The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

What are the prospects for Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki?

Barring a political earthquake, Poland’s right-wing prime minister is unlikely to be dismissed before next spring as there is no obvious alternative and replacing him could de-stabilise the governing coalition. Nonetheless, his political future hangs in the balance, and whether he leads the government into next autumn’s parliamentary election depends on how he copes with the huge economic and energy security challenges facing the country this winter.

Re-assuring business elites and Brussels

Recent months have seen speculation that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015, may replace prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. When he took over from incumbent Beata Szydło at the end of 2017 it was felt that Mr Morawiecki would, as a respected former international banker, re-assure business elites concerned about Law and Justice’s costly re-distributive social welfare programmes and commitment to state intervention in what it considered to be key strategic sectors of the economy.

In addition to his apparent economic moderation and competence, it was also hoped that Mr Morawiecki’s supposed greater credibility in diplomatic circles would help to improve Poland’s international standing, and specifically ‘re-set’ Law and Justice’s problematic relations with the EU political establishment. From the outset, the Law and Justice government has found itself in conflict with the European Commission over so-called ‘rule-of-law’ issues, especially its controversial judicial reforms. Mr Morawiecki tried to de-couple this dispute from Warsaw’s ability to develop pragmatic working relations with the EU institutions and major European powers.

Following Law and Justice’s re-election in autumn 2019, Mr Morawiecki emerged as a key figure in the governing camp’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing. This has at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment but also believes that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in urban areas by focusing on socio-economic transformation rather than ideological issues. Mr Morawiecki originally appeared to enjoy the backing of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not currently hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the governing camp’s programmatic and strategic priorities. Mr Kaczyński seemed to believe that, in order to make progress with its radical state reconstruction project, Law and Justice had to win public support by demonstrating its competence in socio-economic policy and international relations, and that Mr Morawiecki was best placed to achieve this. Indeed, at one point there was even speculation that he was considering Mr Morawiecki as a possible successor as party leader.

Under-delivery and domestic problems

However, because of his background as a wealthy technocrat, Mr Morawiecki was always seen as something of an outsider in a party whose electoral base was concentrated among less well-off voters in rural and small-town Poland. For sure, Mr Morawiecki attempted to develop a more demotic style to appeal to Law and Justice’s core electorate, but he was not entirely convincing in this new persona and never really won over the hearts-and-minds of the party faithful. Moreover, rather than reaching out to new political constituencies, Law and Justice’s base of support actually became more consolidated in its electoral heartlands.

Mr Morawiecki’s greater familiarity with diplomatic niceties certainly enabled him to develop better contacts with Western politicians than his predecessor. In December 2020, Mr Morawiecki strengthened his reputation as an effective negotiator and dealmaker when he concluded the 2021-27 EU budget round with Poland once again set to be the largest net recipient of regional funds. However, he was unable to end the ongoing ‘rule-of-law’ dispute, as a consequence of which the Commission is continuing to withhold Poland’s 35 billion Euro share of the EU’s post-pandemic coronavirus recovery funds. Brussels argues that the Polish government has not fully complied with its ‘milestones’ for amending Law and Justice’s contested judicial reforms; Warsaw vigorously denies this and says that the Commission is exceeding its powers.

Indeed, there are now also concerns over whether Warsaw will receive payments from the 75 billion Euros that it is expecting in the new round of EU regional funds. Mr Morawiecki’s Eurosceptic critics within the governing camp argue that, during the EU budget negotiations, he made a critical error in agreeing to the principle of linking payment of EU funds to ‘rule-of-law’ conditionality. His defenders argue that Poland only agreed to conditionality applying in cases where a direct and specific causal link could be established between breaches of rules and negative consequences for the EU’s financial interests.

At the same time, domestically Mr Morawiecki’s government is having to grapple with an economic slowdown, high energy prices, potential winter fuel shortages, surging inflation (now nearly 18%) and falling living standards. As a consequence, after a brief rebound following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, since the summer opinion polls have shown support for Law and Justice declining. According to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog, which aggregates voting intention surveys, although Law and Justice remains Poland’s largest party averaging 35% support, this is well short of the 40% that would allow it to secure an outright parliamentary majority. An October survey for the CBOS polling agency also found that only 26% of respondents declared themselves supporters of Mr Morawiecki’s government while 47% were opposed, its worst rating since the party came to office.

Mr Morawiecki’s rivals emboldened

Mr Morawiecki’s problem is that he lacks a power base in the governing camp’s factional politics and has significant government rivals who have become increasingly active and emboldened as they felt his position becoming weaker. One of his most significant opponents has been justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro who leads the right-wing ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) grouping, Law and Justice’s junior governing partner, and has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies, notably its judicial reforms. Mr Ziobro represents what might be termed the ‘traditionalist-revolutionary’ faction within the governing camp that remains committed to pushing ahead with radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values. However, divisions within the governing camp also run through Law and Justice itself, some of whose ‘old guard’ are in many ways ideologically closer to Mr Ziobro and have always been wary of Mr Morawiecki’s ambitions.

Within the government, during the summer opposition to Mr Morawiecki coalesced around deputy prime minister and state assets minister Jacek Sasin who led a plot to have him replaced. Relations between the two politicians have been tense since Mr Sasin felt that Mr Mazowiecki tried to blame him for an abortive and costly attempt to organise a postal ballot for the May 2020 presidential election following the introduction of coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Recently, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute over questions of competency and personnel decisions following the outbreak of the energy crisis arising from the war in Ukraine. Mr Morawiecki’s critics also suggested that, at a time of economic crisis, the government needed a less technocratic and more ‘caring’ figurehead, and floated Elżbieta Witek – the speaker of the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber – as a possible replacement.

At the same time, Mr Kaczyński has started to become somewhat disillusioned with the prime minister. Earlier this year, Mr Morawiecki was the politician most associated with the government’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) socio-economic reform programme, which he promoted as a political game-changer that would take Law and Justice through to victory at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023. However, Mr Morawiecki’s reputation for economic competence suffered a major blow as the confusing rollout of the tax reforms that comprised a key element of the programme turned into a public relations disaster for the government. Moreover, given that one of the key reasons for Mr Morawiecki’s initial appointment was his apparent ability to reach agreement with the EU elites, Mr Kaczyński was particularly disappointed that the Commission was continuing to block the release of Poland’s share of the coronavirus recovery funds.

Mr Morawiecki survives, but loses key allies

However, last month talk of replacing Mr Morawiecki subsided, not least because Mr Kaczyński realised that ongoing criticisms of the prime minister were damaging the governing camp as a whole and removing him could be very problematic. Changing the prime minister requires a parliamentary vote of confidence in his proposed replacement which could be extremely de-stabilising for Law and Justice if every component of the governing camp started to introduce new conditions for their support.

Moreover, Mr Morawiecki’s opponents lacked any credible alternatives, both in policy terms (many of the governing camp’s internal conflicts are about securing influence within the Polish state rather than substantive political differences) and an obvious replacement for him. There was speculation at one point that Mr Morawiecki could be replaced by deputy prime minister and defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak, a very solid if rather colourless favourite of Mr Kaczynski’s, or Mrs Szydło, now a member of the European Parliament who remains a favourite with the party grassroots. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither of them currently appears interested in the job. There may be a certain political marketing logic to replacing Mr Morawiecki with a potentially more empathetic figure such as Mrs Witek. However, although his reputation for administrative competence has taken a considerable knock in recent months, Mr Morawiecki retains an edge over other Law and Justice leaders in terms of his understanding of the workings of the economy, which is seen as a key quality required to get the government through the challenges of the next few months.

Nonetheless, the price that Mr Morawiecki had to pay for remaining in post was the dismissal of some of his closest collaborators. At the end of September, Michał Dworczyk resigned after five years as head of the prime ministers’ chancellery. Although he cited personal reasons, for months the Polish media has been publishing Mr Dworczyk’s private email correspondence revealing embarrassing details of the governing camp’s behind-the-scenes operations (Law and Justice disputed its authenticity and argued that the hackers had Russian connections). He was replaced by former Sejm speaker Marek Kuchciński, one of Mr Kaczynski’s most trusted political allies who will no doubt act as the Law and Justice leader’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the prime minister’s office. This was quickly followed by the dismissal of European affairs minister Konrad Szymański, another politician felt to be part of Mr Morawiecki’s entourage and who many of the prime minister’s critics hold responsible for the failure of the government’s negotiations with Brussels over EU funding. The departure of these two ministers was widely interpreted as a significant weakening of Mr Morawiecki’s authority and grip on the levers of power.

Next spring is crunch time

Mr Kaczyński also appears to have left open the possibility of replacing Mr Morawiecki at some point ahead of the parliamentary election. The obvious time for a change of prime minister would be next spring so, barring a political earthquake, Mr Morawiecki is unlikely to face another serious challenge until then. Beyond that, his fate really depends on how the government deals with the huge economic and energy security challenges that it faces during the next few months. If Mr Morawiecki can take credit for getting the government through this difficult period without major energy supply shortages, Poles feel that their living standards have not declined too dramatically, and a pathway opens up for Law and Justice to retain power at the next election, then he is likely to survive.

If, on the other hand, living standards continue to fall and the energy security situation deteriorates, his days could be numbered. Even then, a change of prime minister would be politically risky, as it would mean Law and Justice admitting to having made mistakes and still require securing a parliamentary vote of confidence in his successor. But it would also offer an opportunity to draw a line under the past, with Mr Morawiecki taking the blame for the government’s various failings and his successor portrayed as representing a new political opening in the run-up to the autumn election.

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Why has the Polish government raised the German war reparations issue?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is using the war reparations issue to undermine Germany’s moral narrative that it has come to terms with its Nazi past, and attack the liberal-centrist opposition for allegedly colluding with foreign powers to undermine the Polish government ahead of next year’s parliamentary election. The opposition appears to have defused the issue for now by offering the government critical support, but it could still provide an effective means of mobilising the ruling party’s core electorate.

Poland’s moral and legal case

On September 1st, the eighty-third anniversary of Nazi Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the Polish government, led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, officially launched a campaign to seek war reparations from Berlin for the devastation caused by the country’s 1939-45 occupation. The announcement was accompanied by the publication of a report completed in 2019 and prepared by experts for a Law and Justice parliamentary commission which presented detailed analysis supporting the Polish claim from a political and legal, as well as moral and historical, perspective. The report calculated that the war losses suffered by Poland as a result of the occupation amounted to a colossal 6.2 trillion złoties (as of 2021), three times Germany’s annual state budget. Poland as a state never received significant financial compensation for the destruction caused by Germany; only individuals, such as victims of forced slave labour and pseudo-medical experiments in concentration camps, were awarded small symbolic sums by Polish-German foundations.

However, despite Poland’s renewed efforts Germany responded by reiterating its long-standing position that the issue of reparations had been settled conclusively in 1953. The then-communist Polish government renounced its claim in exchange for East Germany accepting Warsaw’s takeover of former German territories. Germany argues that, until now, no Polish government has raised the issue, even after the collapse of communism in 1989. Law and Justice rejects this interpretation arguing that reparations are still due. Supporters of the Polish case argue that: the two countries never concluded any legally binding bilateral peace treaty or liquidation agreement on the effects of the Second World War; the 1953 renunciation was never officially ratified nor even published; and, as it was part of the Soviet bloc, communist Poland did not have international sovereignty at that time. At the beginning of October, Warsaw issued an official ‘diplomatic note’ to Berlin formally making its claim for compensation.

Undermining Germany’s moral narrative

However, while Law and Justice certainly hopes that Poland will receive reparations at some point there is broad agreement that Germany is extremely unlikely to agree to its demands, not least because of the precedent-setting consequences. Any campaign for financial compensation is only likely to bear fruit in the very long-term, if at all. So what is Law and Justice hoping to achieve by raising the issue at this time? In the foreign policy sphere, the party wants to undermine the German government’s moral narrative that it has fully come to terms with, and settled accounts for, its Nazi past. By ensuring that other countries understand the full scale of the tragedy wrought upon Poland during the Second World War, for which Germany has never undertaken a proper financial reckoning, the Polish government hopes to undermine Berlin’s claim to be an international ‘moral superpower’.

Law and Justice also hopes that, by putting Germany under pressure on this question, it can create its own moral narrative that could be used to strengthen Poland’s bargaining position in the international diplomatic arena on various other issues, notably in its ongoing ‘rule-of-law’ dispute with the EU political establishment. The European Commission has blocked 35 billion Euros of payments due to Warsaw from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. Law and Justice argues the EU political establishment is, in effect, synonymous with Germany which, it says, sees a strong and assertive Poland as an obstacle to its project of turning the Union into a federal bloc under its dominance.

Law and Justice believes that this is an opportune moment to raise the reparations issue because Germany and the other main EU powers have lost a great deal of political and diplomatic authority through their perceived weak response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Law and Justice has long criticised Germany for disregarding the interests of the former communist states of central and Eastern Europe through its over-conciliatory approach to Moscow, over-reliance on Russian energy (exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine), and, following the outbreak of the war, slowness in providing Ukraine with military aid. Poland, on the other hand, has, for a long time, warned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs on the region. Indeed, Warsaw has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to the Russian invasion and ensure that sanctions are maintained and extended.

Is the opposition colluding with foreign powers?

In terms of domestic politics, raising the German war reparations issue was expected to help Law and Justice regain the political initiative by putting pressure on its political opponents – especially the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, led by former prime minister Donald Tusk. Although Law and Justice is still ahead in most opinion polls its edge over Civic Platform has narrowed in recent months. According to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice is currently averaging 35% support compared with 29% for Civic Platform. Moving the war reparations issue up the political agenda puts the government’s opponents in a difficult position because it resonates strongly with the Polish public. The opposition either has to back a Law and Justice administration, that it despises and harshly criticises at every turn, on this issue, or distance itself from the government’s restitution claims and risk being accused of kowtowing to Berlin and failing to defend the Polish national interest. Indeed, Law and Justice argues that Mr Tusk personifies the opposition’s pro-Berlin orientation and has, on numerous occasions, drawn attention to his strong ties to the German political establishment. Polish state TV, which is strongly supportive of the ruling party, frequently shows clips of Mr Tusk saying ‘Für Deutschland’ (‘For Germany’).

These two elements come together in one of Law and Justice’s main attack lines against the opposition: that it is colluding with Berlin and Brussels who are undermining Poland’s sovereignty and independence by interfering in the country’s domestic politics. The withholding of coronavirus funds by an allegedly German-dominated EU political establishment is thereby portrayed as being part of a politically motivated effort to help its opposition allies oust Law and Justice in the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, and ensure the installation of a more co-operative pro-Berlin government. Germany is an easier target for Law and Justice than the EU in general because it evokes less instinctive sympathy among Poles. While Poles support their country’s continued EU membership overwhelmingly, a September survey conducted by the Ipsos polling agency for the liberal-left OKO.press portal found that 47% of respondents agreed that Germany was using the Union to subordinate Poland (49% disagreed). According to a February survey for the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) think tank, since 2020 the number of Poles who evaluated Polish-German relations positively had fallen from 72% to 48% while those who viewed them negatively increased from 14% to 35%.

Has Civic Platform defused the issue?

All of this explains why the opposition, especially Civic Platform, reacted so nervously to the government’s moves and found it difficult to develop a clear line on the issue. Initially, Civic Platform simply argued that the government’s demands were not really about war reparations at all but part of a concerted anti-German campaign to shore up support for Law and Justice ahead of next year’s election. The fact that Law and Justice had waited more than three years to publish the parliamentary commission report and raise the issue with Germany in a significant way, in spite of the fact that it had been talking about war reparations since it came to office in 2015, showed, they said, that the government was instrumentalising the memory of Polish war victims as a political manouvre. It was an effort to distract the public from its other problems, such as: the economic slowdown, high energy prices and potential winter fuel shortages, and mounting criticisms of the government’s handling of surging inflation (now more than 17%). The opposition also warned that raising the issue in this way threatened to further undermine Poland’s relationship with Germany in the midst of the worst international crisis since the fall of communism in 1989. Indeed, one Civic Platform politician, ex-party leader Grzegorz Schetyna, actually appeared to echo the German narrative when he said that the question of war reparations was ‘closed’.

However, realising the risks of appearing insensitive to the traumatic history of Polish-German relations – and concerned that, by rubbishing the call for reparations, it had fallen into Law and Justice’s trap – Civic Platform very quickly undertook something of a course correction, particularly as polling showed that most Poles supported the government’s approach. For example, a survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that, by a margin of 51% to 42%, respondents agreed that Poland had the right to seek financial compensation from Germany. As a consequence – while still accusing Law and Justice of raising the issue primarily for electoral purposes, and criticising the ruling party for not having a schedule of diplomatic activities to take it forward – Civic Platform began to stress that it felt that the government’s call for reparations was justified. In the event, virtually all of the party’s deputies voted in favour of a parliamentary resolution supporting the government’s efforts. Indeed, Civic Platform even tried to outflank Law and Justice by saying that the government should also pursue financial compensation from Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union which invaded Poland along with Nazi Germany in 1939 (the ruling party responded that linking these two issues risked diluting the more clear-cut case for German reparations).  

Mobilising Law and Justice’s core electorate

By announcing its intention to seek war reparations, Law and Justice looks set to make Polish-German relations central to its bid for re-election next year. One of its main lines of attack is that the opposition is colluding with Berlin and the EU political establishment to undermine the Polish government ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary poll. However, Civic Platform’s pivot on this issue has under-cut Law and Justice’s electoral strategy and defused German war reparations as a question of domestic political contestation sharply dividing the Polish political scene.

In fact, although the issue is likely to return to the political agenda with greater or lesser intensity between now and the election, it was never going to be a dominant one or a political game-changer. While most Poles may agree with Law and Justice’s stance on war reparations, they care more about, and their voting preferences are likely to be determined by, issues such as rising prices, falling living standards, and possible energy shortages. Nonetheless, some commentators argue that Law and Justice has lost ground in opinion polls mainly because its supporters are demoralised and, if an election were held today, rather than switching to other parties they would simply not turnout to vote. So the ruling party is likely to continue raising the reparations issue because, apart from continually setting a trap for the opposition to portray themselves up as the defenders of German interests, it is a highly emotive one and seen by Law and Justice primarily as an effective way of solidifying and mobilising its own, currently rather demotivated, electoral base.

Is Poland’s right-wing ruling party becoming more Eurosceptic?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party has accused the EU political establishment of breaking its agreement with Warsaw following suggestions that the country may not receive its share of the Union’s post-pandemic recovery funds. Although, given Poles’ increasingly instrumental approach towards EU membership, failing to secure access to these monies could be extremely damaging for the ruling party, Brussels’ actions may backfire if it is felt to be interfering in national politics to boost its opposition allies’ chances in the upcoming election.

A turning point in Law and Justice’s EU strategy?

Last month, in what some commentators interpreted as a turning point in the Polish government’s EU strategy, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s ruling party since autumn 2015, appeared to significantly ramp up its criticisms of the Union’s political establishment. In an interview with the conservative ‘Sieci’ magazine, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – accused the European Commission of ‘not fulfilling its obligations with regard to Poland’ and trying to create ‘total chaos in the Polish state’.

These remarks were prompted by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s July interview with the ‘Dziennik Gazeta Prawna’ newspaper, and similar statements by other EU officials, suggesting that Poland may not receive its 35 billion Euros share of the Union’s coronavirus post-pandemic recovery fund because the country had not fully complied with its conditions, or ‘milestones’, for amending Law and Justice’s contested judicial reforms. Mr Kaczyński accused the Commission of failing to honour its agreement with Warsaw, and warned that if Law and Justice wins the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, relations with the EU would have to be re-arranged.

This was followed by a series of statements by other Law and Justice politicians who said that, if the Commission continued to withhold the funds, Warsaw could ‘turn its cannons’ onto Brussels. Although the Polish government’s leverage here is limited, and it has not said what precise actions it is considering, possible options include: taking legal action against the Commission before the EU’s Court of Justice; building a coalition to dismiss the current college of Commissioners; vetoing areas of EU decision-making that require unanimity in the European Council (such as taxation and foreign affairs); and, while Mr Kaczyński ruled out totally suspending Poland’s membership fees, lowering the country’s EU contributions by, for example, the portion resulting from the repayment of obligations incurred for the recovery fund (although such a move would obviously risk retaliatory action).

Satisfying the Commission’s ‘milestones’?

The Law and Justice government has been in a long-running dispute with the EU political establishment over so-called ‘rule-of-law’ issues since it came to office, particularly over its judicial reforms. The EU institutions agreed with Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. Law and Justice’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the reforms were justified because, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. It accused the EU political establishment of bias and double standards, and using the ‘rule-of-law’ issue as a pretext to victimise Law and Justice because the party rejected the EU’s liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural issues which it felt undermined Poland’s traditional values and national identity.

Initially, the Commission delayed approval of Poland’s national recovery plan (KPO), an operational programme necessary for its coronavirus funds to be released, until Law and Justice implemented a July 2021 EU Court ruling that it disband a newly created supreme court disciplinary chamber for judges. Warsaw felt that it had satisfied these concerns after the Commission finally approved the plan in June and, in July, the Polish parliament adopted a law proposed by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda replacing the disputed body with a new, apparently more impartial, professional responsibility chamber. At the same time, the imperative to maintain European unity and solidarity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine put the EU political establishment under pressure to de-escalate the ‘rule-of-law’ conflict with Law and Justice, particularly given Poland’s pivotal role as one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid and prime destination for receiving refugees fleeing the conflict. As a consequence, the Polish government expected to receive the first payments at the end of the year or in early 2023.

However, since then, although no official assessment has been made (because Poland has still to make a formal payment request), Commission officials have suggested that Warsaw may not have satisfied the conditions set out in the recovery plan’s ‘rule-of-law milestones’ for un-freezing the funds. The Polish government insists that it has upheld its side of the bargain, hence the recent vigorous attacks on Brussels by Law and Justice leaders, and that it will not concede any further ground in the dispute. Some commentators argue that the ‘milestones’ may have been formulated in a deliberately vague way to provide the Commission with considerable room for manouevre to interpret whether or not they have been implemented.

For example, the Commission says that Poland has to automatically re-instate the judges who were previously suspended by the supreme court disciplinary chamber. The government’s supporters argue that the ‘milestones’ stipulate that the judges affected by disciplinary chamber rulings should simply have their cases reviewed and not be re-instated automatically; and that the supreme court amendment law envisages precisely such a swift review by the new professional responsibility chamber. The press release setting out the ‘milestones’ in Poland’s recovery plan also stated that ‘judges cannot be subject to disciplinary liability for submitting a request for a preliminary ruling to the (EU) Court of Justice, for the content of their judicial decisions, or for verifying whether another court is independent, impartial, and established by law’. On the basis of this, the Commission is insisting that Polish judges should have the right to challenge their colleagues’ status or decisions without being subject to disciplinary action. Although the supreme court amendment law provides for a so-called ‘test of independence and impartiality’, with defendants having the ability to request that a court examine objections to a particular judge in their case, it does not guarantee other judges the right to challenge their colleagues.

The key issue at stake here is whether Polish judges can be disciplined for questioning the status of colleagues appointed by the newly constituted national judicial council (KRS), an important body that oversees the appointment and supervision of the judiciary in Poland. The council was re-constituted by Law and Justice so that elected politicians rather than the legal profession now have the decisive influence in determining its composition, and the government’s critics argue that this means it is under too much political influence. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argues that making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies is both justified, because the Polish judicial elite has operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself, and in line with practices in other established Western democracies. Law and Justice also says that allowing every judge to challenge their colleagues’ status and rulings with impunity would lead to anarchy within the Polish legal system.

Is ’Polexit’ an option?

The opposition has seized upon the latest remarks by Mr Kaczyński and other Law and Justice leaders to argue, as it has on numerous occasions over the last few years, that the party is preparing the ground for Polish withdrawal from the EU, so-called ‘Polexit’. Given that, on the face of it, Poles support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly – a June 2022 survey by the CBOS agency, for example, found 92% in favour and only 5% against – ‘Polexit’ is a politically suicidal slogan for any mainstream Polish party to be associated with. Not surprisingly, Law and Justice vigorously denies that it has any such plans.

In fact, although Law and Justice is often labelled Eurosceptic, up until now the dominant view within the party has been that Poland should remain an EU member and try to reform it from within into a looser confederation of economically co-operating sovereign states. It has tried to build alternative power blocs to the ‘European mainstream’ by positioning Poland as a regional leader and forging closer ties with the post-communist states of central and Eastern Europe, who currently feel that the dominant Franco-German axis has lost moral and political capital through its weak response to the war in Ukraine. Law and Justice has also attempted to de-couple disagreements with the EU political establishment over issues such as ‘rule-of-law’ compliance from attempts to develop closer economic ties and normal pragmatic working relations on bread-and-butter policy issues.

Nonetheless, there has been a noticeable change of tone in the debate about EU strategy within the ruling camp and not just among politicians linked to ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), Law and Justice’s smaller and more Eurosceptic governing partner, but also increasingly more mainstream Law and Justice politicians frustrated with Brussels continuing to block Polish access to the recovery funds. At the same time, a number of Polish right-wing intellectuals have been arguing that the cultural liberal-left consensus is so powerfully entrenched within the EU political establishment that it will continue to weaponise issues such as ‘rule-of-law’ compliance to undermine traditionalist conservative groupings such as Law and Justice, and have begun to countenance ‘Polexit’ as a realistic option if the Union’s current trajectory cannot be changed.

Will the Commission’s actions backfire?

Some commentators argue that Polish public support for the EU is broad but also rather shallow. Poles initially viewed EU accession in rather abstract and romantic terms as a historical-civilisational choice to re-unite with the West and the culmination of the post-communist democratisation process. Many now see membership much more in terms of a cost-benefit analysis driven increasingly by the tangible material benefits that it is felt to deliver. The fact that Poland is currently the largest recipient of EU funds sustains high levels of public support, but this could shift in the Union’s disfavour, possibly quite rapidly, if, say, the country became a net budget contributor.

Given this increasingly instrumental approach towards EU membership, one might assume that not securing the coronavirus recovery funds would be extremely damaging for Law and Justice, especially as it had previously hailed this as a major government negotiating success. The party has made maintaining Poland’s high level of fiscal transfers one of its main EU policy goals and ran a very high-profile advertising campaign promoting the fact that it had secured them as part of the Union’s 2021-27 budget round. This makes it all-the-more difficult for Law and Justice to now shift the narrative and downplay the significance of the recovery funds, arguing that Poland could live without them.

For sure, opinion polls suggest that most Poles blame the government for the impasse and want it to make further concessions to Brussels. However, there is also a growing public perception that the Commission’s actions are politically motivated and that the EU political establishment is using the ‘rule-of-law’ dispute to help its opposition allies oust Law and Justice at the upcoming election. Portraying its opponents as submissive to, and working in collusion with, Berlin and Brussels to undermine Poland’s sovereignty and independence is likely to develop as one of Law and Justice’s main attack lines over the next few months. Indeed, even some commentators who have been very critical of Law and Justice and its approach to judicial reform and EU relations have warned that, if the Union institutions are felt to be interfering in Polish domestic politics, thereby undermining confidence in their political neutrality, the Commission’s actions could actually end up boosting support for the ruling party and fueling Euroscepticism.

Will Poland’s opposition contest the next election as a single bloc?

Although opposition parties know that contesting the next election as separate lists favours the right-wing incumbent, a single united bloc remains extremely unlikely given their diverse electorates and because it would mean accepting the largest grouping’s hegemony. Most have adopted a wait-and-see approach, and final decisions about the configuration of opposition lists may not to be taken until next spring.

Four main opposition parties

In recent weeks there has been a vigorous debate as to whether Poland’s opposition should contest the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, as a single joint list. In addition to the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja), the opposition currently comprises four main parties. The most popular of these is the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), which was Poland’s main governing party between 2007-15. Civic Platform’s leader is former European Council President Donald Tusk who was prime minister between 2007-14 and took over the party leadership after returning to front-line Polish politics last summer. According to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys, Civic Platform is currently averaging 29% support compared with 36% for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015.

‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050), a new liberal-centrist party formed by TV presenter-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia after his strong third place in the summer 2020 presidential election, is currently running third with 11% support. Averaging 10% is the ‘Left’ (Lewica), which comprises the ‘New Left’ (Nowa Lewica) party – formed last year following a merger of the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Poland’s governing party between 1993-97 and 2001-5, and liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – and the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) grouping.

Finally, the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), which is the organisational successor to a communist satellite grouping but has attempted to legitimate itself by claiming roots in the pre-communist agrarian movement which dates back to the nineteenth century. Although the Peasant Party was in coalition with the Democratic Left Alliance in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it was also Civic Platform’s junior governing partner. It contested the most recent autumn 2019 parliamentary election at the head of the centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (Koalicja Polska) electoral alliance but is currently hovering around the 5% threshold for parties to secure representation in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower parliamentary chamber.

A ‘unity premium’?

Mr Tusk, in particular, has been trying hard to convince the other parties to contest the next election as a single list. Supporters of this option argue that not only would the combined opposition vote be more than enough to defeat Law and Justice. They also say that a single list would actually help the opposition to win extra seats given that the Polish electoral system – proportional representation in multi-member constituencies, with mandates allocated using the d’Hondt counting method – favours larger groupings, especially if a united bloc prevented smaller parties from falling below the parliamentary representation threshold. In the 2015 election, for example, Law and Justice secured an outright majority in spite of winning only 38% of the vote because left-wing parties failed to secure parliamentary representation.

Moreover, supporters of a single list argue that, in addition to electoral system rewards, the opposition could also secure a dynamic ‘unity premium’ as anti-government voters were mobilised by the knowledge that they would be voting for a bloc with a strong chance of winning (although the greater polarisation could also mobilise Law and Justice voters). Mr Tusk, for example, cited a May poll conducted by the Ipsos agency for the liberal-left OKO.press portal which showed that 50% of respondents would vote for a single opposition list, 20% more than for Law and Justice (although critics point out that the findings assumed an 88% turnout when in 2019 it was only 62%, itself a record high for a post-1989 parliamentary election).

More cynical commentators argue that part of the motivation for a single opposition list is to actually dilute the prominence of Mr Tusk who, although he is popular among government opponents, is one of Poland’s least trusted politicians. While his return to domestic politics re-established Civic Platform as the main opposition grouping, the party still lags behind Law and Justice, and a June-July survey by the CBOS agency found that only 30% of respondents trusted him while 52% did not. Given that Mr Tusk was prime minister for nine out of the ten years that Civic Platform was in office, few politicians better embody the previous administration which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs.

Opposing Law and Justice is not enough

However, the leaders of the other opposition parties, especially ‘Poland 2050’ and the Peasant Party, are much less enthusiastic about the idea of a single list. Their main argument is that, while the opposition may be united in their dislike of Law and Justice, evidence suggests that their electorates are quite heterogeneous and it will be difficult to get such a diverse group of Poles to support a single list. Indeed, critics argue that a single list strategy could actually lose the opposition voters on its ‘flanks’, and be undermined by those who reject the current duopoly and would support ‘challenger’ parties instead.

There will, for example, be moderate centre-right voters who may not support Law and Justice but could be put off voting for a joint opposition list that contains parties with a strong liberal-left ideological profile on moral-cultural issues; including, for example, many of the Peasant Party’s small-town, socially conservative supporters. Similarly, ‘Poland 2050’ has attracted some support through its claim to transcend the ‘pro-versus-anti-Law and Justice’ binary divide, but it will be difficult for the party to present itself as ‘new’ if it enters into a pre-election coalition dominated by Civic Platform which, to many voters, embodies the pre-2015 status quo ante. Interestingly, an August 2021 CBOS survey found that only 36% of ‘Poland 2050’ and 45% of Peasant Party voters identified themselves as opposition sympathisers compared with 57% of ‘Left’ and 70% of Civic Platform supporters.

Opponents of the single list idea point to the experience of the ‘European Coalition’ (Koalicja Europejska) when virtually all of the opposition came together to form an alliance specifically to contest the May 2019 European Parliament (EP) election. In the event, Law and Justice secured 45% of the votes, ahead of the Coalition with only 38%, less than the combined support of the parties comprising the bloc when it was formed. Critics also point to April’s Hungarian election where a single opposition list spanning left-to-right saw its early poll advantage crumble and the incumbent right-wing Fidesz party secure a landslide victory by drawing attention to its opponent’s programmatic incoherence. These examples highlight one of the key problems with a single list: that, unless the Law and Justice government implodes or is completely discredited, opposition to the ruling party is not, on its own, a powerful enough mobilising appeal, but the opposition’s ideological eclecticism makes it difficult to develop a clear and distinctive programmatic message.

Supporters of a single list counter that, in spite of their differences, the four anti-government parties’ electorates have more in common than divides them, pointing to how in autumn 2019 they rallied to overturn Law and Justice’s majority in the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber whose members are elected in single-member constituencies. They argue that, because the Polish electoral system is based on ‘open’ candidate lists, voters can support their preferred party even within a single opposition bloc (although this ignores the fact that most voters simply support the candidates at the top of the list, who thereby define the grouping’s overall political profile). Comparisons with the 2019 EP election are, they say, erroneous as the ‘European Coalition’ only failed because it did not manage to unite the whole opposition. They also argue that there were particular circumstances explaining why the Hungarian opposition lost so heavily to Fidesz (until the Russian invasion of Ukraine they were running neck-and-neck) and its result would have been even worse if it had run as separate party lists.

Who aligns with Civic Platform?

The opposition parties know that contesting the next election as four separate lists strongly favours Law and Justice, so self-interest will, sooner or later, probably incline them to be more flexible in their approach to forging electoral alliances. But there is less agreement about what the optimal opposition configuration should be. A single opposition list remains extremely unlikely given the anti-Law and Justice camp’s ideological diversity, and because it would mean the other parties accepting Civic Platform’s hegemony. So the key questions are: which parties will join together on which lists, and (in particular) who aligns with Civic Platform?

The greatest electoral system benefits would probably come if Civic Platform ran separately and the three smaller groupings came together in an electoral bloc but, for the reasons discussed, it would be very difficult to bring together the Peasant Party in a joint list with the ‘Left’. While Civic Platform would probably feel most comfortable in an alliance with the Peasant Party and ‘Poland 2050’ (leaving the ‘Left’ to run separately), these two groupings would prefer not to be aligned with Mr Tusk’s party. Their leaders argue that the most promising approach is to have one ‘centrist’ opposition list comprising these two parties, and a second that comprises Civic Platform and the ‘Left’. They cite the example of last October’s Czech election when two opposition blocs, one centre-right and one liberal, ousted the incumbent government headed by controversial billionaire Andrej Babiš, and a May United Surveys poll conducted for the RMF FM radio station which appeared to confirm that such a configuration would actually be more effective than a single list. Certainly, ‘Poland 2050’ and the Peasant Party, joined by smaller liberal-conservative groupings and defectors from Law and Justice and Civic Platform, would appear to be the most natural ‘fit’ for a joint list. However, Mr Hołownia remains wary of undermining his party’s appeal to ‘newness’ by teaming up with a party that for many is still associated with the post-communist establishment.

A joint Civic Platform list with the ‘Left’ is certainly feasible. Although relations between the two groupings’ leaders were particularly bad when the latter suspected Mr Tusk of sponsoring a pro-Civic Platform left-wing breakaway party, they now appear to have declared a truce. Nonetheless, although in recent years Civic Platform has shifted to the left on both socio-economic and moral-cultural issues, sections of the ‘Left’, particularly supporters of ‘Together’, have considerable misgivings about running on a joint list with a party that they believe is still rooted in a conservative-liberal mindset. For its part, Civic Platform retains ambitious to draw support from across the political spectrum, and is concerned that building an alliance solely with the ‘Left’ could put off moderate conservative voters.

No final decisions until next spring?

At the moment, the most likely configuration appears to be three opposition lists: Civic Platform; ‘Poland 2050’ with the Peasant Party and smaller liberal-conservative groupings; and the ‘Left’. Some analysts feel this might even be a sufficient level of consolidation, given that the biggest electoral system ‘unity premium’ comes from the smaller parties combining to ensure that their votes are not ‘wasted’, with the benefits of then joining a larger grouping being incrementally smaller. But the situation is very fluid and, with over a year to go until the election, most opposition leaders feel that they can wait and see how the situation develops during the next few months. Mr Hołownia, in particular, is keen to leave it until the last moment to join a coalition as he feels that he needs to carve out the best possible position for his new party. Indeed, it could be that final decisions on the configuration of the opposition lists will not be taken until as late as next spring.

How will Poland’s ‘rule of law’ dispute with the EU political establishment develop?

The imperative to the maintain European unity in the face of Russian aggression has put the EU political establishment under pressure to de-escalate its ‘rule of law’ conflict with Poland’s right-wing ruling party, which is prepared to compromise as long as it does not have to abandon the core of its judicial reform programme. But the vagueness of the European Commission’s reconstruction plan ‘milestones’, and the fact that payments will only be released in tranches, mean that it can still use the coronavirus recovery fund as a conditionality tool.

An ongoing dispute

Last month, after a year of deadlock, the Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, finally reached an agreement with the European Commission over Poland’s EU coronavirus recovery fund national reconstruction plan (KPO). This paves the way for the conditional release of the 34.5 billion Euros in grants and loans that has been allocated to the country as part of the fund. The monies had been withheld due to a long-running row between Warsaw and the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ issues, particularly Law and Justice’s fiercely contested judicial reforms.

The EU institutions have agreed with Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argues that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. It accuses the EU political establishment of bias and double standards, and using the ‘rule of law’ issue as a pretext to victimise Law and Justice because the party rejects the EU’s liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural issues which it feels undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity.

In 2017, 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 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. However, it was unable to secure the qualified majority required among EU states to move beyond the initial stage of the procedure. The Commission, therefore, initiated legal ‘infringement procedures’ against Poland, as a consequence of which the EU Court of Justice issued a series of judgments ordering the Polish government to reverse aspects of its reforms.

These included a July 2001 ruling calling for the suspension of a newly created supreme court disciplinary chamber for judges that, the Court argued, was incompatible with EU law because it threatened judicial independence. While Law and Justice indicated that it planned to disband the chamber – which, it said, had anyway not fulfilled its objectives – this commitment was too vague for the Commission. Brussels, therefore, delayed approval of Poland’s national recovery plan until it complied with the ruling of the EU Court; which, at the Commission’s request, also ordered Poland to pay one-million Euros per day fines for non-compliance. The disciplinary chamber’s fate thus became central to the dispute between Law and Justice and the EU political establishment.

De-escalating the conflict

However, the ‘rule of law’ issue has become an awkward one for the EU given Poland’s centrality to the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Poland’s critical geographical location, together with the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, mean that it has become pivotal to the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. The country has been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing from the conflict with more than 3.5 million people crossing its Eastern border. At the same time, Poland’s credibility and international standing were enhanced by the fact that it proved more perceptive than the main EU powers in correctly warning about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs on the region.

As a consequence, in order to maintain European unity and solidarity in the face of Russian aggression, the EU political establishment came under pressure to de-escalate the conflict with Poland and accept its national reconstruction plan. However, in doing so the Commission also set out ‘milestones’ that had to be fulfilled for the conditional release of coronavirus recovery fund payments. These included: the dismantling of the supreme court disciplinary chamber, the creation of a new (and apparently more impartial) disciplinary system for judges, and a review of the cases of those judges previously sanctioned by the chamber.

Last month, the Polish parliament approved a law proposed by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda aimed specifically at trying to meet the EU Court and Commission’s central concerns. The supreme court amendment law replaces the disciplinary chamber with a new body, the professional responsibility chamber, appointed in a two-stage procedure: initially 33 candidates drawn by lot from among the 90 supreme court judges, and the final eleven then selected by the President. The legislation envisages a swift review by the new body of all the disciplinary chamber’s earlier cases where judges have been disciplined or had their immunity lifted.

Ignoring the key issue?

The Commission’s decision to approve Poland’s national reconstruction plan was strongly criticised by both the European Parliament (EP) and many anti-Law and Justice legal experts and commentators. They saw it as a short-term political deal and warned that the supreme court amendment law was not sincere and simply replaced the disciplinary chamber with a similar body but with a different name and chosen by the government-allied President, while suspended judges would not necessarily be re-instated, simply have their cases reviewed. They accused the Commission of abandoning the most effective instrument that it had for exerting pressure on Law and Justice, arguing that the ‘milestones’ were too vague and open to political interpretation.

For its part, the Commission stressed that Poland will not receive the first actual coronavirus fund payments until the end of 2022 or early 2023, so it will have the opportunity to assess whether the necessary reforms really have been undertaken. If it does not believe that sufficient progress has been made the Commission can recommend freezing the payments. For Law and Justice this could mean high profile conflicts with the EU political establishment in the run-up to the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023. A foretaste of this came at the beginning of this month when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that, in her view, the supreme court amendment law did not ensure sufficiently that Polish judges were able to question another judge’s status or decisions without risking being subject to a disciplinary offence.

Nonetheless, many of Law and Justice’s critics also believe that the Commission’s ‘milestones’ ignore the core issue at the heart of the judicial reforms: the status of the national judicial council (KRS), a key body that oversees the appointment and supervision of judges in Poland. The council was re-constituted by Law and Justice so that elected politicians rather than the legal profession now have the decisive influence in determining its composition. The government’s critics argue that, by ignoring this issue, the Commission has not gone far enough in restoring the ‘rule of law’ and protecting the judiciary from political interference. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argues that giving elected politicians a greater say in the appointment of supervisory bodies such as the national judicial council is essential because the Polish judicial elite has operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. So making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies is both justified and in line with practices in other established Western democracies.

Too many concessions to Brussels?

Law and Justice has also been keen to end the deadlock on this issue because it urgently needs the coronavirus fund money, not least to improve its chances of re-election in the next year’s parliamentary poll. The government feels that a swift, large-scale inflow of Euros would not only help to finance an investment boost, but also contribute to strengthening the Polish złoty and thus lower the price of imported goods, thereby helping to reduce the rate of inflation which last month hit a quarter-century high of 15.6%. Law and Justice also made maintaining Poland’s high level of fiscal transfers one of its main EU policy goals, and ran a very high-profile advertising campaign promoting the fact that it had secured them as part of the Union’s 2021-27 budget round.

At the same time, while Law and Justice remains committed to a wide-ranging judicial overhaul as a key element of its radical state reform programme, the governing camp is divided over how far to concede to the EU political establishment and whether to push ahead with and deepen the reforms. The ruling party is under particular pressure from ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), Law and Justice’s junior governing partner led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, on whose 20 deputies it relies for its parliamentary majority. Mr Ziobro, who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies including the judicial reforms has been staking out a series of hard-line right-wing conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. Specifically, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ accuses Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki of making too many concessions to the EU institutions, which it argues are engaged in a ‘hybrid war’ against Poland, and it took Law and Justice several months to persuade Mr Ziobro and his allies to finally accept Mr Duda’s supreme court amendment law. Indeed, Mr Ziobro is planning further judicial reforms, including a proposal to streamline the Polish court system, which the government’s critics argue would facilitate a further turnover of judges.

An uneasy and unstable truce

The ‘rule of law’ dispute, therefore, appears to have reached an uneasy, and somewhat unstable, truce. On the Polish side, notwithstanding Mr Ziobro’s plans, the Law and Justice leadership seems to want to let the issue rest rather than pushing ahead with new judicial reform initiatives, at least until after next year’s parliamentary election. The ruling party is clearly prepared to compromise with Brussels as long as this does not involve abandoning the core principle at the heart of its judicial reform programme: that elected politicians be given a greater say in determining the composition of the key bodies that oversee the Polish courts.

For the moment at least, the EU political establishment does not appear to be making scrapping the re-constituted national judicial council one of its explicit ‘milestones’ for un-locking coronavirus funding. This will slowly but surely change the nature and composition of Poland’s legal elites, and could cause a major headache for any future government comprising the current opposition parties as to what to do with the thousands of ‘new’ judges appointed by the re-constituted council, and what the legal status of their countless court rulings will be.

However, there are still question marks over whether the supreme court amendment law will fully satisfy the Commission, and whether it will use the fact that recovery fund payments are only to be released in tranches as a means of exerting further pressure on Law and Justice. The Commission’s ‘milestones’ are formulated in such a way that provide it with a great deal of room for manoeuvre to interpret whether or not they have been implemented. As Ms von der Leyen’s recent evaluation of Mr Duda’s law shows, the Commission also appears prepared to defend Polish judges who question the status and rulings of their ‘new’ colleagues appointed by the re-constituted national judicial council. Even if the Commission does not itself directly challenge the legitimacy of this body, this still could cause major problems for Law and Justice – and, indeed, for the overall coherence of the Polish justice system.

How has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the Polish government’s EU strategy?

By boosting Poland’s international standing and reducing the credibility of the main EU powers on security issues, the war in Ukraine has opened up a range of possibilities for Warsaw’s right-wing government to increase its influence and re-shape the current system of European alliances. However, relations with Hungary, its previous main EU ally, have reached an all-time low, and it is unclear to what extent other post-communist states will follow Poland in breaking with the European ‘mainstream’.

‘Own stream’ not the ‘mainstream’

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party took office in autumn 2015 with a commitment to re-orientate the country’s foreign policy and adopt, as it saw it, a more robust and assertive approach to advancing the country’s national interests within the EU. Its predecessor, led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – the country’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main opposition grouping – tried to exert influence by locating Poland within the so-called European ‘mainstream’, developing close ties with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Poland needed to adopt a more autonomous EU policy and develop its ‘own stream’, building alternative power blocs as counterweights to the dominant Franco-German axis.

To achieve this, the Law and Justice government tried to position Poland as a regional leader and develop a number of multi-lateral formats based on forging closer ties with the post-communist states of central and Eastern Europe. One of these was the so-called ‘Visegrad’ group: a forum involving Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, formed in 1991 to promote regional co-operation and accession to Western institutions which has, in recent years, become an increasingly visible EU lobby group. Indeed, Law and Justice developed particularly strong ties with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party led by prime minister Viktor Orban which was, until recently, Warsaw’s closest EU ally. Another such forum was the Polish-led ‘Three Seas Initiative’, a wider group of twelve post-communist states aimed at developing solidarity and co-operation on issues where they had tangible common economic interests, such as infrastructure, technology and energy security.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Law and Justice soon found itself in conflict with the EU political establishment, although the most serious clashes were actually over its domestic political reforms. The Polish government has been in a protracted stand-off with the European Commission and major EU powers over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues, particularly its fiercely contested overhaul of the country’s judicial system. The EU institutions agreed with criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. It accused the EU institutions of bias and double standards arguing that the Polish reforms were in line with practices that existed in other established democracies. It said that the EU political establishment was using the ‘rule of law’ issue as a pretext to victimise Law and Justice because the party rejected the EU’s liberal-left consensus on moral-cultural issues which it felt undermined Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Indeed, Law and Justice argued that the conflict arose precisely because it had adopted a more assertive approach to defending and advancing Polish interests and values within the EU.

Poland’s increased international standing

So how has the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected Law and Justice’s EU strategy? Poland’s centrality to the West’s response has provided Warsaw with an opportunity to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key regional player. Its critical geographical location, together with the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, mean that Poland has become pivotal to the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. It has been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing from the conflict, with more than 3 million people crossing its Eastern border.

The war has also dramatically changed Europe’s geopolitical security dynamics, and potentially the balance of power within the EU bloc. The main EU powers, especially Germany, disregarded the interests of their central and East European allies by developing close ties with Russia; becoming dependent on Russian oil and gas and supplying Moscow with critical technology in the (as it turned out naïve) hope of drawing it into the West’s civilizational orbit. Resentment within the post-communist states over what they see as the West European powers’ over-conciliatory approach to the Kremlin – and, following the outbreak of armed conflict, apparent reluctance to take the lead in countering Russia – meant that, as international security became the dominant issue in the region, the EU political establishment lost considerable political and diplomatic capital.

At the same time, Poland’s credibility and international standing were enhanced by the fact that it had, for a long time, warned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist designs on the region. Warsaw had criticised Germany and other Western powers for developing economic and diplomatic ties with Moscow over the heads of the post-communist states, exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine (and which Berlin belatedly suspended). Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to the Russian invasion and ensure that sanctions are maintained and extended. The fact that Germany and the main EU powers have lost credibility on the security issue at a time when it has moved to the top of the political agenda, potentially makes other post-communist states more receptive to Poland’s ideas of closer regional co-operation as a counter to the EU political establishment. Previously, most of these countries saw locating themselves within the European ‘mainstream’ and working closely with Berlin as the key to advancing their interests.

Re-building links with Washington

Moreover, as the war increased the salience of the security issue the USA pivoted away from its previous approach of mediating European relations primarily through the EU political establishment. When US President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he effectively sub-contracted European regional leadership to Berlin. For example, although he initially signalled scepticism towards the ‘Nord Stream 2’ project, and declared repeatedly that his administration would continue to support making the post-communist states’ energy market less dependent on Russia, Mr Biden did not follow through on a threat to sanction German companies involved in the pipeline’s construction.

At the same time, Law and Justice had extremely fraught relations with the Biden administration. Poland’s ruling party enjoyed very strong ties with Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, whom it came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. Mr Trump gave strong support to the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, which he saw as a way of boosting Poland’s influence and challenging the existing EU elites. The Biden administration, on the other hand, viewed Law and Justice as being on the ‘wrong side of history’ on moral-cultural issues, and during the 2020 US presidential election campaign Mr Biden mentioned Poland as a country where democracy was endangered. For his part, Law and Justice-backed Polish President Andrzej Duda initially delayed acknowledging Mr Biden’s election until the results were officially ratified. Mr Biden also saw the role of European regional co-operation forums such as the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ as complementary to the EU ‘mainstream’ rather than a counterweight to the Franco-German axis.

In fact, even before the war began Mr Duda had been making a concerted effort to re-build links with Washington. Last December, he vetoed a controversial media law that the USA felt threatened the commercial interests of the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Moreover, following the invasion Poland became a key front-line NATO member and Washington’s most important strategic partner in promoting regional security and challenging Russian aggression. With Germany lacking the authority to lead Europe on security issues, the Biden administration made a pragmatic decision to put aside its political and ideological differences with Law and Justice and prioritise broader strategic co-operation; exemplified by Mr Biden’s high profile March visit to Poland when he tellingly did not overtly criticize the Polish government’s domestic policies.

Relations with Hungary at a low point

However, one clear political downside of the Russian invasion from Law and Justice’s perspective is that top-level co-operation between the four ‘Visegrad’ states has effectively been suspended due to Hungary’s stance of maintaining close relations with Moscow. Although, some lower level of co-operation will probably continue, for the foreseeable future the group is unlikely to function as a coherent regional lobby organisation.

Moreover, Law and Justice’s relations with the Orban administration are at an absolute low point. Previously, the two governments had been close political and ideological allies, regularly supporting each other in their respective clashes with the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ and moral-cultural issues. However, while Poland has taken a strongly anti-Russian line, Hungary held up tougher EU sanctions and refused to allow weapons bound for Ukraine to transit through its territory. Contrary to Law and Justice’s hopes and expectations, Mr Orban did not go further in distancing Budapest from Russia after Fidesz won Hungary’s April parliamentary election.

For sure, the two parties have long held divergent views on relations with Russia but, until the invasion, Law and Justice was prepared to tolerate Fidesz’s pro-Moscow tendencies and put the issue on the back-burner. However, the war has been a game-changer with Law and Justice seeing Russian aggression in Ukraine as a defining moment in international politics and Budapest’s close links with Moscow as undermining not only Ukrainian but also Polish security interests. For the moment, Law and Justice’s previous, seemingly wide-ranging, strategic partnership with Fidesz, based on a shared anti-federalist view of their preferred trajectory of the European integration project and rejection of the liberal-left EU consensus on moral cultural issues, has been reduced to tactical co-operation over ‘rule of law’ issues where both countries have been attempting to stave off EU sanctions.

Will regional security remain the dominant issue?

It is too early to tell to what extent the war will strengthen Poland’s efforts to draw other post-communist states away from their orientation towards Germany and the EU ‘mainstream’. The international situation is fluid and a lot obviously depends on how long and protracted the war will be, and whether it will have long-lasting or quickly-diminishing effects. Moreover, Germany remains the Union’s key political player and main economic powerhouse so, however frustrated they may be about Berlin’s indecisiveness over the Ukrainian conflict, central and East European states may still want to align themselves closely with the ‘mainstream’, particularly if security issues move down the political agenda and socio-economic concerns become more salient.

There is also an argument that deeper EU integration – and, therefore, closer alignment with the EU ‘mainstream’ – may actually enhance these countries’ security by helping to embed them more firmly within Western international structures. The Polish opposition has, for example, argued that Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment has undermined the country’s national security by weakening its anchoring in the West. Nonetheless, to the extent that regional security remains the defining issue in central and East European politics, it is unlikely that there will be an imminent return to the status quo ante as far as German leadership credibility is concerned. Although it is unclear how this will ultimately play out, the Russian invasion has clearly opened up a range of possibilities for Law and Justice to boost its EU influence and re-shape the current system of European alliances.

What are the prospects for Polish President Andrzej Duda?

Poland’s right-wing President was already trying to become more assertive and independent when the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave him an opportunity to carve out a new role as a key regional player and unifying force in domestic politics. But he remains a loyal, if somewhat more autonomous, member of the governing camp, and much of the time is acting intuitively rather than having a coherent plan for re-modelling the presidency.

Lacking a defining concept

Previously, the opposition harshly criticised President Andrzej Duda – who is backed by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – for his alleged passivity. They accused him of being marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acting as the government’s ‘notary’. Except for a few rare occasions, such as in July 2017 when he vetoed two of the government’s flagship judicial reform laws, Mr Duda had not really made any serious attempts to carve out an independent role for himself.

In many ways, this was not surprising. The President’s most significant constitutional power was a negative one: a legislative veto that requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority (which Law and Justice lacks) to over-turn. Mr Duda largely agreed with the ruling party’s critique of the alleged shortcomings of the post-communist state and its core institutions and was elected on the same governing programme, so it would have been unusual if he had blocked key elements of it. His disagreements were generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. Moreover, most Poles appeared to generally accept Mr Duda’s model of the presidency; in a closely-fought contest he was re-elected for a second term in July 2020. More broadly, however, Mr Duda’s critics argued that his presidency lacked a clear defining concept and that he had failed to develop the strong intellectual and political support base required to carry forward independent initiatives, preferring to surround himself with technocrats rather than experienced operators.

More assertive and independent

Initially, after his re-election Mr Duda once again kept a low profile and confined himself to presidential routine. However, even before the Russian invasion he was already making efforts to re-build his image and become a more assertive and independent political figure. For example, last December Mr Duda vetoed a controversial government-backed media ownership law. A key driver of this was his wish to improve Poland’s hitherto rather frosty relations with the US Biden administration at a time when the prospect of Russian aggression was already increasing tensions across the region. The USA felt that the media reforms threatened the commercial interests of American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line.

Both the President and Law and Justice enjoyed very strong ties with Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whom they came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. During the 2020 US election, Mr Biden mentioned Poland as a country where democracy was endangered, and Mr Duda initially delayed acknowledging him as the new President until the results were officially ratified. Nonetheless, for some time Mr Duda’s staff has been working hard to re-build links with Washington.

Moreover, to further strengthen Poland’s ties with the Western international community, Mr Duda also made a concerted attempt to de-escalate Law and Justice’s ongoing dispute with the EU political establishment over the government’s controversial judicial reforms. The EU institutions agreed with Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that the reforms undermined the ‘rule of law’ and threatened the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. For its part, Law and Justice rejected the opposition’s critique arguing that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite. Nonetheless, the European Commission withheld the first tranche of billions of Euros due to Poland from the Union’s coronavirus recovery fund until Warsaw implemented a July 2021 EU Court of Justice ruling that it disband a newly created supreme court disciplinary chamber.

In February, Mr Duda submitted a draft law reforming the chamber which he hoped would meet the Commission’s concerns. However, the President’s draft is currently bogged down in a parliamentary committee due to opposition from ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), Law and Justice’s junior governing partner led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, on whom it relies for its legislative majority. Mr Ziobro, who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies including the judicial reforms, has been staking out a series of hard-line right-wing conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid.

A key regional player

The Russian invasion has also provided Mr Duda with an opportunity to carve out a role for himself as a key regional player. Poland’s geographical location as the most important frontline state, together with the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, mean that Warsaw has played a pivotal diplomatic and military role in the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. Poland has also been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing from the conflict with more than 3 million people crossing its Eastern border.

Although foreign and defence policy lie primarily within the government’s domain, Mr Duda appears comfortable in these fields and aware that the Constitution gives him a number of broad prerogatives (he is, for example, commander-in-chief of the armed forces) together with an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. For a long time, Mr Duda and Law and Justice warned about the international threat posed by what they saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of the region. Since Russia’s invasion, Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies and at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a robust response and ensure that sanctions on Moscow are maintained and extended. Mr Duda is also one of the governing camp’s most consistently pro-Ukraine leaders and has developed a close personal relationship with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. Moreover, following Mr Duda’s earlier efforts, Warsaw has become Washington’s most important security partner in the region as the Biden administration has prioritised defence and security issues and put its political differences with Law and Justice firmly on the back-burner; exemplified by the US President’s high profile March visit to Poland.

Since the war broke out, Mr Duda has also made a concerted effort to act as a unifying force in domestic politics. In March, for example, he vetoed a controversial education reform law which the government said was designed to prevent radical left-wing organisations from gaining access to schools but the opposition argued could have been used to ban any groupings which did not conform to Law and Justice’s socially conservative values. Mr Duda justified his veto on the grounds that, although he personally supported many of the law’s provisions, Poland needed to avoid polarising political disputes at this time.

Looking to the future

The fact that this is Mr Duda’s final presidential term and that he does not need to worry about re-election gives him much greater room for manoeuvre. In this sense, although the Ukrainian conflict provided him with a historical opportunity to re-define his presidency, it simply accelerated an already-existing process. In part, Mr Duda’s increased diplomatic activity has made him more conscious of the international context and impacts of certain domestic political actions, such as the government’s media reform law. To some extent he is also thinking about his future legacy and prospects beyond the presidency. Mr Duda appears to have become convinced that history will judge his presidency on the role that he plays in the current crisis, and that he is thus obliged to help maintain at least a minimal level of national political unity and consensus. Mr Duda also knows that in order to secure a senior international post in the future he will need the support, or at least acquiescence, of the USA.

In terms of Polish domestic politics, Mr Duda’s relations with Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński remain very uneasy. Mr Kaczyński – who, although he is only deputy prime minister, exercises a powerful influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – has never forgiven the President for his 2017 veto of the judicial reforms (even though the subsequently approved legislation was very close to the original proposals). However, as the international situation has built up Mr Duda’s standing, it has become more difficult for the Law and Justice leader to ignore him. Moreover, given that Mr Kaczyński is expected to stand down as party leader in the next parliament, Mr Duda and other key figures in the governing camp are already positioning themselves for future leadership scenarios. The President, therefore, has to assert his independence but in ways that will broaden his influence within, rather than alienate, the ruling party.

In fact, Mr Duda remains both emotionally and intellectually committed to key elements of Law and Justice’s radical state reform programme. So although, for example, he appears prepared to make quite far-reaching concessions in order to reach a compromise with Brussels, as the opposition has pointed out his draft law to reform the supreme court disciplinary system does not abandon the core principle at the heart of Law and Justice’s judicial reform programme: that giving elected politicians a greater say in determining the composition of the key bodies that oversee the Polish courts is both necessary and in line with practices in other Western democracies. In other words, Mr Duda remains, in essence, a loyal member of the governing camp; albeit a somewhat more autonomous one.

Mr Duda’s relations with prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki are also felt to have improved since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict. The two politicians have not always enjoyed the closest of ties but, as the key figure in Law and Justice’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing, Mr Morawiecki is instinctively sympathetic to some of the President’s pivots to the political centre. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that Mr Duda and Law and Justice moderates could even be trying to re-configure the governing camp and broker a new ruling coalition. The objective here, it is argued, would be draw in more centrist political groupings such as the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), either in the current parliament to jettison ‘Solidaristic Poland’, or after the next election if (as seems likely) Law and Justice loses its outright majority and needs to broker a deal with the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) to remain in office. However, Mr Duda has never previously shown any signs that he is interested in, or capable of, such political maneuvering, so there may be little point trying to find such hidden sub-texts in his recent actions.

Intuition rather than a coherent plan?

Most Poles appear to approve of the fact that, step-by-step, Mr Duda is becoming an increasingly autonomous and significant actor on the political scene. According to an April survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper, 76% of respondents, including 74% of opposition supporters, evaluated his activity since the outbreak of the war positively. However, arguably, rather than having a coherent and thought-through long term plan for re-modelling his presidency, much of the time Mr Duda is simply reacting intuitively to the changed political circumstances and, with the outbreak (and earlier threat) of a war on Poland’s Eastern border, felt obliged to become more assertive and pro-active.

Indeed, the whole political situation could change radically for Mr Duda if he has to ‘cohabit’ with a government led by the current opposition parties after the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2023, until his term of office ends in summer 2025. How Mr Duda’s presidency evolves over the next few months will provide some critical pointers as to how this possible future relationship may develop.

How long will Polish politicians remain united over the war in Ukraine?

The overwhelming imperative for national unity prompted by the war works in favour of Poland’s right-wing ruling party because it puts other problematic issues on the back-burner and the opposition lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level. However, political contestation is re-emerging over whether the government is providing the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

The imperative for national unity

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated political debate and overshadowed all other issues in Poland. It also prompted a remarkable degree of unity among the political class which had previously been extremely divided and polarised over attitudes towards the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015. Politicians are acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan divides and disputes pale into insignificance when the country faces a major security threat. A March survey conducted by the Kantar agency found that, by a 78% to 13% margin, respondents felt that Poles needed to put aside their differences and support the government’s actions at this time.

Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least previously salient domestic political divisions and issues have been put on the back-burner. For example, given the urgency of strengthening Poland’s military security, politicians from across the political spectrum voted in favour of the government’s ‘homeland defence law’, in spite of the opposition’s misgivings, thus ensuring its parliamentary approval without a single opposing vote. The law’s provisions include accelerating the pace of increased defence spending to 2.2% of GDP in 2022 and at least 3% in 2023, and more than doubling the size of the Polish armed forces.

There has also been broad political and societal consensus around responding positively to the two-and-a-half million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion. This resulted in the near-unanimous parliamentary approval of a ‘Ukrainian special law’ providing a new set of support measures including: allowing refugees to stay legally in Poland for up to 18 months (in the first instance); speeding up the registration process for national identity (PESEL) numbers which allow them to work and access health care and welfare benefits; and support for the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the education system. There was some controversy over the government’s decision to include a clause granting officials legal immunity for violating public finance laws when making decisions relating to emergency situations. Law and Justice said this was a standard measure intended to protect those officials who needed to respond quickly in difficult circumstances. The opposition argued that Law and Justice was trying to slip in an immunity clause that protected members of the ruling party who had broken the law during the coronavirus pandemic crisis. In the event, the broad immunity proposal was narrowly rejected after three Law and Justice deputies voted with the opposition.

Moreover, having previously been heavily criticised by the opposition for failing to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda has attempted to transcend the government-opposition divide and act as a unifying force in Polish politics. For example, Mr Duda vetoed a controversial education reform law which the government said was designed to prevent radical left-wing organisations from gaining access to schools. The opposition argued that it could have been used to ban any organisations which did not conform to Law and Justice’s socially conservative values. Mr Duda justified his veto on the grounds that, although he personally supported many of the law’s provisions, Poland needed to avoid polarising political disputes at this time.

Opposition frustration

At the same time, the current situation is very frustrating for the opposition because it lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level. Much of the media coverage of the war has focused on the efforts of Mr Duda and Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to position Poland as a key international player in the crisis. For example, Mr Morawiecki and Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński (who, although he is only a deputy prime minister, exercises a powerful influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities), together with the Czech and Slovenian prime ministers, travelled to the besieged Ukrainian capital to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. Even though some opposition leaders had private misgivings about the visit as a government public relations stunt, in public they felt obliged to defend it as a strong morale booster for Ukraine.

Interestingly, Donald Tusk, leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party in 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, does not really appear to have drawn upon his experience and contacts to give himself a higher international profile. Following a stint as Polish prime minister from 2007-14, and then European Council President in 2014-19, Mr Tusk is currently leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation. One exception here was when he spoke at a pre-election opposition rally in Hungary attacking Fidesz prime minister Viktor Orban, who has been Law and Justice’s closest EU ally, for his close ties with Russia. Civic Platform has frequently called upon Law and Justice to end its alliance with Mr Orban and other European right-wing leaders known for their links with Moscow. Law and Justice has responded by drawing attention to Mr Tusk’s own attempts while prime minister to develop warmer relations with Russia, and arguing that his allies in the EU political establishment, especially Germany, have had the strongest economic ties with Moscow and are currently the main obstacle to tougher EU sanctions.

The opposition also feels that, in many ways, the imperative for political unity suits Law and Justice because it means that other problematic issues are no longer in the media spotlight. When the war broke out, Law and Justice faced an accumulation of problems including: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing ‘rule of law’ disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living. Mr Tusk, in particular, has made total negation of the government’s record the core of his political message since he returned to front-line Polish politics last summer. The war has completely overshadowed these issues, or given Law and Justice an opportunity to relativise them as second order compared to national security.

Contestation is starting to re-emerge

However, politics abhors a vacuum and there are already signs that more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation are starting to re-assert themselves. Indeed, even as the conflict broke out Civic Platform called upon the government to end its dispute with the EU political establishment by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms. The EU institutions agree with criticisms levelled by most opposition parties and Poland’s legal establishment that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the constitutional separation of powers. Civic Platform argued that, as well as preventing Poland from accessing EU funds, Law and Justice’s conflict with the Union’s political establishment undermined national security by weakening the country’s anchoring in the West. However, whatever ones’ views of the merits of the various arguments here (for its part, Law and Justice says that the Polish judiciary has been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, and is thus incapable of reforming itself) to many Poles raising the ‘rule of law’ dispute at this time made Civic Platform’s appeals for national unity appear somewhat hollow.

A row between Law and Justice and the opposition also emerged over an unexpected government proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the possibility of confiscating assets belonging to entities and individuals involved in supporting Russia, and the exclusion of defence spending from public debt limits. The government argued that Poland’s basic law only allowed for these assets to be frozen not seized, while constitutionally-enshrined debt rules could block its plans for rapid increases in defence spending. The opposition, whose support is required to secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the Constitution, expressed scepticism as to whether such amendments were really necessary. Indeed, some anti-government commentators argued that they were a political trap for the opposition. If they co-operated with Law and Justice this could alienate their hard core supporters, but if they opposed the amendments the ruling party would argue they were preventing the government from acting against Russian oligarchs and blocking increases in defence expenditure.

Probably the most controversial rupture in the unity of the Polish political class followed a recorded address to the Ukrainian parliament by Tomasz Grodzki, the Civic Platform-nominated speaker of the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber. Mr Grodzki directly attacked the Law and Justice government accusing it of ‘financing a criminal regime that uses the money to murder innocent people’, by continuing to import Russian coal and failing to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs. Law and Justice accused Mr Grodzki making scandalous and misleading accusations, and has filed for his dismissal. The party said that it was private companies, not the government, that were purchasing Russian coal and that his demands related to issues that were the competencies of international organisations, mainly the EU, whom Poland was pushing to take more decisive action.

Civic Platform leaders reacted uneasily, and somewhat inconsistently, to Mr Grodzki’s remarks: to some degree distancing themselves from their tone, but also downplaying their significance and defending the substance of what he said. Interestingly, shortly afterwards the government announced measures to block the import of Russian coal by private companies, notwithstanding doubts about the legality of a unilateral embargo by an individual EU member state. This suggests that the scope and enforcement of sanctions against Russia, and solidarity with Ukraine more generally, is emerging as a so-called ‘valence’ issue, where the parties agree on an overall objective but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on this shared goal.

Divisions remain, but over different issues

So the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ‘re-set’ Polish politics but only in the sense that all other issues are currently very much on the back-burner and the public appetite is for politicians to avoid conflicts and unite. However, the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until autumn 2023 and the current overwhelming demand for political and societal unity is only likely to last until the war either ends or becomes ‘normalised’ as the media spotlight shifts to other matters. Ongoing concerns about issues such as rising costs of living are likely to re-assert themselves, although obviously exacerbated by the socio-economic effects of the war and the influx of Ukrainian refugees. Moreover, even if most politicians are still calling for unity there are already signs that they are reverting to more ‘normal’ patterns of politics, except that contestation is focused mainly on the question of which party is best placed to provide the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

Interestingly, for the moment at least, the war has not had a transformative effect on Law and Justice’s opinion poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 34% poll support in March – an increase of 4% compared to January, but still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority. Law and Justice does not yet seem to be benefiting as much as might be expected from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat. Obviously changes in public attitudes will take some time to fully crystallise and feed through, but it may be that, although the war has been dominating media coverage, attitudes towards other issues are so deeply ingrained that they are still the most powerful drivers determining party support.

How will the war in Ukraine affect Polish politics?

Poland’s raised international profile as a key regional diplomatic and military player, together with the tendency for citizens to rally around political leaders at a time of national crisis, are likely to boost support for the country’s right-wing ruling party. Although this ‘rally effect’ will subside, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive in determining election outcomes, this particular conflict could leave a more long-lasting domestic political footprint, making national security questions much more salient.

Consolidating support for the ruling party

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a whole series of huge diplomatic, economic, security and humanitarian challenges for Poland. These include: further increases in the price of energy and raw materials that will push-up inflation, already at its highest level for more than twenty years; the economic knock-on effects of Western sanctions; and a potentially huge refugee crisis, with estimates that more than one million Ukrainians could flee to Poland to escape the armed conflict. Although it remains ahead in opinion polls, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, has lost support over the last eighteen months as it faced an accumulation of political difficulties. These have included: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing ‘rule of law’ disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living.

However, the war in Ukraine has now completely overshadowed all of these issues and is likely to consolidate support for Law and Justice. The ruling party will probably benefit from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat. It is too early to tell how significant, or long-lasting, a boost for Law and Justice the crisis might provide. But there were already some indications that the party’s polling numbers had started to tick up, even before the outbreak of armed hostilities. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 34% opinion poll support in February – an increase of 3% compared to January, although still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

Warsaw’s raised international profile

Law and Justice argues that it has taken a series of measures to make Poland more militarily self-sufficient. The latest of these is the so-called ‘homeland defence law’ (ustawa o obronie ojczyzny) which, if approved by parliament, will accelerate the pace of increased defence spending and double the size of the Polish armed forces. However, much of the media spotlight has focused on the government’s international role in trying to resolve the crisis. This has provided Warsaw with an opportunity to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key strategic regional player. Given Poland’s critical geographical location, and the fact that it is NATO’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, the country plays a pivotal role in the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow.

The Polish government and Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda have been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what they always saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of the region, and specifically to ensure that sanctions on Moscow were maintained and extended. Law and Justice has, for a long time, criticised Germany and other Western powers for their over-conciliatory approach towards developing economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow over the heads of their European allies. This was exemplified by the controversial ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea by-passing Poland and Ukraine; and which Berlin has now belatedly suspended approval of. Indeed, some observers argued that pressure from the Polish government, and specifically prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, played a pivotal role in persuading Germany to make an abrupt change of course after the invasion started by agreeing to reverse its historical non-intervention policy and send weapons to Ukraine, as well to increase defence spending to over 2% of the country’s GDP (a level considered a minimum by NATO), and block Russian access to the ‘Swift’ international payments system (having initially opposed such tough economic sanctions).

The crisis has also been an opportunity to improve Warsaw’s fraught relations with the US Biden administration. Law and Justice enjoyed very strong ties with Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whom it came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. This, together with Mr Biden’s pivot back to developing stronger ties with the EU political establishment (especially Germany), made it considerably more difficult for Warsaw to pursue its international policy agenda. However, Polish-US relations already started to improve last December when Mr Duda vetoed a controversial media law that the USA felt threatened the commercial interests of the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Now Poland has become the main destination for new US troops arriving in the region since January to strengthen NATO’s Eastern flank. The Biden Administration also announced a $6 billion weapons sale to Warsaw, which included 250 M1 Abrams tanks.

A tricky situation for the opposition

At the same time, the opposition parties lack the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level, and, for the sake of national unity, have largely refrained from criticising the government overtly, for the moment at least. Moreover, all the main Polish political groupings share the goal of strengthening Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation and countering Russian expansionism. Eastern policy has generally emerged in the context of domestic politics as a so-called ‘valence’ issue: where parties agree on overall objectives but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on these shared goals.

However, while agreeing with the government’s assessments of Russia’s actions and the potential threat that they pose to Polish national security, some sections of the opposition have tried to develop talking points critical of Law and Justice. For example, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – the country’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping – called upon Law and Justice to end its conflict with the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ issues as quickly as possible, by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms. Law and Justice has been in an ongoing dispute with the EU institutions who agree with the criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers. Civic Platform has argued that Law and Justice’s conflict with the EU political establishment undermined national security by weakening Poland’s anchoring in the West and efforts to build alliances within Europe. The Ukrainian conflict, they said, also highlighted the fact that the main threat to Poland came from Moscow not Brussels or Berlin.

The government’s supporters countered that raising the ‘rule of law’ dispute at this time made Civic Platform’s appeals for national unity appear hollow, particularly as the opposition party also implied an equivalence between Law and Justice’s reforms and the lack of judicial independence in Russia. Moreover, Law and Justice rejected the opposition’s critique of its reforms arguing that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. Law and Justice’s supporters also argued that the EU political establishment had used the ‘rule of law’ issue as a pretext and that the root of the conflict stemmed from the fact that the Polish government had, they said, adopted a more robust and assertive approach towards defending and advancing the country’s national identity and interests within the EU.

At the same time, however, over the last few weeks the Law and Justice government and Mr Duda have been making a concerted effort to de-escalate the dispute with Brussels. This was mainly to secure Polish access to EU funds that the Commission is blocking, but also to help the West present a united front in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, by raising the ‘rule of law’ issue, the opposition mis-read the national mood which, for the moment at least, seems to want its political leaders to focus solely on the Ukrainian crisis and put other contentious issues to one side.

Disputes over international party links

Previously, opposition parties also strongly criticised attempts by Law and Justice to develop links with right-wing Eurosceptic parties that have enjoyed close ties with Moscow, such as Marine Le Pen’s French ‘National Rally’ and the Hungarian ‘Fidesz’ grouping led by Viktor Orban, the ruling party’s closest EU ally. For example, in January Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk, a former European Council President and Polish prime minister between 2007-14, criticised Mr Morawiecki for attending a summit meeting in Madrid involving these and other parties, which he described as ‘a facto meeting of the anti-Ukrainian international’. Law and Justice countered by acknowledging that these parties sometimes had a different view of Moscow to Poland, but also pointing out that the Madrid summit’s final declaration unequivocally condemned Russian military operations on Ukraine’s border (although the version posted on Ms Le Pen’s website apparently made no mention of this).

Law and Justice also argued that, in terms of practical policy preferences, the parties represented at the Madrid summit were no more pro-Moscow than many European centre-right and centre-left parties with whom the Polish opposition was closely allied and whose leaders often had business interests in, and close economic ties with, Russia. Indeed, immediately prior to the Russian invasion, Mr Morawiecki called upon Mr Tusk to resign as president of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation, which he dubbed the ‘Nord Stream 2 party’ due to the critical role played by the German Christian Democrats (the grouping’s leading member) in the development of the controversial Russo-German pipeline.

Leaving a lasting political footprint?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has completely dominated political debate in Poland overshadowing all other issues. In addition to benefiting from the ‘rally effect’, Law and Justice has been able to portray Warsaw as a key regional player while the opposition has no instruments to exert any real international influence. Politicians are also acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan political divides pale into insignificance when the country faces such a major geopolitical security threat. Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least disputes over the Law and Justice’s ‘rule of law’ conflict and other previously salient domestic political issues are on the back-burner. The same is true of disputes over the two main parties’ international links which, until just before the Russian invasion, were also a source of bitter political disagreement.

Nonetheless, in spite of the displays of national unity, political calculations are obviously still being made behind-the-scenes and all of these issues are certain to re-surface when Poland starts to return to more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation. In the longer-term, although the Ukrainian conflict will clearly have major geopolitical effects, it is unclear how long-lasting the domestic political impacts will be. At some point the ‘rally effect’ will wear off, the next parliamentary poll is not scheduled until autumn 2023, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive (or even particularly salient) in determining election outcomes. However, this particular conflict is likely to leave a more lasting political footprint given its profound geopolitical impacts, economic knock-on effects, and refugee crisis that it is likely to trigger. At the very least, security issues, both military and non-military, are likely to remain high on the Polish political agenda for the foreseeable future.

What is the biggest problem facing Poland’s right-wing ruling party?

For the first time since the right-wing ruling party took office six years ago, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity. But in spite of the government’s accumulation of difficulties, Poles still do not appear to trust the opposition on the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that they care most about.

An accumulation of problems

Last year was an extremely difficult one for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 32% opinion poll support in January. Although it remains Poland’s largest party, Law and Justice is well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow it to secure an outright parliamentary majority. A January survey for the CBOS polling agency also found that only 30% of respondents evaluated the government positively, its lowest rating since it came to office.

As Law and Justice entered 2022, the year before the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2023), it faced an accumulation of political problems. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, and associated social and economic dislocation, has had a terrible impact on societal morale, leaving Poles with an over-arching sense of uncertainty and constantly forcing the government on to the backfoot. Law and Justice is dependent upon anti-establishment right-wing rock star Paweł Kukiz’s small parliamentary caucus and maverick independents for its slim and precarious majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. The latter group of deputies includes the controversial Łukasz Mejza, who in December was forced to resign as deputy sports minister following allegations (which he strongly denies) that a medical company he once owned offered unproven treatments for people with incurable illnesses. There are also ongoing tensions within the governing camp – notably between the more technocratic and pragmatic prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Eurosceptic hardliners such as justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, whose right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party has enough parliamentary deputies to deprive the government of its majority.

The European Commission has held up the first tranche of billions of Euros due to the Poland from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund until Warsaw implements a July EU Court of Justice ruling that it should abolish a newly-created supreme court disciplinary chamber. The Commission is also gearing up to use a new ‘rule of law’ conditionality mechanism to withhold payments from the regular EU budget. (The Polish government has said several times it will abolish the disciplinary chamber but divisions within the ruling camp have prevented it from presenting detailed plans.) In January, the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber, set up a special commission to investigate allegations that the security services used the Pegasus spyware programme to eavesdrop on opposition-linked public figures.

However, at the moment most Poles appear to believe that their government is not unique in struggling to respond to an uncertain and constantly evolving pandemic crisis. Although the situation within the ruling camp has become increasingly complicated and fraught, Law and Justice does appear to have a working (albeit shaky) parliamentary majority. Government supporters tend to blame the EU political establishment for the ongoing ‘rule of law’ stalemate (although, in the longer-term, the issue could be more problematic, especially in the countryside where Law and Justice enjoys widespread support but access to EU funds is a very salient political issue).

For the moment, the Pegasus eavesdropping row also appears to be having little political cut-through. Law and Justice supporters accept the government’s argument that the spyware system was only used to monitor criminal activities and not for political purposes, while most Poles feel that the issue does not really concern them. Law and Justice is boycotting the work of the Senate investigative commission, which anyway lacks the powers that a Sejm commission would have, notably the ability to summon witnesses (although a Sejm commission could still be convened if Mr Kukiz, who has promised to support the idea if the opposition agrees to his conditions, and his three parliamentary allies vote in favour).

Price rises undermine social welfare programme gains

However, the biggest problem currently facing Law and Justice is growing public concern about increasing costs of living. In January, surging energy prices helped to drive Poland’s annual inflation rate to 8.6%, its highest level for over 20 years, and it is set to rise further in the coming months. A December survey conducted by the ‘Kantar’ agency for the ‘Polityka’ journal found that when asked what issue Poles were most anxious about the most common answer was inflation and price increases (47%).

This cost-of-living squeeze is a major threat to Law and Justice, whose voters are drawn disproportionately from among the less well-off. Up until now, one of the most important ways that the ruling party has been able to retain its support – particularly among less ideologically committed, ‘centrist’ voters, who may have concerns about some of its other policies – has been through its record of raising living standards for ordinary Poles. The Law and Justice government’s extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child benefit subsidy – together with substantial minimum wage increases, pension bonuses and other social welfare programmes – has provided a significant financial boost to low-income families. Many of these live beyond the large urban centres and felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. They felt that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice was the first party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale.

However, rising prices are steadily eroding the boost to household incomes provided by this large expansion of social welfare. Indeed, inflation is particularly problematic for less well-off Poles who now find their household bills increasing and spending power going down. Not surprisingly, the opposition has seized on the issue, running a campaign with the strapline ‘PiS=drożyźna’ (Law and Justice=high prices).

Law and Justice has responded by introducing a so-called ‘anti-inflation shield’ (tarcza antyinflacyjna) package of measures to cushion the blow for the hardest-hit households, including temporary six-month reductions of some taxes and VAT rates on energy and food. Although the government’s measures will not solve the problem in the longer-term, they will buy the ruling party some time by cutting the peak off inflation for a few months. At the same time, Law and Justice can at least partially blame the inflation spike on external factors beyond its direct control such as: high global energy, and soaring EU carbon permit, prices, and a tightening labour market, supply chain disruption and strong re-bound in demand arising from the pandemic crisis; although some commentators also criticize the government and National Bank of Poland for their (allegedly too loose) fiscal and monetary policies.

Too complicated tax reforms?

However, Law and Justice must take full responsibility for the disastrous rollout of the January tax changes that comprised a key element of the government’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) socio-economic reform programme. These tax reforms were supposed to be a political game-changer that would take Law and Justice through to victory at the next election. The government estimated that out of 27 million Polish taxpayers around 18-19 million with modest or lower earnings would benefit from the changes, 1.3 million better-off taxpayers would lose out, and 6-7 million would remain unaffected. But the introduction of a complex new tax system created widespread confusion and turned into a public relations nightmare for the government, with some public sector workers and pensioners actually receiving lower payouts in January. Critics argued that the new rules were so complicated, and drafted and introduced so quickly, that even expert tax advisers had difficulty in understanding them.

Law and Justice feels that critics have been too quick to write off the ‘Polish Deal’. Reforming a complex tax system so swiftly and radically was bound to lead to some mistakes and the losers from changes are often more vocal than the beneficiaries. Moreover, the government eventually admitted its mistakes and promised that compensating payments would be made in the coming weeks. Law and Justice is hoping that once the ‘Polish Deal’ fiscal reforms bed in, and assuming that no new major errors occur, the benefits for most Poles, especially the less well-off, will be both tangible and so substantial that they forget the initial chaos surrounding their introduction. Assuming that they are not eaten up too much by the increase in inflation, this significant improvement in Poles’ financial situation should, the ruling party hopes, help to stabilize the political situation and push up Law and Justice’s polling numbers.

Nonetheless, some commentators argue that, even if the government manages to correct the initial errors, the political damage has been done, particularly for Mr Morawiecki as the politician most closely associated with the ‘Polish Deal’. Moreover, the key issue that caused the problems with its poor implementation and lack of political cut-through with ordinary Poles, the sheer complexity of the reforms, is more difficult to rectify. The appeal of social welfare programmes such as ‘500 plus’ was their simplicity. The previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration also lowered income and payroll taxes, and pushed through a tax relief package for families, but did not derive sufficient political benefit because the impact of these policies was too diffuse. ‘500 plus’, on the other hand, was simple and easy for Poles to grasp, and many of them saw a direct and clearly identifiable financial impact on their family budgets. The complexity of the ‘Polish Deal’ tax reforms, on the other hand, has left even tax experts, never mind ordinary Poles, struggling to understand them.

Poles do not (yet) trust the opposition

For the first time since Law and Justice took office, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity. However, although the party’s popularity has declined, it has not suffered a devastating slump in support. Some commentators suggest that its disillusioned erstwhile supporters are currently planning to abstain rather than vote for the opposition parties, providing Law and Justice with sizeable reserves of support if it can get back on top of these ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. Indeed, Law and Justice’s great hope lies in the continuing inability of the opposition to capitalize on the ruling party’s weaknesses. A December survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczposolita’ newspaper found that 64% of respondents did not believe that the opposition was ready to take office and only felt 25% that it was; indeed, even opposition voters, by a 51% to 43% margin, felt it was not ready.

This is partly because the opposition parties remain conflicted over how they should contest the next election (separately or on common lists), so it is difficult for Poles to envisage them co-operating effectively if they have to form a government. The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can all rally. Civic Platform leader and former European Council President Donald Tusk, who led his party to two parliamentary election victories and was prime minister between 2007-14, enjoys strong support among the government’s hardcore opponents. But he is also a very polarising figure and for many Poles embodies the previous Civic Platform government which came to be viewed as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs. Interestingly, the Kantar survey for ‘Polityka’ found that, although many Poles were highly critical of Law and Justice, by a 42% to 40% margin they still preferred the current government to the previous administration. Perhaps most importantly, the opposition has failed develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the key socio-economic issues that Poles care most about. In spite of the accumulation of problems that Law and Justice currently faces, especially the squeeze in living standards and chaotic rollout of its tax reforms, it is too early to write the party off.