader in this poll. Ironically, the fact that the party has always scored its worst results in presidential elections means that Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz starts with very low expectations, so if he runs an effective campaign and manages to achieve a percentage score in double figures it could still portray this result as a major success. Indeed, some commentators argue that, because of his ability to pick up more support among moderate conservative-centrist voters than the liberal or left-wing opposition candidates, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz would actually have the best chance of defeating the Law and Justice-backed incumbent and favourite Andrzej Duda in a second round run-off, which is required if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes in the first round.

Still rooted in transactional politics?

Previous Peasant Party leaders have also talked about rebranding the party as a broader centrist formation in the way that some West European agrarian parties evolved from class-based organisations into more ‘catch-all’ groupings (the party has, for some time, used ‘People’s Party’ as the English translation of its name). Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz is also aware that, in addition to the specific challenge that the party faces from Law and Justice for its traditional electorate, longer term demographic trends show that Poles are moving away from rural areas and the proportion working in agriculture is declining as modern farms operate increasingly as agro-businesses rather than traditional peasant smallholdings. But, until recently, plans to modernise the grouping never went much beyond an aspiration and it always remained, at root, an interest-based rural-agricultural ‘class’ party.

The 2019 parliamentary election suggests, however, that there is a moderate socially conservative and traditionalist electorate in Poland that is uncomfortable with both Law and Justice’s redistributionist socio-economic policies and radical state reconstruction programme, and Civic Platform’s increasing drift towards the moral-cultural left. The election could, therefore, be a key landmark in Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s long-term political project of transforming the Peasant Party from an agrarian interest group into a modern conservative-centrist party. Nonetheless, the party’s critics argue that, in spite of its changing electorate and apparently more open political style, it remains at its core a deeply pragmatic, office-seeking grouping strongly rooted in a provincial transactional politics.

 

How will the latest judicial reform controversy affect Polish politics?

New disciplinary procedures for Polish judges have moved the right-wing government’s controversial judicial reform programme to the top of the political agenda in the run-up to May’s crucial presidential election. Although the issue could help the ruling party-backed incumbent to mobilise and consolidate the core right-wing vote, the potential for political instability and legal chaos means it could also damage his re-election prospects.

Reforming a ‘special caste’ or undermining judicial independence?

A radical but fiercely contested overhaul of the judicial system has been one of the main sources of political controversy in Poland since it was introduced two-and-a-half years ago by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the country’s ruling grouping since autumn 2015. One of the most important and contentious elements of the reforms was the establishment of a new supreme court chamber to conduct disciplinary actions against judges. The new chamber was appointed by an overhauled national judicial council (KRS), the body that nominates judges and decides how the courts are run, in which the majority of members were selected mainly by parliament, rather than the legal profession as had previously been the case.

The government’s supporters argued that the reforms were sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. Overhauling the courts is one of the most important elements of Law and Justice’s programme because the party believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, viewed itself as a superior ‘special caste’ out of touch with ordinary citizens, and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they argued, making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies was both justifiable and in line with practices in other established democracies.

The liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition, and Poland’s legal establishment, on the other hand, strongly criticised the reforms as an attack on the rule of law and infringement of the key democratic principle of constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents argued that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees, and thereby undermined their independence. Following mass protests in summer 2017, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda vetoed some of the reforms, but his revised version finally approved by parliament was actually very close to the government’s original proposals; the main change being a guarantee that parliamentary nominees to the national judicial council would be elected by a qualified three-fifths supermajority, forcing the ruling party to negotiate appointments with opposition deputies.

Clashing with the EU political establishment

The reforms also triggered a series of clashes between Poland and the EU political establishment. During the last four years the government has been in an ongoing dispute with the European Commission over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues. Initially, this was over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal, but the stand-off escalated in 2017 to include Law and Justice’s judicial reforms. The Commission took the unprecedented step of initiating an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which can be invoked against any EU member state when it is felt there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, threatening Warsaw with sanctions including the suspension of its European Council voting rights. However, the Commission was unable to secure the qualified majority required among EU member states to move beyond the initial stage of the procedure.

Consequently, at the same time the Commission initiated infringement procedures against Poland in the EU Court of Justice, while Polish judges also submitted a number of ‘prejudicial questions’ regarding various aspects of the reforms. Last November, the Court made a ruling in one such case brought by Polish supreme court judges who questioned the independence of the new disciplinary chamber to handle appeals against early retirement on the grounds that it was appointed by the new national judicial council. Although the Court stopped short of declaring the new chamber illegal, it referred the case back to the Polish supreme court to determine whether the former was sufficiently independent from political influence. In doing so, it set out criteria to determine whether judicial appointments met EU standards, paying particular attention to how a body was appointed.

Law and Justice welcomed the fact that the EU Court left it up to Polish judicial bodies to decide on the independence of the disciplinary chamber. However, the government’s opponents felt the Court provided them with a tool for challenging and dismantling the reforms. Some Polish judges interpreted the ruling as a judgement that the new national judicial council was not a legitimate body, and questioned the verdicts of judges appointed by it. Moreover, last December the supreme court itself ruled that, in its current composition, the council was neither impartial nor politically independent so the judges appointed by it and their verdicts, including the new disciplinary chamber, were not legal according to EU law.

Intimidating judges or preventing legal chaos?

In response, Law and Justice introduced sweeping new disciplinary procedures – with penalties including fines, movement to another court, and removal from office – against judges who: prevented or significantly impeded the functioning of the justice system; refused to recognise the legitimacy of other judges; or participated in public activities that undermined the functioning of the state’s governing organs, or were incompatible with the principles of judicial independence and impartiality. The government’s opponents argued that the new measures, which they dubbed a ‘gagging law’ (ustawa kagańcowa), further undermined judicial independence by attempting to intimidate critical judges so that they ruled in line with the ruling party’s expectations. They also warned that the law could lead to Poland being excluded from the EU, so-called ‘Polexit’, as its provisions violated the terms of the European treaties by undermining the primacy of Union law. For its part, the Commission called upon the Polish authorities to suspend passage of the law until it could be scrutinised by the Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters to the Council of Europe human rights watchdog. Earlier this month, the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber, invited the Venice Commission to review the legislation.

However, Law and Justice dismissed the Venice Commission’s negative evaluation arguing that the watchdog was not impartial and too closely aligned with the Polish legal establishment. Accusing the legal establishment and opposition of wanting Poland to be a ‘judge-ocracy’ (sędziokracja), the government’s supporters said that the new regulations were necessary for society to feel that the judiciary was impartial and apolitical and an essential response to those judges who, by questioning their colleagues’ legitimacy, threatened to engulf the Polish legal system in chaos. To date, nearly 500 judges have been nominated by the new national judicial council and all their rulings could be challenged. Law and Justice argued that the new regulations were based on similar provisions in other countries, notably France and Germany; although the government’s critics said that the party was distorting how these laws worked in practice.

Alienating moderate voters or consolidating the base?

In some ways, the revival of the judicial reform controversy is very problematic for Law and Justice with a crucially important presidential election due in May. The party lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, so Mr Duda’s defeat would seriously hamper its ability to govern effectively. Given his high popularity ratings, Mr Duda remains the clear favourite, but last October’s parliamentary election showed how polarised and evenly balanced support between the government and opposition camps is, and the presidential poll will be much closer if it turns into another plebiscite on the Law and Justice government. Moreover, in order to win a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can secure over more than 50% of the votes, so Law and Justice should be avoiding divisive and polarising issues that could alienate more moderate centrist voters. A sense that the ruling party is associated with political instability and social conflict could, therefore, rebound on Mr Duda. There are also concerns that, by re-igniting Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment, the issue could allow the opposition to revive its ‘Polexit’ narrative which, given Poles’ overwhelming support for membership of the Union, is a toxic slogan for any mainstream Polish politician to be associated with.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice seems determined to push through the new disciplinary regulations because it believes the risk of legal chaos if judges start questioning the status of their colleagues’ rulings is even greater. For his part, Mr Duda has taken a clear stance in support of the government on this issue. Law and Justice was also hoping that the European Commission under its new President Ursula von der Leyen would be more accommodating towards Poland and put ‘rule of law’ issues on the back-burner in order to improve strategic co-operation with Warsaw, particularly as the party played a key role in her appointment. However, in a major setback, earlier this month the Commission decided to ask the EU Court to impose emergency interim measures suspending the functioning of the disciplinary chamber.

In fact, for the moment at least, Law and Justice appears to have sustained only minimal political damage, as the issue has not yet developed the momentum that it had a couple of years ago. Although there have been anti-government protests, the scale of these is not comparable to the summer 2017 groundswell which helped persuade Mr Duda to veto and amend some of the original proposals. Even if Poles have misgiving about whether the government’s specific reforms will significantly improve the functioning of the judicial system, Law and Justice has been effective at convincing many of them that, for all its faults, it is at least trying to tackle a problem which previous administrations appeared content to ignore.

Moreover, opinion polls suggest that there is actually considerable uncertainty about the government’s latest proposals. For example, a December survey carried out for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper by the IBRiS agency found that, while Poles opposed a ban on judges questioning the appointment or legality of their colleagues by 40% to 36%, 27% responded that they did not know. A Kantar survey for ‘TVN/TVN24’ also found that, by a 53% to 40% margin, Poles disagreed that Law and Justice’s policies could lead to ‘Polexit’. Indeed, some commentators argue that Law and Justice is using judicial reform as a so-called ‘wedge issue’ to boost turnout among its core electorate in the presidential election, as well as trying to secure the support of the one million Poles who voted for the radical right Eurosceptic ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping in last October’s poll.

Who gets the blame?

For the moment, therefore, the latest judicial reform controversy appears to be having relatively few damaging effects on Law and Justice and may even help to mobilise and consolidate the core right-wing vote. However, if it contributes to a sense of endless political instability and societal conflict this could harm Mr Duda’s re-election prospects. The key risk here is that the new disciplinary regulations actually radicalise rather than pacify the government’s opponents in the judiciary, and lead to precisely the mass rejection of rulings by ‘new’ judges that the legislation was designed to avoid, particularly if the EU Court throws the government’s opponents a lifeline by calling for the suspension of the disciplinary chamber. The issue then becomes how quickly such legal chaos starts to affect ordinary citizens on a large scale, and who gets the blame for this: the government and Mr Duda or the opposition and legal establishment?

What are the prospects for Poland’s radical right Confederation?

Poland’s October election saw the unexpected success of a strongly pro-free market and nationalist radical right challenger to the ruling party. However, the new grouping’s youthful, anti-establishment core electorate is notoriously fickle, and its ideological eclecticism – and the presence of highly controversial personalities among its leaders – makes it an unstable political construct.

Moderating and professionalising its appeal

Formally constituted at the beginning of 2019, the radical right-wing ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping is a political conglomerate comprising an eclectic mix of economic libertarians clustered around the veteran political eccentric Janusz Korwin-Mikke and radical nationalists from the National Movement (RN) party. The Confederation’s first electoral outing was in the May European Parliament (EP) election when one of its leaders summed up the grouping’s policy platform as: ‘we don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the EU’. But the Confederation’s signature issue was its criticism of the alleged failure of the government, led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, to stand up to the USA and Israel over the question of Jewish wartime reparations as emblematic of its inability to defend Poland’s international interests effectively (a charge the ruling party denies vehemently).

The Confederation narrowly failed to cross the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for parties, winning 4.6% of the votes, and most commentators expected it to once-again fail in the October parliamentary election. Given the higher turnout, radical political groupings tend to perform less well in parliamentary elections than in ‘second order’ EP polls. However, although it had hovered just below the threshold in opinion polls, in one of the biggest surprises of parliamentary election the Confederation secured 6.8% of the votes and won 11 seats in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower legislative chamber

Some commentators argued that the Confederation was greatly helped by the decision of the pro-Law and Justice public TV channels to firstly ignore and then ferociously attack the grouping in their pre-election coverage. This, they said, (ironically) both provided the Confederation with high profile coverage during the final phase of the campaign while simultaneously evoking sympathy for it as the underdog. However, the Confederation also adopted a completely different strategy in the parliamentary campaign, playing down the most controversial elements of its programme. In an attempt to appeal to disillusioned middle class voters, the grouping focused much more on stressing its free market credentials, calling for tax cuts and shrinking the size of the welfare state. In doing so, the Confederation sought to differentiate itself from all the other main political groupings (including nominally liberal ones) as the only one that did not support large-scale fiscal transfers and increases in social welfare, arguing that excessive taxation and state regulation stifled opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society.

All of this appealed to voters who did not feel that were they were significant beneficiaries of Law and Justice’s social programmes and were wary of the taxation required to pay for them, as well as groups such as smaller business owners concerned about that the ruling party’s plans for large increases in the minimum wage. The Confederation’s success, therefore, suggested that there was a segment of the right-wing electorate who felt that Law and Justice’s large state support and social welfare programmes did not address their concerns.

At the same time, as well as avoiding confrontational rhetoric and radical themes, the Confederation professionalised its image. It profiled relatively youthful leaders able to present its radical programme in a measured and reasonable way – such as the articulate nationalist politician Krzysztof Bosak, who represented the grouping effectively in pre-election televised debates – keeping more controversial figures such as Mr Korwin-Mikke in the background.

A party for provincial young men?

In terms of the Confederation’s social base of support: around 20% of younger voters aged under-30 supported the grouping; two-thirds of its voters were male; and more than three-fifths lived in smaller towns and rural areas. These kind of younger, provincial voters feel that they have limited chances for professional and career advancement, are frustrated with the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks that they often feel stifles opportunities for them, and do not see state support as the solution to their problems. They first made their presence felt in the 2014 EP election when they supported Mr Korwin-Mikke’s then-party the Congress of the New Right (KNP) which won 7.2% of the votes (on a much lower turnout than 2019). Many of them were likely to have voted for rock star Paweł Kukiz who caused a political sensation when, standing as a right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, he won one-fifth of the vote in the 2015 presidential election. Later that year, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the parliamentary election securing 9% of the votes; and 24% of its 2015 supporters voted for the Confederation in 2019. The Internet rather than the traditional broadcast and print media is often these younger voters’ main source of political information, which also helped to give the Confederation a very strong on-line presence.

However, above-average levels of support among younger provincial men notwithstanding, the Confederation’s electoral base was actually fairly socially heterogeneous and included many well-educated and relatively better-off Poles. Indeed, the grouping enjoyed above-average support among entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized business owners, many of whom welcomed the Confederation’s free market economic policies as a way of unblocking what they saw as a deadweight of state bureaucracy, excessive regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism. In this sense, the Confederation’s entry into parliament was the culmination of a series of trends which have been developing in Polish society for several years.

Moreover, even though, unlike Law and Justice, the Confederation does not enjoy especially close ties with the hierarchy of Poland’s influential Catholic Church, it is a strongly socially conservative grouping. Indeed, the Confederation tended to present moral-cultural issues in even clearer and more binary terms than Law and Justice which, while also strongly socially conservative by broader European standards, also tried to portray a modernising and technocratic image and needed to secure the support of more socially liberal voters attracted by the party’s socio-economic policies. Consequently, the Confederation also won over a segment of socially conservative voters dissatisfied with Law and Justice’s perceived pivot to the technocratic centre and who felt that the ruling party had not delivered sufficiently on moral-cultural issues. For example, although Law and Justice courted ‘religious right’ voters, it had failed to pass legislation promoted by Catholic civic organisations to further tighten Poland’s (already restrictive) abortion law. Similarly, while the ruling party opposed the EU’s plan for member states to admit compulsory quotas of mainly Muslim migrants from North Africa and the Middle East as representing enforced multi-culturalism and a potential threat to Polish national security, the Law and Justice government also accepted hundreds-of-thousands of economic migrants, mainly from Ukraine but also some from Muslim-majority countries.

Ideological eclecticism and controversial leaders

Although the Confederation’s influence will be limited by the fact that it only has 11 deputies (four short of the number required to form a parliamentary caucus and, therefore, table draft legislation) its presence in the new legislature means that Law and Justice faces a challenger on its radical right flank that it will spare no opportunity to criticise the ruling party from free market, nationalist and socially conservative perspectives. In doing so it will put pressure on, and try and outbid, Law and Justice on various issues that are important to sections of the ruling party’s electorate but that it has preferred to avoid up until now, such as abortion, and thereby put the government’s efforts to strike a balance between its traditionalist and technocratic wings under increasing strain. For its part, Law and Justice faces a strategic dilemma as to whether to try and compete with the Confederation on the radical right or use the latter’s presence in parliament to further triangulate and present itself as a more moderate, centrist political formation.

However, the Confederation faces an uncertain future and its success (indeed, its very survival) may prove very brittle and short-lived. Although it remains a political conglomerate, unlike Kukiz’15 the Confederation formally registered as a political party which allows it to secure 27 million złoties of ongoing state funding in the course of the forthcoming parliament. The fact that it is well-resourced will provide the grouping with a source of short-term unity and cohesion. Moreover, its ideological eclecticism actually gave the Confederation a certain synergy effect during the election campaign.

In the longer-term, however, these internal divisions, together with the presence of strong personalities in its ranks, mean that the Confederation could find it very difficult to hold together as a single political entity in the new parliament. At the same time, although there is clearly a social base for the Confederation’s brand of politics, many of its leaders, such as Mr Korwin-Mikke and the highly controversial maverick Grzegorz Braun, are political eccentrics and if these individuals set the tone for the grouping it will seriously limit its chances of broadening out its support beyond the radical right hard core. Indeed, some commentators argued that, to some extent, the fact that the Confederation was ignored by both liberal-left and conservative mainstream media outlets during most of the election campaign actually boosted its prospects by keeping these individuals out of sight!

Law and Justice may also try and persuade some Confederation deputies to defect, as it did successfully with Kukiz’15 in the previous parliament. But this may not be so easy given that the Confederation’s parliamentarians have a stronger ideological grounding than Mr Kukiz’s supporters did, although the more ambitious ones may become frustrated if the grouping fails to make any impact as the legislative term progresses.

The Confederation’s immediate challenge is to select a candidate for next May’s presidential election. This could end its programmatic ‘constructive ambiguity’ by forcing it to choose someone identified more strongly with either its nationalist or free market wings. The Confederation’s presidential candidate – who will be chosen at a US-style convention in January by regional delegates elected to support particular candidates by registered supporters – could also emerge as the grouping’s de facto leader. Mr Bosak currently appears to be emerging as the front-runner.

Another flash-in-the-pan?

Although a predominantly young electorate should bode well for the Confederation’s future, such anti-establishment protest voters are notoriously impulsive and fickle as the earlier one-term success of groupings such as Kukiz’15 shows and even if the grouping is able to retain this support for a period it could evaporate very quickly. The Kukiz’15 example also illustrates how difficult it is for ‘anti-system’ parties to function effectively, and communicate a contestatory, ideologically distinctive message in a parliamentary setting governed by formal rules and informal conventions, particularly if the political scene continues to be dominated by a bi-polar pro- versus anti-Law and Justice divide. The Confederation’s not-altogether-credible claim that there is really no difference between Law and Justice and other liberal, centrist and left-wing parties representing the post-communist status quo will limit its potential appeal beyond a certain electoral niche, as will its contempt for the ruling party’s social transfers which are so important to many less well-off right-wing conservative voters.

Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has seen a series of ‘anti-system’ parties emerge, some winning as much as 10% of the vote, only to then fizzle out and disappear. The Confederation will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its electoral success and a charismatic and dynamic candidate such as Mr Bosak could perform well in the presidential election. But there is every chance that it could prove to be yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that have been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.

 

How will Poland’s Law and Justice party govern during its second term?

Poland’s newly re-elected right-wing ruling party faces a much more challenging political and economic environment in its second term of office. To govern effectively it will need to: win next May’s crucial presidential election, hope the economy remains buoyant enough to fund its social welfare programmes, and develop a credible new political appeal that transcends its slowly exhausting anti-elitist, socio-economic re-distribution narrative.

The presidential election is crucial

Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping won a decisive victory in October’s election becoming the first governing party to secure re-election with an overall majority, with the largest vote share on the highest turnout in any post-communist Polish parliamentary poll. However, there are a number of reasons why its second term is likely to be much more problematic. For the next six months, Polish politics will be dominated by the crucially important May 2020 presidential election, when Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends. The party lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, so Mr Duda’s defeat would be a disaster for Law and Justice seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high popularity ratings and he remains the clear favourite. However, the parliamentary election showed how polarised and evenly balanced support is for the government and opposition camps, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block Law and Justice, so the election could be much closer than previously anticipated.

In order to win a presidential election, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win more than 50% of the votes. So, given that Mr Duda’s political fortunes are tied so closely to the government’s, Law and Justice will try to avoid introducing divisive and polarising measures during this period to prevent drawing the President into sharp political conflicts that could alienate moderate voters. This ‘no risks’ approach was exemplified by Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s November keynote policy speech outlining the government’s priorities for the new term. Mr Morawiecki promised repeatedly to defend ‘normality’ and (reprising one of Law and Justice’s main election slogans) build a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) which, in the Polish context, means both promoting economic modernisation and guaranteeing social welfare. Indeed, his relatively moderate, ‘modernising’ tone was also driven by a recognition that the government’s main ideological lodestar could no longer simply be its claim to be standing up for ordinary citizens against the alleged pathologies of corrupt and self-serving post-communist elites. However, if Mr Duda secures re-election, then Law and Justice faces no national polls until the autumn 2022 local elections and could return to deepening and pushing ahead with its radical state reform programme particularly in areas such as the judiciary, which it still believes is part of a nexus of interests with opposition elites committed to blocking the government’s reforms, and the privately-owned media, to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left.

A more challenging parliament

The relatively even balance of support between the government and opposition camps was illustrated by the fact that Law and Justice lost overall control of the Senate winning only 48 out of 100 seats, the first time since 1993 that a ruling party has not enjoyed a majority in the second chamber. This was the same number of seats as the three opposition parties: 43 for the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, three for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and two for the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The balance of power is held by four independents three of whom won with opposition support, which ensured the election of Civic Platform’s Tomasz Grodzki as Senate speaker, Poland’s third most senior state official. The Senate confirms the appointment of certain key public officials and can delay the approval of government legislation for up to 30 days, but its significance is more as a political platform, particularly the possibility of interrogating and holding to account ministers and Law and Justice-appointed officials. However, Law and Justice can govern effectively even without a Senate majority, as the second chamber’s amendments can be over-turned by an outright majority in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower chamber. Moreover, voters could lose patience with the opposition if it simply obstructs all of the government’s policy initiatives at a matter of course, and there is even a chance that, as the parliamentary term progresses, some Senators could switch to the governing camp and deprive the opposition of its majority.

At the same time, although Law and Justice won the same number of Sejm seats as last time (235 out of 460), the new legislature will be a much more challenging one. Firstly, the ruling party’s de facto majority in the previous Sejm was actually somewhat larger because it could draw upon support from the (originally 42-strong) right-wing (but very ideologically eclectic) anti-establishment Kukiz’15 caucus. Kukiz’15 deputies frequently voted with the government and several actually defected to Law and Justice outright or to a small pro-government parliamentary grouping led by the prime minister’s late father, legendary anti-communist activist Kornel Morawiecki.

The new Sejm will also be more problematic because of the opposition’s greater ideological diversity. The fact that the Polish left has regained parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus (formally its deputies were elected on the Democratic Left Alliance ticket but they actually represent three different parties) means that Law and Justice faces a much more credible opposition on socio-economic issues, particularly in those areas where many Poles have been dissatisfied with the government’s performance such as the quality of public services. The left’s new parliamentary intake also contains articulate younger deputies – such as Adrian Zandberg, leader of the small radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, who drew praise from opposition-linked commentators for his articulate response to Mr Morawiecki’s policy speech, in sharp contrast to Civic Platform’s much less dynamic and charismatic leader Grzegorz Schetyna. However, it is unclear how the left-wing parties will work together in the new parliament, and if they focus too much on moral-cultural issues will undermine their prospects of winning over less well-off but socially conservative voters who might otherwise be receptive to the their socio-economic policies.

Law and Justice also faces a challenge on its radical right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping, a mix of free marketeers, radical nationalists and social conservatives. The ‘Confederation’ will no doubt call out the ruling party for any perceived ‘centrist’ backsliding, especially on moral-cultural issues such as abortion and sexual minorities, or if they feel that the government is being insufficiently robust in standing up for Polish interests internationally. However, given its ideological eclecticism and the presence of political eccentrics in its parliamentary caucus, the grouping faces an uncertain future.

Tensions within the governing camp

There are also likely to be greater tensions within the governing camp. Formally, Law and Justice is simply the largest component within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) coalition that also comprises the more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) led by deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin and the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Although many commentators expected these parties to slowly fade from the political scene they actually picked up seats in the election: the ‘Agreement’ now has 18 Sejm deputies (up from 12) and Solidaristic Poland 17 (previously 7). This is enough for each of them to form a separate parliamentary caucuses (which requires 15 deputies) if they were to breakaway, and they already appear to be using this leverage to play a more pivotal role.

For sure, Solidaristic Poland overplayed its hand when Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński swiftly rejected its suggestion that he should replace Mr Morawiecki, Mr Ziobro’s bitter government rival, as prime minister. Although he does not hold any formal state positions, Mr Kaczyński exercises powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. However, the ‘Agreement’ forced Law and Justice to drop a controversial plan to increase social security contributions for higher earners as a way of generating extra revenue to fund its social spending pledges. Law and Justice’s leadership toyed (ultimately unsuccessfully) with the idea of persuading left-wing opposition deputies to vote for this measure, but trying to construct ad hoc parliamentary majorities in this way would, in the longer-term, undermine the governing camp’s coherence and stability even more. So the ruling party is likely to allow the two smaller groupings a certain amount of leeway as long as they keep within tolerable boundaries. They, in turn, will be careful not to be too assertive given how much they stand to lose if they were to leave the governing coalition.

The proposal to increase social security contributions was one of several additional government revenue raising measures to fund its social spending pledges, specifically to provide bonuses for pensioners, without the state budget going into deficit. Others included: larger than expected increases in alcohol and tobacco duties; and taking out loans from the so-called ‘Solidarity Fund’, originally intended as a special fund for the disabled financed by a tax on higher earners. Law and Justice faces a much more difficult macro-economic situation in the forthcoming parliament and is unlikely to generate significant extra revenues through measures such as clamping down on tax evasion, as it did in the previous one. Indeed, promising large social transfers has probably reached the limits of its effectiveness as a political tactic. However, given how critical delivering on these social spending and welfare promises has become to Law and Justice’s broader credibility, the government is moving quickly to implement the pledges that it made during the election, ahead of May’s presidential poll. Moreover, the short-term economic situation remains broadly favourable and the government is hoping that it can keep the economy growing by: maintaining consumer demand through continued family subsidies and pension bonuses, investment in publicly-funded infrastructure projects, and incentives for smaller businesses.

Traditionalist-revolutionaries versus modernising-technocrats

The potential sources of tension between Law and Justice and its coalition partners reflect broader divisions within the governing camp. On the one hand, traditionalist-revolutionaries like Mr Ziobro remain committed to pushing ahead with the government’s programme of radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values. Modernising-technocrats such as Mr Morawiecki also have strong conservative values, and have at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment, but believe that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in larger towns and cities where traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church hold less sway, especially among younger Poles. There appears to have been some strengthening of the ‘technocrats’ within the government, especially in the economic sphere where many of the new appointees, such as finance minister Tadeusz Kościński, are closely aligned with Mr Morawiecki. It is also striking that there is no high profile government member clearly identified with the so-called ‘religious right’ for whom moral-cultural issues are a priority.

For sure, in his policy speech Mr Morawiecki defended the traditional model of the family and opposed the liberal-left’s moral-cultural agenda on issues such as state recognition of same-sex couples and promoting sex education in schools. Law and Justice has also made gestures towards its traditionalist-revolutionary wing by, for example, nominating two controversial conservative politicians intensely disliked by the country’s legal establishment to vacancies in the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. However, this does not fundamentally alter the party’s long-term pivot to the ‘technocratic centre’. These underlying tensions could come to a head if Mr Kaczyński, who provides a crucial source of cohesion and unquestioned authority to the governing camp, were to stand down from front-line politics. But there is currently every indication that he will remain Law and Justice leader throughout the forthcoming parliament.

What does Law and Justice’s re-election mean for Poland-EU relations?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is hoping that its decisive election victory will encourage the EU political establishment to put contentious issues such as ‘rule of law’ compliance on the back-burner. But this could be undermined by ongoing cases against Poland in the EU Court, proposals to link Union funding to ‘rule of law’ compliance, and possibly renewed disputes over domestic policies.

Clashes over domestic policy

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since 2015, is anti-federalist (arguably Eurosceptic) and extremely wary of further centralisation and extensions of EU competencies at the expense of member states. It was elected with a commitment to adopt a more robust and assertive approach to advancing the country’s interests within the EU. Its predecessor, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, attempted to locate Poland in the so-called European ‘mainstream’ by developing close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Warsaw needed to form its ‘own stream’ to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis by, for example, forging closer ties with post-communist Central and East European states. It did not come as a surprise, therefore, that, shortly after coming to office, Law and Justice soon found itself in conflict with the EU political establishment.

Initially this was over its refusal to implement a plan involving the compulsory relocation of Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North African, arguing that this represented a potential threat to Polish cultural identity and security. However, the most serious clashes were over Law and Justice’s domestic political reforms. Since the beginning of 2016, the Polish government has been in a protracted stand-off with the European Commission over ‘rule of law’ issues, which also contributed to worsening bi-lateral relations with the major EU powers. Initially, the dispute was over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal but escalated to include Law and Justice’s fiercely contested judicial reform programme. The Commission took the unprecedented step of initiating an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which it can invoke against any EU member state where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, threatening Warsaw with sanctions including the suspension of its European Council voting rights. The Commission also initiated infringement procedures against Poland in the EU Court of Justice.

In doing so, the Commission agreed with criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that Law and Justice’s reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of separation of powers. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. It accused the Commission of bias and double standards, arguing that its reforms were in line with practices that existed in other established Western democracies, and being motivated by the fact that Warsaw had been robust in promoting Polish interests and values, and opposing the socially liberal and multi-cultural policies supported by the EU political establishment.

Defanging the ‘Polexit’ narrative

In fact, the Polish government has for some time been making a concerted effort to de-escalate this conflict. At the end of 2017, respected former international banker Mateusz Morawiecki replaced the more combative Beata Szydło as prime minister in large part to ‘re-set’ Poland’s relations with the EU political establishment. Law and Justice has tried to present Poland as a constructive EU member state and de-couple the ‘rule of law’ dispute from its ability to develop a pragmatic working relationship with the Commission and major European powers on day-to-day issues. The party’s efforts were driven partly by a desire to neutralise the opposition’s (at one time apparently effective) narrative that the government’s frequent clashes with the EU political establishment, and the ‘rule of law’ dispute in particular, could lead to Poland leaving the Union, so-called ‘Polexit’. Whatever misgivings Poles may have about specific EU policies they continue to support the country’s membership overwhelmingly; a March 2019 survey conducted by the CBOS agency, for example, found 91% in favour and only 5% against.

Just what how toxic a slogan ‘Polexit’ was for any mainstream Polish politician to be associated with could be seen in the autumn 2018 local elections. Although Law and Justice won the highest share of the vote overall it performed poorly in medium-sized and larger towns, which many commentators attributed to the opposition’s claim that the ruling party was contemplating exiting from the EU. In the week leading up to polling day it emerged that justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro had asked the constitutional tribunal whether Polish judges had the right to refer queries on EU law to its Court of Justice. The opposition interpreted this as a pretext for Poland to ignore the Court’s verdicts if the constitutional tribunal questioned the primacy of EU law in Polish affairs, arguing that undermining the Union’s treaties in this way could be a precursor to ‘Polexit’. However, Law and Justice’s conscious efforts to project a more pro-EU image scuppered the opposition’s plan to turn May’s European Parliament (EP) election into a de facto referendum on ‘Polexit’, and the issue barely featured in the recent parliamentary campaign.

Indeed, in last month’s poll, Law and Justice became the first governing party to secure re-election with an overall majority for a second term of office, winning the largest vote share on the highest turnout in any post-communist Polish parliamentary election. The party is hoping that its decisive victory will encourage the EU political establishment to come to terms with the fact that they now have to deal with a Polish government with a renewed, solid democratic mandate; and therefore put contentious issues that could undermine strategic co-operation, such as ‘rule of law’ compliance, on the back-burner. Law and Justice is also hoping that the incoming Commission’s President-elect Ursula von der Leyen will be more accommodating towards Poland, particularly as Law and Justice played a key role in her appointment. Warsaw is encouraged by fact that Dutch commissioner Frans Timmermans – who took the lead on ‘rule of law’ issues in the outgoing Commission, and whose presidential bid Poland helped to block – is moving on to a different brief.

Problematic EU Court cases

However, a number of developments could undermine Law and Justice’s hopes of further reconciliation with the EU political establishment. Firstly, there are several ongoing referrals against Poland in the EU Court of Justice. Last month, in one of its final acts the outgoing Commission filed a case against new disciplinary rules which, it argued, failed to protect Polish judges from political control. The new procedures are conducted by a supreme court disciplinary chamber made up of judges chosen by the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body in which the majority of members are now selected mainly by parliament (by a qualified three-fifths supermajority) rather than the legal profession. Earlier this year, the Court found in the Commission’s favour in a case where it argued that new retirement provisions for supreme court judges violated EU law. The Commission has also referred legislation on the retirement provisions and functioning of the ordinary courts to the EU Court, while Polish judges have submitted a number of ‘prejudicial questions’ on the disputed reforms.

The EU Court has proved more willing to intervene in the functioning of national judicial systems than many commentators anticipated. In addition to the supreme court retirement provisions ruling, the Court’s advocate general has issued negative opinions on similar provisions for ordinary court judges and, in response to ‘prejudicial questions’, criticised the supreme court’s new disciplinary chamber and the composition of the new National Judicial Council. The Court tends to follow the advocate general’s advice in its final rulings, which are expected this autumn.

Law and Justice was prepared to face down the Commission given that its Article 7 pressure was solely political because it lacked the requisite majority in the Council of Ministers to move towards sanctions. However, it is more difficult for the Polish government to ignore the EU Court because it can impose heavy financial penalties on countries that do not comply with its rulings. Non-compliance would also involve an open breach of the EU’s rules allowing the opposition to revive its ‘Polexit’ narrative. This could cause real problems for Law and Justice if the Court strikes down measures that go to the heart of its reform programme, such as giving elected politicians a greater say in the election of the National Judicial Council.

Linking EU funds with the ‘rule of law’

Secondly, while one of Law and Justice’s main EU policy goals is to maintain Warsaw’s current levels of fiscal transfers, which many commentators argue have played a key role in the country’s economic modernisation, the outgoing Commission’s proposal for the Union’s 2021-27 long-term budget involves a sharp reduction in traditional spending areas such as ‘cohesion funds’, used predominantly to fund public investment in less well-off states like Poland. Law and Justice is focusing on building an effective ‘friends of cohesion’ coalition in the forthcoming budget negotiations, but the Commission is also proposing a new regulation linking the disbursement of EU funds to ‘rule of law’ compliance.

Under the proposed new instrument, the Commission could suspend, reduce or restrict access to EU funding if it felt that there were ‘generalised deficiencies’ in the investigation and prosecution of fraud or corruption, or an individual member state’s judicial system undermined the determination of court cases relating to Union funds. The decision could only be over-turned by a qualified majority in the EU Council, giving Brussels much greater leeway in determining whether there should be sanctions against member states. The Polish government is hoping that the regulation will be targeted very specifically at violations linked to the management of EU funds rather than broader systemic concerns which, it argues, are more difficult to measure objectively. Moreover, even those EU member states taking the Commission’s side against Poland in the ‘rule of law’ dispute may be reluctant to give Brussels such sweeping powers, and while the regulation could be approved by a simple majority Warsaw has indicated that it is prepared to veto the whole EU budget (which requires unanimous support) if it threatens its interests.

Avoiding contentious domestic issues until May?

Finally, although the election will not bring any significant change in Poland’s foreign policy, some of the new government’s domestic policies could lead to renewed disputes with the EU political establishment. Law and Justice remains committed to deepening and pushing forward with its radical state reform programme in areas such as the judiciary and privately-owned media (to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left). However, Polish politics will now be dominated by next May’s crucially important presidential election, when Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends.

Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high popularity ratings, and he remains the clear favourite. But the parliamentary election showed how polarised and evenly balanced support between the government and opposition camps is, and the presidential poll could be much closer than previously anticipated. As Law and Justice lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, Mr Duda’s defeat would be a disaster for the ruling party seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. In the presidential election, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win over more than 50% of the voters. So Law and Justice will also be keen to avoid introducing divisive and polarising measures that could re-ignite its conflict with the EU political establishment for fear of alienating moderate voters, at least until the May election.

What do the parliamentary election results mean for Polish politics?

Although the right-wing ruling party won a decisive victory, the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps remains evenly divided. Next May’s presidential election now assumes critical importance and could be closer than originally anticipated, creating a dilemma for the ruling party as to how quickly to push ahead with reforms.

A decisive victory

The October 13th election saw a record 61.7% turnout, the highest in any post-communist Polish parliamentary poll. It reflected the polarisation of, and deep divisions within, Polish society in recent years. The government – led, since 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – has come under heavy fire from its political opponents and the Western opinion-forming media, and been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment, for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. The party’s supporters have robustly denied these allegations, arguing that the government’s actions were necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they said, had been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. Both supporters and opponents of the government were highly mobilised, sensing that this was one of the most important and consequential elections since the collapse of communism in 1989.

In the event, Law and Justice won a decisive victory in the election securing 43.6% of the votes (up from 37.6% in 2015) and taking 235 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. This was the highest vote share won by any political grouping in a post-1989 election, and Law and Justice became the first governing party grouping to secure re-election with an overall majority for a second term. This achievement was all the more impressive given that less than 1% of the votes were cast for groupings that failed to cross the parliamentary representation threshold (5% for individual parties) compared with nearly 17% in 2015. The Polish electoral system, proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats, favours larger groupings but less so when there are fewer such ‘wasted’ votes.

Law and Justice increased its popularity in spite of such intense criticisms because it was trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters cared most about. The party delivered on most of the high profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant being its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit programme. ‘500 plus’ had an important symbolic effect providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. An important element of this – that was linked to, but went beyond, the simple question of financial transfers – was what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to sense that their government finally cared about and respected the less well-off, helping them to regain a sense of dignity and moral worth.

Although there was negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians, this did not damage the governing party to any great extent. Its supporters appeared to regard such allegations as either false, the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, or endemic to Polish politics with Law and Justice at least attempting to ensure that it was not only the governing elites that shared in the fruits of the economic transition. At the same time, even if they had misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many still felt that, for all its faults, Law and Justice deserved credit for at least trying to tackle some of the shortcomings of the Polish state which were ignored by previous administrations.

Opposition success in the Senate

At the same time, the main opposition grouping, the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2005-7, but also including the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) and tiny left-wing groupings – failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on socio-economic issues because it was too associated Law and Justice’s discredited predecessor. Although Civic Platform remains the largest opposition grouping, the Coalition only won 27.4% of the votes, down from the combined vote of 31.7% for its component parties in 2015, and 134 seats. It ran a poor campaign and its only really successful initiative was to propose the emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as the grouping’s prime ministerial candidate instead of Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna, who is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is one of Poland’s least trusted politicians. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of the Coalition’s most significant negatives, it came too late to allow Ms Kidawa-Błońska to develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.

Nonetheless, the Coalition retained a clear lead over the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) which spearheaded a united ‘Left’ (Lewica) slate – including the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party and the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) grouping led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – and finished third with 12.6% of the votes and 49 seats. Although delighted to have regained parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus, the left’s result was broadly in line with both poll predictions and the 11.2% combined vote share secured by the Alliance and ‘Together’ in 2015 (albeit on a much lower turnout). Left-wing activists and commentators hope that the new parliamentary intake, which includes several dynamic and articulate younger deputies, will use this platform to shift the terms of the Polish political debate decisively to the left, especially on moral-cultural issues. However, it is unclear how these parties will work together in the future, and if they focus too much on moral-cultural questions it will undermine their prospects of winning over less well-off but socially conservative voters who might otherwise be receptive to the left’s socio-economic policies.

Moreover, although Law and Justice won a clear election victory, there was a sense among some commentators, and even party leaders, that it had performed below expectations and failed to deliver the ‘knock-out blow’ to the opposition that many expected. In fact, the election only really confirmed what opinion polls had always shown: that the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps is fairly evenly balanced. This reflects the fact that the opposition retains considerable political assets, including substantial financial resources and the backing of the country’s business and cultural elites, including much of the privately-owned media.

This sense of under-performance was exemplified by the fact that Law and Justice lost overall control of the Senate, winning only 48 out of 100 seats, the same number as the three opposition parties (who concluded a pre-election non-aggression pact in most constituencies) – 43 for Civic Platform, three for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and two for the Democratic Left Alliance – with the balance of power held by four independents, three of whom were elected with opposition support. (In one of the big surprises of the election, the Peasant Party also performed strongly in the Sejm securing 8.6% of the votes and 30 seats). This is the first time since 1989 that a ruling party has not enjoyed a majority in Poland’s second chamber. The Senate confirms the appointment of certain key public officials and can slow down the approval of government legislation for up to 30 days. However, its amendments can be over-turned by an outright majority in the Sejm, and the Senate’s significance is more as a political platform, particularly in interrogating ministers and Law and Justice-appointed officials and holding them to account.

The presidential election is crucial

Perhaps above all, Law and Justice’s failure to secure a Senate majority provided the opposition with a much-need confidence boost ahead of the presidential election, scheduled for next May when the ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends. Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high popularity ratings. However, although he remains the clear favourite, the parliamentary election showed how polarised the political scene is and that there are many opposition voters who are determined to use any opportunity to block Law and Justice. The presidential election could, therefore, be a much greater challenge for Mr Duda than many government supporters previously anticipated, particularly if the opposition can field a popular and credible challenger (Ms Kidawa-Błońska is being touted as one of the front-runners for this). Indeed, as Law and Justice lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, a defeat for Mr Duda would be a disaster for the ruling party seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. So the presidential election now assumes crucial importance and will dominate Polish politics over the next few months.

Given how critical delivering on its social spending promises has become to Law and Justice’s credibility, the government will need to move quickly to honour its key election pledges. At a minimum, it will have to pass, or at least begin to implement, the five measures promised for its first 100 days in office: reducing social security premiums for small firms, pension bonuses, healthcare checks, new road construction programmes, and increasing direct farm subsidies to the EU average. As making social spending and welfare pledges has developed into the party’s chosen tactic for raising the electoral stakes to encourage the beneficiaries of these programmes to turn out to vote, Law and Justice may also consider introducing some new promises in the run-up to the presidential poll, although this could place a strain on the state budget.

Law and Justice’s dilemma

More broadly, the presidential election confronts Law and Justice with a major strategic dilemma. The party remains committed to deepening and pushing forward with its radical state reform programme in areas such as the judiciary (where it believes that the legal establishment is part of a nexus of interests with opposition elites committed to blocking the party’s reforms) and the privately-owned media (to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left). It will be reluctant to put these issues on the back-burner as the beginning of a new term of office, when an incoming new government still enjoys considerable political capital, is generally the best time to introduce controversial measures. Indeed, delay risks the government having to cohabit with an opposition-backed President who could start to veto the most controversial elements of Law and Justice’s programme as soon as they are sworn into office next summer. Law and Justice also faces a challenge on its radical right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping which, in the other major election upset, secured 6.8% of the votes and 11 seats and will no doubt call out the ruling party for any perceived ‘centrist’ backsliding.

However, pushing ahead with radical reforms will also generate widespread domestic and international opposition. While the prospects of Mr Duda losing the presidential election remain slim, Law and Justice knows that the contest is likely to be evenly matched, and that it needs to avoid drawing the incumbent into sharp political conflicts that could damage his chances. In the parliamentary election, one of Law and Justice’s main tasks was to mobilise its core electoral base, hence its focus on the emotive moral-cultural issue of opposing what it called ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’ as an important secondary campaign theme. In the presidential election, on the other hand, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win over more than 50% of the voters. So the over-arching strategic logic here will to be to avoid potentially divisive and polarising issues over the next few months.

Who will win the Polish election?

It is almost certain that the right-wing ruling party will emerge from Poland’s parliamentary election as the largest grouping, but far-from-clear if it will retain its overall majority. If the governing party secures a second term it will entrench and push ahead with its reform programme, while any alternative coalition government is likely to be weak and unstable.

Raising the electoral stakes

On October 13th Poland holds a parliamentary election which is likely to be one of the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. During the last four years the current government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has come under heavy fire from its political opponents for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. It has also been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment and subject to intense criticism from much of the Western opinion-forming media. However, Law and Justice remains very popular and enjoys a clear lead in the opinion polls. The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys shows the party averaging 44% compared with 26% for the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.

Law and Justice remains popular in spite of the harsh criticisms that it has received because it is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that have dominated the election campaign. The party has delivered on most of the high profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant of which was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit programme. ‘500 plus’ has had an important symbolic effect providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. At the same time, although its opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, the government has continued to maintain high levels of economic growth and falling unemployment, with increased tax revenues actually leading to a reduction in the state budget deficit.

In its election programme, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments and promised to build a Polish version of a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity and state-led economic modernisation. The centre-piece was a pledge to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023. These social welfare programmes and pledges are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for the party’s core supporters, thereby encouraging them to turn out and vote out of fear that the liberal-centrist opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.

Credit for re-distributing prestige

Law and Justice has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it undermined democracy and the rule of law and many Poles accept the government’s argument that its actions were necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they said, had been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. But even if they have misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many still feel that, for all its faults, Law and Justice deserves credit for at least trying to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the state which were ignored by previous administrations. An important element of this – that was linked to, but went beyond, the simple question of financial transfers – is what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a feeling of dignity and that, as they saw it, their government finally cared about the less well-off and was trying to restore an elementary sense of justice and moral order.

Although there has been negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians these do not appear to have damaged the governing party to any great extent. The party has generally been quick off-the-mark in acting decisively to neutralise these scandals, if necessary by dismissing the implicated officials. For example, in July Marek Kuchciński was forced to resign as Law and Justice parliamentary speaker following allegations that he had used an official aeroplane for private flights. The party’s supporters appear to regard such allegations as either false, the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, or as endemic to Polish politics with Law and Justice at least attempting to ensure that it was not only the governing elites that shared in the fruits of the economic transition.

Law and Justice has also skilfully mobilised support around a number of moral-cultural issues where it enjoys widespread public support or that are important to its core electorate. In this campaign, for example, it has opposed what it calls ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’, putting itself at the head of a moral crusade as the defender of the traditional family, Polish national identity, and Christian values and culture. These, it argues, stabilise the social order and promote the common good but are threatened by ‘a great offensive of evil’ (wielka ofensywa zła). By focusing on these issues, and thereby strengthening its hold over conservative voters, Law and Justice has also neutralised the electoral challenge from the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping which, according to ‘Ewybory’, is averaging around 4% support (just under the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for individual parties).

An unconvincing opposition

For sure, the opposition should not be written off and retains considerable political assets. The overall levels of popular support for the government and opposition camps is actually fairly evenly balanced and that latter has substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites. However, it has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Polish voters care most about.

The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is currently Poland’s least trusted politician. Recognising his lack of wider appeal, at the beginning of September Civic Platform proposed the more emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate. In doing so, it copied a Law and Justice manoeuvre in the 2015 campaign when its polarising leader Jarosław Kaczyński nominated one of his deputies, Beata Szydło, as the party’s nominee for prime minister. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of Civic Platform’s most significant negatives, it has not had any discernible impact on the grouping’s poll ratings, coming too late to give Ms Kidawa-Błońska time develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.

Civic Platform strategists also recognised that, rather than trying to outbid Law and Justice’s huge expansion of individual social transfers and welfare benefit programmes (although it promised to continue with them), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health care. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected they are also dubious whether the liberal-centrist opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative. Law and Justice simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.

More open than it seems

Nonetheless, although, as things currently stand, there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term, the election is more open than it initially appears. While it seems almost certain that Law and Justice will emerge as the largest party it is far-from-clear if it will retain its overall majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties. Law and Justice only secured such a majority in 2015 because an alliance of left-wing parties narrowly failed to cross the higher 8% representation threshold for electoral coalitions. This time the three main left-wing parties – the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the radical left Together (Razem) grouping, and the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – are contesting the election as a united slate. However, although they are badging their formation in a broader way as the ‘Left’ (Lewica), in order to avoid the higher threshold the three parties are standing candidates on the Democratic Left Alliance’s electoral list; which is currently polling around 12% according to E-wybory.

The agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), formerly Civic Platform’s governing coalition partner, is also contesting the election independently but badging itself as a broader centrist ‘Polish Coalition’(KP) and has persuaded right-wing rock star Pawel Kukiz to join its ranks. Mr Kukiz achieved a sensational result in the May 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote – and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the new parliament – but he lost much of his appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner when he teamed up with the quintessentially establishment Peasant Party; which, according to E-wybory, is currently polling around 6%.

Whether or not Law and Justice secures a parliamentary majority depends on the overall size and distribution of the ruling party and opposition groupings’ votes, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and how many votes are cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. The Polish electoral system, proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats, favours larger groupings particularly when a significant number of votes are cast for those that do not cross the electoral threshold. However, if Law and Justice loses a few percentage points and all the opposition groupings comfortably cross the threshold, then this could deprive the ruling party of its majority. The greatest threat to Law and Justice, therefore, comes from the danger of its own supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence that the election is a foregone conclusion.

The stakes are high

If Law and Justice wins it will entrench and continue to push ahead with its radical reform programme in areas such as the judiciary and probably broaden it out into other fields such as the privately-owned media. At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, a Law and Justice second term will further shake-up the more informal hierarchies of power, influence and prestige that currently exist in the public sphere. With a fresh electoral mandate, the party will also be emboldened in its dealings with the EU political establishment and major European powers. As a consequence, a number of the party’s more pragmatic domestic and international opponents are likely to seek some kind of accommodation if it appears that Law and Justice will be in office for another four years

Even if the opposition is able to deprive Law and Justice of an overall majority, and the latter is not able to peel off enough individual opposition deputies to compensate for this, any alternative coalition government will be weak and unstable. For sure, it is likely to try and roll back many of Law and Justice’s controversial reforms and engage in wholesale replacement of the party’s nominees to key posts in public administration and broadcasting, the diplomatic service and state-controlled companies and agencies. But it will have to rely on an eclectic coalition of political forces for its parliamentary majority and its legislative programme will be undermined by the fact that it will also almost certainly lack the three-fifths majority required to overturn vetoes by Law and Justice President Andrzej Duda, whose term of office lasts until summer 2020.

Why is Poland’s Law and Justice party still so popular?

In spite of intense domestic and international criticisms Poland’s right-wing ruling party remains popular because it is trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters care most about. It has portrayed itself as the defender of national identity and traditional values, and many Poles feel that, for all its faults, the party is at least trying to tackle problems ignored by previous governments.

Delivering on its social spending promises

On October 13th Poland holds a parliamentary election which is likely to be one of the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. During the last four years the current government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has come under heavy fire from its political opponents for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. It has also been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment and subject to intense criticism from much of the Western opinion-forming media. However, Law and Justice remains very popular and enjoys a clear lead in the opinion polls. The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys shows the party averaging 45% compared with 26% for the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.

In fact, the Polish election is more open that it initially appears. Even if, as seems almost certain, Law and Justice wins the largest share of the vote it is far-from-clear whether or not it will retain its overall parliamentary majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties. This depends on the precise share and final distribution of votes between the governing party and opposition groupings, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and the votes cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. A relatively small number of votes could determine the outcome either way. Nonetheless, as things currently stand there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term.

So why is Law and Justice still so popular? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the party is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that they care most about because it has delivered on many of the high-profile social spending pledges which were the key to Law and Justice’s 2015 election success. The most significant of these was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which was extended this year to cover all families with any number of children. ‘500 plus’ has had an important symbolic effect providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. Many Poles feel that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice is the first governing party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale. At the same time, although the government’s opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, economic growth is strong, unemployment at its lowest for years, and increased tax revenues have actually led to a reduction in the state budget deficit.

At a September election rally launching the party’s plans to build a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments by announcing plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023, and introduce regular annual cash bonus payments for pensioners and retirees. Together with earlier social welfare spending pledges, these programmes are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for key groups of Law and Justice core voters, thereby encouraging them to vote in October out of fear that the opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.

Defending national identity and traditional values

Secondly, Law and Justice has put itself at the head of a moral crusade projecting the party as the defender of the traditional family, Polish national identity, and Christian values and culture. These, it argues, stabilise the social order and promote the common good but are threatened by ‘a great offensive of evil’ (wielka ofensywa zła). Initially, this could be seen in the party’s strong opposition to the EU’s extremely unpopular compulsory migrant relocation scheme in the run-up to the 2015 election, when Law and Justice argued that Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa would be difficult to assimilate and threatened Poland’s national security. More recently, the party has opposed what it terms ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’: an allegedly aggressive movement and policy agenda based on foreign ideas promoted by left-wing enemies of Western civilisation.

These are certainly polarising issues that strike an emotional chord with many Poles because they involve a clash of basic moral-cultural values and map on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. A defence of traditional moral codes and pushing back against Western cultural liberalism has always been a key element of Law and Justice’s appeal to more socially conservative voters. Consequently, raising the issue’s salience (according to the opposition, cynically as a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic) certainly helps to mobilise the party’s core supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where such values still hold considerable sway.

But Law and Justice has framed its arguments so that they do not simply mobilise its core electorate but also win broader public support for the party. The vast majority of Poles supported the Law and Justice government’s strong opposition to the EU’s mandatory re- relocation scheme, keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that they felt West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants. The fact that, unlike in many West European cities, there have been no Islamist terrorist attacks in Poland increased Poles’ sense that they lived in a relatively safe country and that this was threatened by alleged EU-imposed multi-culturalism.

Similarly, while Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, popular acceptance starts to decline when the agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives into areas which they feel belong to the realm of family life, such as proposals that appear to diminish the role of parents as the primary educators of their children in matters of sexual relations and morality. While Poles are fairly evenly divided on the question of legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, a substantial majority oppose same-sex marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and are overwhelmingly against granting adoption rights to same-sex couples. Many, including those who are not especially religious, are also extremely hostile to the profanation of Catholic symbols by LGBT activists, as in Poland many of these are also regarded as broader national symbols.

Re-distributing prestige

Thirdly, the negative publicity surrounding various allegations of government scandals, and the abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians for partisan or private ends, does not appear to have damaged the ruling party to any great extent. Law and Justice has generally been quick off-the-mark in acting decisively to neutralise these scandals, if necessary by dismissing the implicated officials. For example, in July Marek Kuchciński was forced to resign as Law and Justice parliamentary speaker following allegations that he had used an official aeroplane for private flights. The party’s supporters appear to regard such allegations as either false, the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, or endemic to Polish politics with Law and Justice at least attempting to ensure that it was not only the governing elites that shared in the fruits of economic transformation.

Similarly, Law and Justice has been tactically adroit in knowing when to defuse, and not expend too political capital on, contentious issues, and retreat when the party does not consider these to be priorities or core elements of its governing programme. A good example of this was the abortion issue when, although they personally supported tightening Poland’s already-restrictive law, in autumn 2016, facing an unexpectedly large groundswell of public opposition, Law and Justice parliamentarians voted down legislation sponsored by Catholic civic organisations representing the party’s core ‘religious right’ electorate to make the practice illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life was at risk.

Fourthly, Poles have been prepared to cut Law and Justice a lot of slack. For sure, the party has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it has undermined democracy and the rule of law. Many Poles accept the government’s argument that its actions were necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they said, had been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. Moreover, even if they have misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many others still feel that, for all its faults, Law and Justice was at least attempting to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the Polish state which have been ignored by previous administrations. An important element of this – that was linked to but went beyond the simple question of financial transfers – was what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’: whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and that, as they saw it, their government finally cared about the less well-off and was trying to restore an elementary sense of justice and moral order.

A weak and unconvincing opposition

Finally, Law and Justice has benefited from the fact that the liberal-centrist opposition has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that voters care most about. The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is currently Poland’s least trusted politician. Recognising his lack of wider appeal, Mr Schetyna has taken a back-seat in the election campaign with Civic Platform promoting the more emollient but low-key former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate.

Opposition strategists recognise that, rather than trying to outbid Law and Justice’s huge expansion of individual social transfers and welfare benefit programmes (although it has promised to continue with them), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health and education. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected they are also dubious whether the opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative and would actually deliver any improvements. Law and Justice’s election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, and the ruling party simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.

Complacency is the greatest threat

For sure, the opposition should not be written off and retains considerable political assets including: a sizeable potential base of popular support; substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media; and significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites. Election campaigns can also, of course, develop their own specific dynamics, and a change in the political context or the emergence of a particular issue could still turn things around, given that government and opposition camps actually remain fairly evenly matched in terms of their combined overall levels of support. Nonetheless, as things stand, the greatest threat to Law and Justice probably comes not from the opposition but the danger of its own leaders and supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence.

What are the left’s prospects in the Polish election?

Although it came about by chance, a united bloc is the Polish left’s best opportunity for years to make an electoral breakthrough. But it is an unstable marriage of convenience and could be squeezed if the campaign polarises around attitudes towards the right-wing ruling party.

A declining hegemon?

Although it enjoys a strong influence on public debate, in recent years the Polish left has had very limited electoral appeal. For much of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5. However, the Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. It contested the 2015 election as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition but only secured 7.6% of the vote, failing to cross the 8% parliamentary representation threshold for electoral alliances (it is 5% for individual parties). As a result, left-wing parties failed to secure any parliamentary representation for the first time since 1989 and, as a side-effect, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s ruling party since 2015, became the first political grouping in post-communist Poland to win an outright majority.

Following its defeat, the Alliance elected ex-communist Włodzimierz Czarzasty as its new leader; a controversial figure linked to the so-called ‘Rywin affair’, the first of the high-profile corruption scandals that engulfed the party during the 2001-5 parliament. Many commentators wrote the Alliance off as a cynical and corrupt political grouping whose ageing, communist-nostalgic electorate was literally dying off. However, the party continued to have deep social roots in those sections of the electorate that, due to their personal biographies, have positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime, especially those whose families were connected to the military and former security services. This is a relatively small, and steadily declining, segment of the electorate but sizeable enough to allow the Alliance to retain its hegemony on the Polish left. The party has 20,000 members, high by Polish standards, and maintains extensive local organisational structures covering most of the country. It also received around 17 million złoties in state subventions over the course of the current parliament.

Following disappointing results in the autumn 2018 local elections, the Alliance contested May’s European Parliament (EP) poll as part of the European Coalition (KE), an electoral alliance comprising nearly all of Poland’s main opposition parties led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. However, although five of the alliance’s best-known political figures were elected among the Coalition’s 22 MEPs, and the party was keen to contest the parliamentary election as part of a broad anti-Law and Justice pact, the Coalition broke up after the EP poll. Following the departure of the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform was concerned that the Coalition’s political centre of gravity would shift too far to the left, and that the Alliance might nominate high profile former communists among its parliamentary candidates, which could generate a backlash among voters who identify strongly with the anti-communist Solidarity tradition.

Unsuccessful left challengers

At one point, the future appeared to lie with the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which was formed in 2015 and gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism and programmatic clarity. It accused the Democratic Left Alliance of betraying left-wing ideas by pursuing orthodox liberal economic and Atlanticist foreign policies when in office. In the event, ‘Together’ won 3.6% of the vote in 2015 which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that it secured around 14 million złoties of state funding, and peeled away sufficient left-wing votes to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold. However, ‘Together’ failed to capitalise on its early promise and attract a broader range of support beyond the well-educated urban ‘hipsters’ that formed its core. It also proved very difficult for the party to cut through with its distinctive left-wing socio-economic message at a time when the Polish political scene was so sharply polarised around attitudes towards the Law and Justice administration. Standing at the head of an alliance of smaller left-wing parties, ‘Together’ only secured 1.2% of the votes in the EP election.

The main opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition was the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party, launched in February by the former mayor of the Northern provincial town of Słupsk and veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, who some commentators touted as the Polish left’s saviour. However, after a promising start ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and became essentially a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party; its 6.1% EP vote share was well below expectations. Then, Mr Biedroń disillusioned many of his supporters when he announced that he would be taking up his EP seat, having previously said that he would stand down in order to concentrate on the parliamentary election, leaving him open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project. ‘Spring’ appears to lack any strong ideological core (it avoids defining itself as left-wing, preferring the term ‘progressive’), the party’s finances are said to be in a mess, and it has failed to build up any local organisation with supporters arguing that its decision-making structures are centralised and undemocratic. Nonetheless, for all his flip-flops Mr Biedroń remains the Polish left’s most popular and charismatic leader.

A marriage of convenience?

However, although the leaders of the three left-wing parties were, until recently, bitterly critical of (indeed, probably actively disliked) each other, in July they agreed to contest the October 13th parliamentary election as a single electoral bloc. Chastened by its 2015 experience of failing to cross the higher 8% threshold, the Democratic Left Alliance did not want to run as a formal electoral coalition. However, to maintain their identity ‘Together’ and ‘Spring’ did not simply want their candidates to stand on the Democratic Left Alliance party ticket, so it was proposed that the Alliance re-brand itself as simply the ‘Left’ (Lewica). But the name change was not approved in time to register with the State Electoral Commission, so the three parties have to contest the election under the old party name with ‘Left’ as simply the over-arching campaign logo. Moreover, although the ‘Left’ bloc will now only have to cross the lower 5% threshold for single parties, any state subsidies will be allocated solely to the Democratic Left Alliance, with funds passed on to the other two groupings on the basis of an informal agreement with no legal standing; under the electoral coalition formula they would all have been guaranteed a share.

The leaders of the ‘Left’ are trying to present the pact as a synergy of its component parts rather than an opportunistic marriage of convenience. There is certainly a large enough left-wing electorate for the bloc to secure parliamentary representation; the E-wybory website which aggregates voting intention surveys shows it averaging around 11% support. Indeed, the fact that the ‘Left’ is running as a separate bloc could actually increase the overall size of the opposition vote because it can project a clearer and more distinctive programmatic message mobilising a specific segment of the electorate, rather than being diluted in an amorphous anti-Law and Justice pact such as the European Coalition. The performance of the ‘Left’ bloc could, therefore, be crucial in determining the election outcome, particularly whether or not Law and Justice can once again secure an overall parliamentary majority.

Opportunities and challenges

The emergence of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) issue as a salient campaign theme during the summer also gave the new bloc an opportunity to differentiate itself from the liberal-centrist opposition. At the end of July, the ‘Left’ was quick off-the-mark in organising a rally against violence a week after a crowd of football hooligans threw stones and fireworks at participants taking part in the first LGBT ‘equality parade’ in the North-Eastern city of Białystok. In doing so, it outflanked Civic Platform which, concerned not to alienate more socially conservative centrist voters, has tried to avoid taking clear stances on moral-cultural issues and did not endorse the rally. It is difficult to tell just how much the LGBT issue really fires up the Polish electorate (and will be interesting to see the reaction of core Democratic Left Alliance voters, who are anti-clerical but not especially socially liberal) but focusing on it certainly helped the ‘Left’ project a distinctive profile on a highly topical question.

Interestingly, while the LGBT issue gave the ‘Left’ its opening, at the bloc’s programmatic launch it focused more on socio-economic themes such as health care, public sector pay, employment rights, housing, and social welfare. This is understandable given that these are the issues that Poles appear to care most about. But it is difficult for the ‘Left’ to compete on this issue axis because in Poland less well-off, economically leftist voters tend to be older and more socially conservative, so often incline towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy; and the ruling party has delivered on most of the high profile social spending pledges on which it was elected. At the same time, the kind of younger, better-off, social liberals who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. Tellingly, at its programmatic launch the ‘Left’ avoided the question of whether it would fund its spending programmes through more progressive taxation.

Moreover, the ‘Left’ could be squeezed if the campaign polarises around the ‘pro- versus anti-Law and Justice’ divide and potential left-wing voters coalesce increasingly around Civic Platform as the strongest opposition party. In previous elections, Civic Platform ‘borrowed’ a substantial number of potential centre-left voters who supported the party solely as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of office. In this campaign, Civic Platform has also tried to attract such voters by: adopting some more unambiguously left-wing policies on moral-cultural issues (for example, making its first official promise to introduce same-sex civil partnerships); and placing a number of well-known left-wing politicians in prominent positions on the candidate lists of the party-led Civic Coalition (KK) electoral alliance, such as pro-abortion activist Barbara Nowacka who was the public face of the ‘United Left’ coalition in the 2015 campaign.

Finally, while the ‘Left’ bloc will probably hold together until the election what happens next is in many ways more important. If the bloc fails to cross the threshold it will fall apart very quickly, but a small parliamentary caucus, which is likely to be dominated by Democratic Left Alliance deputies, could also easily split or be cannibalised by larger parties. Moreover, policy disputes and problems of coherence and identity could actually intensify if the current anti-Law and Justice opposition parties were to form what is likely to be a weak and unstable coalition government, which probably would not implement much of the ‘Left’’s ambitious programme.

A critical election

This election will be a crucial test for the Polish left. While the ‘Left’ pact has come about somewhat by chance, it represents its best opportunity for years to make an electoral breakthrough. The bloc is not competing to win, or even emerge as the main opposition grouping, but does have a chance of becoming the first credible left-wing alternative to the right-wing and liberal-centrist duopoly that has dominated Polish politics for the last 15 years. Its performance could also be crucial in determining whether Law and Justice can secure another overall parliamentary majority. But if the bloc fails in such promising circumstances it will show that the Polish left‘s prospects are even gloomier than previously imagined.