The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

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

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

Clashes over domestic policy

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

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

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

Defanging the ‘Polexit’ narrative

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

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

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

Problematic EU Court cases

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

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

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

Linking EU funds with the ‘rule of law’

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

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

Avoiding contentious domestic issues until May?

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

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

What do the parliamentary election results mean for Polish politics?

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

A decisive victory

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

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

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

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

Opposition success in the Senate

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

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

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

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

The presidential election is crucial

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

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

Law and Justice’s dilemma

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

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

Who will win the Polish election?

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

Raising the electoral stakes

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

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

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

Credit for re-distributing prestige

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

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

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

An unconvincing opposition

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

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

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

More open than it seems

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

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

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

The stakes are high

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

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

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

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

Delivering on its social spending promises

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

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

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

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

Defending national identity and traditional values

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

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

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

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

Re-distributing prestige

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

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

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

A weak and unconvincing opposition

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

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

Complacency is the greatest threat

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

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

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

A declining hegemon?

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

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

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

Unsuccessful left challengers

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

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

A marriage of convenience?

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

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

Opportunities and challenges

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

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

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

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

A critical election

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

 

How will the LGBT issue influence the Polish election?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party has used the sexual minorities issue to mobilise its core supporters and divide the opposition ahead of the crucial autumn parliamentary election. But the issue is not automatically favourable for the social conservative right, and how it plays out politically depends critically on the way it is framed and who is seen as the aggressor or the victim.

Instrumentalising the issue?

The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issue has been as one of the main sources of political controversy in the summer months leading to this year’s October 13th Polish parliamentary election, potentially one of the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. Some commentators have accused the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party of trying to use the issue cynically as a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic in order to shore up its electoral base among more conservative Poles. They draw analogies with the way that the party opposed the EU’s compulsory migrant relocation scheme in the run-up to the previous 2015 election, when Law and Justice argued that Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa would be difficult to assimilate and threatened Poland’s national security.

In fact, although Law and Justice is strongly culturally conservative, it has often been extremely wary of giving moral-cultural issues too high a profile for fear of putting off more centrist socially liberal voters who might otherwise be attracted by the party’s socio-economic policies. A good example of this is the abortion issue where Law and Justice has proceeded very cautiously knowing that while the party’s leaders and core supporters favour a near-total ban most of its voters support the (already very restrictive) status quo.

Indeed, it was actually the opposition that first raised the profile of the LGBT issue when, in February, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – who was elected last October as the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – published a 12-point charter prepared in co-operation with the city’s sexual minorities activist groups. Most controversially, the ‘LGBT plus’ rights declaration included a proposal to introduce a comprehensive, LGBT-approved sex and anti-discrimination education programme based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, which would start at an early age, into the city’s schools. The charter was an election pledge of Mr Trzaskowski’s but commentators suggested that prioritising it as one of his first high profile policy initiatives was a manoeuvre to counter the electoral challenge to Civic Platform from the new liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party led by veteran LGBT activist Robert Biedroń.

Opposing ‘LGBT ideology’

However, once the LGBT issue was raised Law and Justice seized the initiative and made it a central campaign theme in the run-up to May’s European Parliament (EP) election. It particularly condemned the proposed new sex education policies arguing that they: sought to use state-appointed specialists to undermine the traditional role of the family and parent’s rights to bring up their children according to their own values; and promoted the premature sexualisation of children. More broadly, Law and Justice used the charter to put itself at the head of a moral crusade arguing that it was defending traditional family values, Polish national identity, and Christian culture against the imposition of what it called ‘LGBT ideology’: an allegedly aggressive policy agenda based on foreign ideas promoted by left-wing enemies of Western civilisation.

For their part, the LGBT movement and its supporters denied that they sought to promote any ‘ideology’, in the sense of having a programme that encompassed all elements of public life and systemic change, or that they were a threat to the family and Polish traditions. Rather, they argued that their policy agenda simply represented a commitment to defending minority rights and opposing discrimination and manifestations of hate which, they said, were all part of Poland becoming a modern, open and diverse European society that respected all of its citizens.

Since then, the LGBT issue has taken on a life of its own and continually resurfaced as a salient political theme. In particular, the LGBT ‘equality parades’ being held in more than twenty Polish towns and cities over the spring and summer, four of them for the first time, have become a key flashpoint. Law and Justice politicians and the Polish Catholic Church hierarchy – which, although not as influential as it once was, remains an important civil society actor – criticised the parades arguing that they encouraged anti-religious profanity and unnecessary public displays of sexuality. In a significant and highly controversial intervention at the beginning of August, the archbishop of Kraków Marek Jędraszewski argued that the LGBT movement was neo-Marxist in its totalitarian ambitions, warning of a ‘rainbow plague’ (the six-colour rainbow is one of the movement’s best known symbols) analogous to the ‘red plague’ of the communist era.

Mobilising the base, dividing the opposition

The LGBT issue is certainly a polarising one that strikes an emotional chord with many Poles because it involves a clash of basic moral-cultural values and maps on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. Given that a defence of traditional moral codes and pushing back against Western cultural liberalism has always been a key element of Law and Justice’s appeal to more socially conservative voters, raising the issue’s salience certainly helps to mobilise the party’s core supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where such values still hold considerable sway. Law and Justice also benefits from the vocal criticisms of the LGBT movement by the Catholic Church, which remains particularly influential in the ruling party’s electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are still high. Energising Law and Justice’s base was particularly important, and helped the party to secure an unexpectedly large victory, in the EP election where turnout had traditionally been lower in smaller towns and rural areas.

Moreover, Law and Justice  saw the emergence of the LGBT issue as an opportunity not just to mobilise its core electorate but also to win broader public support for the party by framing the debate in a way that was very unfavourable for the opposition. While Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, this tolerance is not unconditional and beyond the larger towns and cities the country remains culturally conservative. Popular acceptance starts to decline when the agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives into areas which Poles feel belong to the realm of family life, such as proposals that appear to diminish the role of parents as the primary educators of their children in matters of sexual relations and morality. Similarly, many Poles, including those who are not especially religious, are extremely hostile to the profanation of Catholic symbols, as in Poland many of these are also regarded as broader national symbols. For example, LGBT activists will have alienated many Poles by reproducing an image depicting the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, a revered national icon of the Virgin Mary considered sacred for many centuries, with her halo repainted as the LGBT rainbow symbol.

While Poles are fairly evenly divided on the question of legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, which many do not appear to see as really impacting upon their everyday lives, a substantial majority are opposed to same-sex marriage and they are overwhelmingly against adoption of children by same-sex couples. Consequently, Law and Justice seized upon remarks by Paweł Rabiej – Mr Trzaskowski’s deputy, who is in a same-sex relationship – suggesting that the LGBT lobby’s call for legal recognition of civil partnerships was simply a precursor leading to further, more radical demands to re-define marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and grant adoption rights to same-sex couples. The party argued that this showed the LGBT movement was not simply fighting for tolerance and respect but wanted special privileges for same-sex unions that undermined institutions such as traditional marriage which, they said, stabilised the social order and promoted the common good.

Raising the salience of the LGBT issue also draws out divisions within the opposition, particularly between more overtly cultural liberal-left groupings and the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL) whose electoral base includes many social conservatives living in smaller towns and rural areas. At the same time, Civic Platform has attempted to avoid associating itself too unambiguously with the LGBT movement. During its most electorally successful period, Civic Platform was an ideologically eclectic and electorally heterogeneous grouping that avoided taking clear stances on controversial moral-cultural issues. For sure, in recent years the party’s conservative wing has become marginalised and its stance increasingly socially liberal (the leadership probably privately supports same-sex marriage and even child adoption by same-sex couples), which has played well in the larger towns and cities that form the core of its electoral base. Nonetheless, Civic Platform cannot completely ignore its more traditionalist conservative-centrist supporters and so remains wary of being clearly aligned with the policy agenda of the cultural left. So although the party recently made its first official promise to introduce same-sex civil partnerships, this was framed very cautiously in terms of giving un-married couples inheritance rights and access to their partner’s medical information (something that could also be popular with those in informal heterosexual relationships) rather than as an overtly ‘LGBT rights’ issue.

Framing is the key

In fact, Polish attitudes towards the LGBT issues are fairly complex, fluid and not necessarily automatically favourable for the social conservative right. Public opinion can probably best be summarised as: toleration but not affirmation (or even, necessarily, acceptance). For example, an April 2019 survey by the CBOS agency found that the number of respondents who felt homosexuality should not be tolerated had fallen from 41% in April 2001 to only 24%, while the number who said that it was something normal increased from 5% to 14% over the same period. However, a majority (54%) still felt still that, although homosexuality could be tolerated, it was not something normal. So critical to how the LGBT issue plays out is the way it is framed, and a key element of this is who is seen as the aggressor or the victim.

A good example of the risk that the LGBT issue can pose to Law and Justice came in July when a violent crowd of football hooligans and radical nationalists threw stones and fireworks at participants taking part in the first equality march held in Białystok, an city in the culturally conservative Podlasie region in Eastern Poland. Liberal-left commentators and opposition politicians responded by accusing Law and Justice and the Catholic Church of creating a toxic atmosphere that incited and legitimised violence against the marchers and LGBT community more generally through their attacks on sexual minorities. They cited as an example stickers distributed by the pro-government ‘Gazeta Polska’ newspaper with a crossed-out rainbow symbol that read ‘LGBT-free zone’.

For its part, Law and Justice distanced itself from the stickers, arguing that they failed to distinguish between individual members of sexual minorities and criticisms of the LGBT movement’s political agenda. Moreover, both the ruling party and Church leaders condemned the Białystok violence but countered that anti-clerical rhetoric used by some LGBT activists could also have led to an upsurge in attacks on Polish clergy in recent months. Nonetheless, although a July survey conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that while most respondents (34%) felt that nationalists were to blame for the Białystok incidents, the second most popular answer was Law and Justice (28%) followed by the Church (26%), while 24% cited LGBT organisations, 18% the Civic Platform local mayor and only 8% the opposition. So although Law and Justice is more comfortable discussing the LGBT issue than the liberal-centrist opposition, raising its salience is potentially a risky strategy for the ruling party which can easily lose control of the narrative and be portrayed as aggressive and intolerant.

Can Poland’s opposition win this year’s election?

Poland’s liberal-centrist opposition retains considerable assets, and the overall balance of support between it and the right-wing governing camp remains evenly balanced. But the opposition has wasted too much time looking inward rather than crafting a convincing programmatic alternative, and does not even know in what configuration it will contest the autumn parliamentary election.

One bloc or several?

The liberal-centrist opposition suffered a major defeat in May’s European Parliament (EP) election. The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the ruling party since 2015, secured 45% of the votes well ahead of the European Coalition (KE) – an electoral alliance formed specifically to contest the EP poll led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – which won only 38%. This result was a huge psychological and strategic blow for the opposition alliance, which at one point in the campaign was running neck-and-neck with Law and Justice, ahead of the autumn parliamentary poll which could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. It was particularly disappointing because virtually all the main opposition parties – including the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – had united in a single bloc in an election where turnout was traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher among better-off, urban voters who tend to support the liberal-left. This time, at 46%, it was significantly higher and closer to the levels seen in parliamentary elections.

Since then, the opposition has been debating whether it should contest the parliamentary election as a single united bloc. The d’Hondt counting method, which is used for allocating seats in electoral districts under Poland’s proportional voting system, favours larger parties, suggesting that coalescing in a single electoral alliance is the optimal solution. Nonetheless, so far only Civic Platform and ‘Modern’, which is mired in debt and has anyway effectively ceased to exist as an independent political entity, have united their parliamentary caucuses as a precursor to running as part of a broader opposition alliance. In a members’ referendum held at the end of June, the Democratic Left Alliance also voted to join an electoral coalition.

However, the Peasant Party faces the dilemma that if it contests the election independently there is a huge risk that it will not cross the 5% parliamentary representation threshold, but while standing as part of a broad opposition alliance would more-or-less guarantee it seats it could also lead to the end of the party as an independent political force. Although its leadership initially favoured remaining within a broad alliance, an influential faction questioned whether a centrist grouping with a socially conservative, rural and small-town core electorate should contest the election as part of a coalition dominated by liberal and left-wing parties. Consequently, in June the party announced its intention to set up a new centre-right bloc dubbed the Polish Coalition (KP) and tried to attract politicians from Civic Platform’s marginalised conservative wing and smaller right-wing groupings such as the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz’15’. Then, at the beginning of July, the Peasant Party also called upon Civic Platform – which has been its governing partner at national and local levels since the mid-2000s, but continues to favour a broad opposition alliance – to join it in a centrist ‘Christian Democratic’ electoral bloc that excluded the left.

The liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party, formed in February by former mayor of the Northern provincial town of Słupsk and veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, was the main opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition. After a promising start, ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and increasingly focused on moral-cultural issues turning itself into a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party. The electoral base for this kind of grouping is relatively narrow in Poland and, although ‘Spring’ crossed the 5% threshold, its 6.1% EP vote share was very much at the lower end of its expectations. Then Mr Biedroń announced that he would, after all, be taking up his EP seat, having previously said that he would not do so in order to concentrate on the autumn election, leaving the ‘Spring’ leader open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project. Moreover, although immediately after the EP election Mr Biedroń said that ‘Spring’ would contest the parliamentary poll independently, he now says he is ready to discuss joining a broad opposition alliance.

Unity is not enough

The opposition’s dilemma is that it needs a clear message to mobilise its supporters but there are serious doubts whether a broad and ideologically eclectic electoral alliance that includes both conservative agrarians and urban liberals can develop such programmatic unity, especially on moral-cultural issues. The EP election results also showed that simply uniting all of the man opposition parties, however programmatically diverse, into one electoral bloc was not enough to defeat Law and Justice. This notion was based on the premise that – as was the case in the 2007 election, when the then-Law and Justice incumbent lost in spite of increasing its share of the vote – there is a natural anti-government majority that just needs to be mobilised by whichever grouping is best placed to defeat the ruling party. However, at the moment there simply does not appear to be the kind of powerful underlying appetite for political change evident in 2007.

By delivering on most of the high profile social spending pledges that were the key to its 2015 election victory, many Poles feel that Law and Justice is the first governing party to help the less well-off on such a large scale, although many had promised to do so. Even if they have misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many still feel that, for all its faults, Law and Justice deserves credit for at least trying to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the Polish state which had been ignored by previous administrations. An important element of this is what some commentators have termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’, whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a feeling of dignity. So far, the negative publicity surrounding various allegations of government scandals has also not damaged Law and Justice and its supporters appear to regard them as either false or the occasional lapses of a generally honest party. Fear that the opposition may abandon, or water down, the government’s large social spending programmes if it were to win office, has also raised the electoral stakes for Law and Justice’s core voters and will no doubt help to mobilise them once again in the autumn.

Lacking leadership and a credible programme

The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is currently Poland’s least trusted politician. However, there appears to be little obvious alternative: a May survey by the IPSOS agency for the OKO.press portal found that while only 9% of respondents (and 22% of European Coalition voters) opted for Mr Schetyna as the best prime ministerial candidate 50% did not choose any of the current opposition leaders. Some opposition figures hoped that Donald Tusk, Civic Platform prime minister from 2007-14 and currently European Council President, would return to act as a rallying point for the anti-government camp, possibly even setting up his own grouping based on liberal-centrist local government leaders, as a precursor to a summer 2020 Polish presidential bid. However, Mr Tusk is not the political driving force he once was and some commentators argue that his long stint in Brussels has dulled his previously-excellent domestic political antennae and ability to read the public mood.

However, the opposition’s most fundamental problem is its lack of a coherent and attractive programmatic alternative, especially on the socio-economic issues that Poles seem to care most about. Opposition strategists appear to recognise that, rather than trying to outbid Law and Justice’s huge expansion of individual social transfers and welfare benefit programmes (although it has promised to continue with them), it should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health and education which many Poles feel have been neglected. However, Poles are dubious as to whether the opposition would actually deliver on any additional spending pledges because it is too associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration. Law and Justice has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.

Recognising these difficulties, some opposition leaders have focused on the more modest objective of compiling a joint list of candidates to contest the 100 single-member constituencies which elect the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber. However, to date, every party that has won the election to the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber, has also secured a Senate majority; the OKO.press portal has estimated that even a united opposition list would only secure 43 seats. Indeed, even if the opposition can win a Senate majority, the second chamber only has delaying and some state appointment powers, while the Sejm can overturn its resolutions and amendments relatively easily. Moreover, by focusing on the Senate the opposition could actually de-mobilise its supporters by appearing to have given up on winning a Sejm majority.

Another idea for regaining the political initiative, sometimes linked to the joint Senate list proposal, is giving a higher profile to popular opposition-linked local government leaders, particularly the mayors of the larger Polish towns and cities. However, it is not clear how exactly these leaders would be involved in the autumn campaign and unlikely that many of them will want to de-camp to parliament, where they would be minor (probably opposition) political actors rather than leading figures with substantial budgets and influence in their localities, particularly so soon after securing re-election for a four-year term last autumn. Moreover, high levels of local support do not necessarily translate to the national level, and most of these leaders are from urban metropolitan districts where the opposition is already strong rather than the smaller towns and rural areas where it needs to boost its support.

Too little time left?

Although the opposition is experiencing something of a crisis at the moment, it should not be written off and retains considerable political assets, including: a sizeable potential base of popular support; substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media; and significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites. Opposition strategists are also convinced that there are considerable reserves of its potential voters – particularly in urban areas (hence its opening to local government leaders) – who, in spite of the record turnout, abstained the EP election. Election campaigns can, of course, develop their own specific dynamics, and a change in the political context or emergence of a particular issue could turn things around, given that the government and opposition camps actually remain fairly evenly matched in terms of their overall levels of support. In fact, the greatest threat to the ruling party probably comes from the danger of its own activists succumbing to complacency and over-confidence. Moreover, even if it emerges as the largest single party it is far from certain that Law and Justice will retain its overall parliamentary majority and be able to govern without coalition partners. Nonetheless, the opposition has wasted too much time looking inwards and, at the time of writing, still does not even know in what configuration it will be contesting the election. Even if it can eventually develop a more effective political strategy and convincing programmatic alternative, it may have left itself too little time to implement and promote these.

 

 

What is the significance of Poland’s European Parliament election results?

An unexpectedly decisive European Parliament election victory gave the right-wing ruling party a major boost ahead of the more significant autumn parliamentary poll, although doubts remain if it can retain an outright majority. Simply uniting the main anti-government parties in an ideologically diverse electoral alliance was clearly not enough for the opposition, which still lacks a dynamic leader and convincing programmatic alternative.

A huge boost for Law and Justice

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since 2015, won the May European Parliament (EP) election securing 45% of the votes and 27 seats, ahead of the European Coalition (KE) – an electoral alliance formed specifically to contest the EP poll led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – which won 38% and 22 seats respectively. This provides Law and Justice with a major psychological and strategic boost ahead of the country’s autumn parliamentary poll, which could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. It was a particularly impressive result because virtually all of the main opposition parties were united in a single electoral bloc, and turnout in EP elections is traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher among better-off, urban voters who tend to support the liberal-centrist opposition.

However, this time overall turnout was significantly higher at 46%, closer to the level in parliamentary elections. Indeed, Law and Justice’s campaign was focused primarily on mobilising its core electorate in smaller towns and rural areas. In order to signal to its supporters just how important this election was, Law and Justice stood some of its best-known ministers as leading candidates and its campaign was fronted by party 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. While Mr Kaczyński is a polarising figure and traditionally one of Poland’s least trusted politicians among more centrist voters, he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters.

The election was fast-moving, with the dominant issue appearing to change almost every week, but in a bid to rally its supporters Law and Justice made the centre-piece of its campaign a substantial package of new social welfare spending pledges and tax cuts. These were carefully targeted at key groups of core Law and Justice voters and included: extending the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme (previously available for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families) to cover all children; a 1,100 złoties bonus payment for retirees; exempting workers under 26 from income tax; cutting the lower income tax rate from 18% to 17%; and re-instating rural bus services. Law and Justice hoped that such a huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts would burnish its self-image as the first governing party that has tried to ensure all Poles share fully in the country’s post-communist economic transformation. The party’s aim was to raise the electoral stakes for its core voters who would not normally vote in an EP election but may have feared that the liberal-centrist opposition would abandon these programmes if they were to win office.

Uniting the opposition was not enough

Nonetheless, Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna’s success in persuading virtually all the other main opposition parties – including the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – to join the European Coalition cemented his position as undisputed opposition leader and provided Law and Justice with a formidable opponent in this election. Although its ideological eclecticism made it difficult for the Coalition to develop a clear and distinctive programmatic message, the grouping’s strategy was to rally government opponents by framing the election as a ‘great choice’ (wielki wybór) between returning Poland to European mainstream politics and a Law and Justice government which, it said, has found itself continually at loggerheads with the EU political establishment. The Coalition thus hoped that opposition to Law and Justice was, on its own, a powerful enough mobilising appeal to win this particular ‘second order’ election where voters were not choosing a government.

However, the Coalition’s attempt to turn the EP election into a de facto referendum on continued Polish EU membership, by claiming that Law and Justice’s frequent clashes with the EU institutions could lead to Poland leaving the Union (so-called ‘Polexit’), did not work. Although Law and Justice leaders remain wary of extending EU competencies at the expense of member states, they tried to tone down the government’s conflict with the Union’s political establishment and went overboard to stress the party’s strong commitment to continued EU membership as a core element of Polish foreign policy. The Coalition, therefore, attempted to shift the focus of its campaign on to domestic issues and counter Law and Justice’s social benefit expansion by, for example, arguing that it could secure more EU funds to improve Poland’s dysfunctional health service. But while the quality of health care is a high priority issue for many Polish voters, the Coalition’s efforts failed to develop any traction, partly because Law and Justice has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the social spending promises on which it was elected in 2015.

The government’s opponents hoped that the dynamics of the campaign would change following the release on YouTube of ‘Just Don’t Tell Anyone’ (‘Tylko nie mów nikomu’), a harrowing film documenting several alleged instances of child sex abuse by Polish Catholic priests and accusations of subsequent cover-ups and neglect of victims by the Church hierarchy, which gained massive popularity online. The documentary’s release in the final days of the campaign posed a significant challenge for Law and Justice by turning the role of the Church in Polish politics and society into a major issue. The Church remains an important civil society actor in Poland, particularly in Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are still high. While the ruling party has not always enjoyed the closest of relationships with the Church hierarchy in recent years, in public consciousness the two organisations are still very closely aligned. A few days before the scandal broke Mr Kaczyński told a crowd of party supporters that, ‘he who raises a hand against the church…raises his hand against Poland’. At the same time, the European Coalition was very quick off-the-mark in calling for an independent inquiry to investigate how the Church had handled clerical sexual abuse. However, Law and Justice manged to get ahead of the issue by arguing that any inquiry should not single out the clergy but investigate paedophiles in all milieux, and introducing new legislation to increase penalties for sex offenders.

The minor parties were squeezed

The most significant opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition was the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party, formed in February by former mayor of the Northern provincial town of Słupsk and veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń. However, after a promising start, ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself as the sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs strengthened the argument that the opposition needed to unite behind the Coalition as the only way to defeat Law and Justice. Moreover, ‘Spring’ increasingly focused its campaign on moral-cultural issues turning itself into a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party, the electoral base for which is relatively narrow in Poland. Moreover, in spite of the fact that calls for a stricter separation of Church and state was one of the key elements of its programme, Mr Biedroń’s party did not receive any electoral boost from the emergence of clerical sexual abuse as a campaign issue. Although it crossed the 5% parliamentary representation threshold, the party’s 6.1% vote share and 3 MEPs was a disappointing result very much at the lower end of its expectations.

At the same time, Law and Justice saw off a challenge on its right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping, an electoral alliance comprising an eclectic mix of radical nationalists, free marketeers, Eurosceptics and social conservatives. As one of its leaders put it, ‘we don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the EU’. The Confederation’s signature issue was its criticism of Law and Justice’s alleged failure to stand up to the USA and Israel over the issue of Jewish wartime reparations as emblematic of its inability to defend Polish interests effectively. The Confederation’s main focus was the so-called ‘JUST Act’, an American law (known by its legislative number 447) that requires the US State Department to assess steps taken by selected countries (including Poland) to provide compensation for the Holocaust, including for the property of Jews who died without heirs. However, Law and Justice successfully de-fanged the issue by taking an equally hard line on heirless Jewish property restitution, and accusing the Confederation of having pro-Russian sympathies and paving the way for the liberal-centrist opposition (an allegedly less robust defender of national interests) to steal election victory by dividing the right-wing vote.

However, although the Confederation failed to cross the representation threshold, securing 4.6% of votes, it replaced the anti-establishment Kukiz’15 grouping, which only scored 3.7%, as the main repository for right-wing ‘anti-system’ votes. Kukiz’15 was formed after its leader, rock star Paweł Kukiz, caused a political sensation in the 2015 presidential election when he picked up more than one-fifth of the vote, and his new grouping went on to become the third largest in parliament. However, since then Mr Kukiz has not come up with any new ideas or initiatives, and the Confederation appeared to undercut his main appeal, especially among younger voters, as the most credible opponent of the political establishment.

Problems for the opposition (but also the ruling party)

The European Coalition’s disappointing result has raised major doubts about the future of an electoral alliance built largely on the premise that, whatever its programmatic diversity, only a united opposition can defeat Law and Justice. Such doubts are particularly evident within the Peasant Party where there is an influential faction questioning whether a centrist grouping with a socially conservative, rural and small-town core electorate should contest the parliamentary election as part of a coalition dominated by liberal and left-wing parties. Mr Scheytna and his allies argue that there is little alternative to the current formula which has at least started to develop some momentum and, with tactical and strategic adjustments, can still mount a serious electoral challenge in the autumn if only the opposition parties continue to stick together. ‘Spring’ is also under pressure to join a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance, although it has pledged to contest the parliamentary election independently and the accession of such an openly social liberal grouping would make the Peasant Party’s position in such a coalition even more problematic. However, there remain serious concerns about the leadership of Mr Schetyna – who, his critics argue, lacks dynamism and charisma – and whether such an ideologically eclectic grouping can really develop a coherent and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles appear to care most about.

Finally, although the EP election result provided Law and Justice with a tremendous (and largely unexpected) boost, the party knows that, even if it wins the largest share of the vote in the parliamentary poll, there are serious doubts as to whether it will retain an outright majority, while its favoured post-election ally, Kukiz’15, now appears to be in a downward spiral. Moreover, not only would the Confederation – which itself faces an uncertain future, but is currently the only realistic alternative – be a much more problematic governing partner, even the prospect of a Law and Justice coalition with this grouping would be used by the liberal-centrist opposition to frighten off moderate voters from supporting Mr Kaczyński’s party.

Why does Poland’s European Parliament election matter?

The pattern of turnout in the Polish European Parliament election should favour the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition parties, most of whom have united in a broad anti-government alliance, and provide them with momentum ahead of autumn’s crucial parliamentary poll. But the right-wing ruling party is trying to mobilise its core voters through a substantial, but carefully targeted, package of social spending pledges and tax cuts.

Turnout patterns will be crucial

A good performance in this month’s European Parliament (EP) election will provide the winner with a major psychological and strategic boost in the run-up to the autumn parliamentary poll that could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys shows the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since the 2015 parliamentary election, averaging 39% compared with 34% for the European Coalition (KE), an electoral alliance formed specifically to contest the EP poll led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.

However, the level and pattern of turnout will be crucial to determining the EP election outcome. In Polish EP elections this is traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher in urban areas where the liberal-centrist opposition enjoys greater support, making these particularly difficult polls for Law and Justice. In order to signal to its core electorate just how important this election is, Law and Justice is standing some of its best-known ministers as leading candidates and its campaign is being fronted by party 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. While Mr Kaczyński is a polarising figure and traditionally one of Poland’s least trusted politicians among more centrist voters, he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters.

Raising the stakes for government supporters

The EP election campaign has been very fast-moving, with the dominant issue appearing to change almost every week. Nonetheless, in a bid to rally its supporters Law and Justice has tried to make the centre-piece of its campaign a substantial package of new social welfare spending pledges and tax cuts. These promises are carefully targeted at key groups of core Law and Justice voters and include: extending the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme (currently available for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families) to cover all children; a 1,100 złoties bonus payment for retirees; exempting workers under 26 from income tax; cutting the lower income tax rate from 18% to 17%; and re-instating rural bus services. Law and Justice is hoping that such a huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts will burnish its self-image as the first governing party that has tried to ensure all Poles share fully in the country’s post-communist economic transformation. For sure, even some Law and Justice strategists have expressed scepticism as to whether large, high profile social spending programmes, that were the key to its 2015 election victories, will win over large swathes of new voters this time around. However, the party’s aim is rather to raise the electoral stakes for its core voters who would not normally vote in an EP election but may fear that the liberal-centrist opposition will abandon these programmes if they were to win office.

Although Law and Justice says that its plans are affordable in this year’s budget, the government‘s critics argue they are extremely costly and could lead to a fiscal crisis in the future, and there are suggestions that finance minister Teresa Czerwińska was not consulted about them and is planning to resign. Nonetheless, the proposals have proved awkward for the opposition because Civic Platform has, in the past, called for extending ‘500 plus’ to all children and extra help for pensioners. Moreover, fearing an electoral backlash Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna has pledged to continue with all of Law and Justice’s social spending programmes, as well committing to additional expenditure in other areas. This makes it difficult for the opposition to accuse the government of fiscal irresponsibility and vote-buying aimed at distracting attention from more problematic issues. Moreover, the fact that Law and Justice has implemented most of the social spending promises on which it was elected in 2015 gives it much greater credibility on the issues that voters appear to care most about.

However, the government’s hefty increases in social spending have also generated an appetite among public sector workers for similar largesse; particularly teachers who have complained for years about their low salaries. In April, following their failure to secure a 30% pay increase, two of the three largest teaching unions began strike action. The government suggested that this was orchestrated in collusion with the opposition to undercut support for Law and Justice in the run-up to the EP election. As well as overshadowing other campaign issues, the strike made it difficult for Law and Justice to promote its new spending programmes by raising questions as to why, if the state of the public finances was so healthy, the government could not afford more substantial pay increases for groups such as teachers? However, after three weeks the strike was suspended without further government concessions as Law and Justice neutralised its impact by ensuring that end-of year exams (which it was timed to coincide with) proceeded without serious disruption, and initially strong public support for the teachers declined.

A de facto EU membership referendum?

Nonetheless, Mr Schetyna’s success in persuading virtually all the other main opposition parties – including the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – to join the European Coalition provides Law and Justice with a formidable opponent in this election. Although he lacks dynamism and charisma, Mr Schetyna is clearly an effective political operator and has emerged as the undisputed opposition leader. Given its ideologically eclectic nature, the Coalition has struggled to develop a clear and distinctive programmatic message. Rather, its strategy has been to rally government opponents by framing the election as a ‘great choice’ (wielki wybór) between returning Poland to European mainstream politics and a Law and Justice government which, it says, has found itself continually at loggerheads with the Union’s political establishment, particularly over its alleged attempts to exert political control over institutions such as the judiciary (a claim the ruling party denies vigorously), thereby undermining the country’s international standing and threatening its access to EU funds.

However, the Coalition’s attempt to turn the EP election into a de facto referendum on continued Polish EU membership by replaying the opposition’s successful tactic from last autumn’s local elections – of claiming that Law and Justice’s frequent clashes with the EU political establishment could lead to Poland leaving the Union (so-called ‘Polexit’) – does not appear to be working so well this time. For sure, Poles continue to support EU membership overwhelmingly: a March survey conducted by the CBOS agency found 91% of respondents in favour and only 5% against. However, Law and Justice leaders have tried to tone down the government’s conflict with the EU political establishment and gone overboard to stress the party’s strong commitment to continued membership of the Union as a core element of Polish foreign policy. Law and Justice is certainly Eurosceptic in the sense of being anti-federalist and wary of further extensions of EU competencies, but the dominant view within the party remains that it is in Poland’s interests to try to reform the Union from within. Nonetheless, ‘Polexit’ may return as a campaign issue in the week running up to polling day (May 26th) when the European Court of Justice is due to issue a preliminary ruling on key elements of the government’s judicial reforms.

Minor parties are crucial

As it is very unlikely that either of the two main blocs will be able to govern without having to seek coalition partners after the autumn parliamentary election, it is also important to pay close attention to the minor parties’ performances in the EP poll. The most significant opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition is the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party, formed in February by former mayor of the Northern provincial town of Słupsk and veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń. The EP election is a useful testing ground for ‘Spring’ because it involves low start-up costs and the pattern of turnout means that a liberal-left grouping can cross the 5% representation threshold by mobilising a relatively small number of voters around a distinctive appeal or well-known individual. However, after a promising start ‘Spring’ has struggled to carve out a niche for itself as the effect of its ‘newness’ has worn off. The sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs has also strengthened the argument that the opposition needs to unite behind the European Coalition as the only way to defeat Law and Justice. Moreover, having originally pitched itself as able to win over voters from both the ruling party and the liberal-centrist opposition, ‘Spring’ has increasingly made moral-cultural issues and anti-clericalism the focus of its campaigning, limiting its appeal with the less well-off economically leftist electorate that often also tends to be more socially conservative. If ‘Spring’ fails to secure more than 10% of the vote then it will come under intense pressure to join a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance in the autumn; according to ‘Ewybory’ it is currently averaging around 9%.

Another grouping with a chance of crossing the 5% threshold is the anti-establishment Kukiz’15, currently Law and Justice’s only realistic potential coalition partner. After its leader rock star Paweł Kukiz caused a political sensation in the 2015 presidential election – when, standing as an independent right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, he finished third, picking up more than one-fifth of the vote – his newly-formed grouping emerged as the third largest in parliament securing 9% of the votes. Since then, in spite of the fact that it has not really come up with any new ideas or initiatives, Kukiz’15 has maintained a reasonably stable electoral base, especially among younger voters many of whom still appear to see Mr Kukiz the most credible opponent of the political establishment; according to ‘Ewybory’, it is currently averaging just over 5%. However, Kukiz’15 faces a challenge from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping comprising radical right and nationalist parties, which is averaging 4% according to ‘Ewybory’. The ‘Confederation’ includes the controversial radical Eurosceptic libertarian-conservative Janusz Korwin-Mikke, whose Congress of the New Right (KNP) party (which he has since left) came from nowhere to finish fourth in the previous 2014 EP poll with 7% of the votes.

Does the European Coalition have a future?

Although the European Coalition lacks a convincing programmatic alternative, opposition to Law and Justice is clearly a powerful mobilising appeal and may be enough to win this particular ‘second order’ election where voters are not choosing a government. However, if Law and Justice secures the largest share of the vote, however narrowly (or even if the two main blocs are effectively tied), this will be a good result for the ruling party, given how disadvantageous the turnout patterns in previous EP elections have been for it. If this happens, Mr Schetyna will no doubt argue that, with a little more effort, Law and Justice can be beaten if only the opposition parties continue to stick together. However, serious doubts will then arise about the future of an electoral alliance built largely on the premise that, whatever its programmatic eclecticism, this is the only way to defeat Law and Justice; particularly within the Peasant Party where there is already an influential faction questioning whether – as a centrist grouping with a socially conservative, rural and small-town core electorate – it should contest the parliamentary election as part of a coalition dominated by liberal and left-wing parties.

How will the LGBT issue play out in Poland’s European Parliament election?

While Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, beyond the larger towns and cities the country remains culturally conservative and acceptance declines when the agenda moves into the realm of sex education and family life. Although a risky strategy, raising the salience of this controversial issue draws out divisions within the opposition and could mobilise the right-wing ruling party’s small-town and rural core supporters in a European Parliament election where turnout will be key.

Mobilising conservative voters

In February, Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski published a 12-point charter pledging support for the city’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Mr Trzaskowski was elected last October as the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Most controversially, the ‘LGBT plus’ rights declaration included a proposal to introduce a comprehensive, LGBT-approved sex and anti-discrimination education programme based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines into the city’s schools. The programme starts at an early age and is intended to teach children about all aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviour. The charter was one of Mr Trzaskowski’s election pledges but commentators suggested that the decision to prioritise it as one of his first high profile policy initiatives was a manoeuvre to counter the electoral challenge to Civic Platform from the new liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party. Formed in February by veteran LGBT activist Robert Biedroń, Spring has made moral-cultural issues a centre-piece of its political appeal, clearly targeting urban social liberals.

However, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, zeroed in on the charter as a chance to make the LGBT issue one of the key divisions in the current European Parliament (EP) election campaign. The next few months are crucial ones for Polish politics as the country gears up for EP elections in May followed by an autumn parliamentary poll that could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. Mr Kaczyński – who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining Law and Justice’s programmatic and strategic priorities – vowed to put the ruling party at the head of a moral crusade to promote traditional values and defend Polish families and children against what he argued were threats to the country’s culture and national identity from the LGBT lobby and left-wing enemies of Western civilisation. He particularly condemned the proposed new sex education policies as, as he saw it, seeking to use state-appointed specialists to impose an ideology affirmed by a narrow social group that: undermined the traditional role of the family and rights of parents to bring up their children according to their own values; and promoted the premature sexualisation of children.

Law and Justice also seized upon remarks by Paweł Rabiej – Mr Trzaskowski’s deputy, who is in a same-sex relationship – suggesting that the LGBT’s lobby’s call for legal recognition of civil partnerships was simply a precursor leading to further demands to change the definition of the marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and grant adoption rights to same-sex couples. The party argued that the LGBT lobby and its supporters were a powerful and brutal group who were not simply fighting for tolerance, dignity and respect but wanted affirmation and special privileges for same-sex unions that undermined institutions such as traditional marriage which, they said, stabilised the social order and promoted the common good of society.

In fact, Law and Justice voters’ views on moral-cultural issues are not monolithic and often more socially liberal than the party leadership; like most Poles, they see this as an area where political parties and the state should not become directly involved. Consequently, Mr Kaczyński’s party has been extremely wary of giving such issues too high a profile for fear of putting off more ‘centrist’ voters who might otherwise be attracted to support Law and Justice’s socio-economic programme. Nonetheless, pressing the party’s message on the LGBT issue strengthens its hold over conservative voters, thereby neutralising attempts to develop an electoral challenge to Law and Justice on the radical right by groupings such as the new ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) electoral alliance. It also helps to mobilise the party’s supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where conservative cultural values still hold considerable sway, in a context where EP election turnout is traditionally very low overall (only 24% in 2014) but higher in larger towns and cities where the liberal-centrist opposition enjoys greater support. A February survey conducted for the CBOS polling agency, for example, found that only 68% of Law and Justice voters said that they would vote in this election compared with 78% of Civic Platform supporters.

Moreover, the Polish Catholic Church – which, although it is not as influential as it once was, remains an important civil society actor, particularly in Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are still high – also criticised the Warsaw LGBT charter. This is important because, although Law and Justice says that its programme is inspired by Christian values, the ruling party has not enjoyed the closest of relationships with the Church hierarchy in recent years.

A problematic issue for the opposition

Mr Trzaskowski and the liberal-centrist opposition responded by accusing Law and Justice of distorting the charter’s contents, insisting that parental consent would be required for participation in sex education lessons and that these would simply involve conversations about tolerance and keeping children safe. They denied that the LGBT community was a threat to the family and Polish traditions, arguing that the Warsaw charter represented a commitment to defending minority rights and opposing discrimination and manifestations of hate. This, they said, was all part of Poland becoming a modern, open and diverse European society that respected the rights of all of its citizens. Law and Justice was, they claimed, trying to use the LGBT issue cynically to distract voters’ attention away from recent allegations of questionable business dealings levelled against Mr Kaczyński (which Law and Justice vehemently denies). It was, they argued, simply a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic against liberals who supposedly wanted to deprave Polish children, and thereby mobilise its core supporters, in the same way that they had stoked fears about Muslim migration from the Middle East and North Africa in the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary election

Nonetheless, the way in which the LGBT issue has been framed in the EP campaign is very problematic for the Civic Platform-led ‘European Coalition’ (KE), an extremely diverse anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance comprising most of Poland’s opposition parties and formed specifically to contest this election. The Coalition’s strategy has been to avoid divisive ideological issues – or, indeed, any specific programmatic commitments. In an attempt to pivot to the centre, some of its leaders – who are broadly sympathetic to the Warsaw charter, and even the LGBT lobby’s more radical demands on marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples – have criticised the timing of its launch. Even Mr Trzaskowski distanced himself from his deputy’s comments, sensing that they allowed Law and Justice to frame the LGBT debate in a very unfavourable way for the cultural left.

During its most successful period, Civic Platform was always an ideologically eclectic and electorally heterogeneous grouping, and the party’s leadership avoided taking unambiguous stances on LGBT and other controversial moral-cultural issues such as abortion, expect when they were sure that public opinion was overwhelmingly on their side. For sure, in recent years Civic Platform’s conservative wing has become much less influential, and the party’s stance increasingly socially liberal, which has played well in the larger towns and cities that form the core of its electoral base. Nonetheless, Civic Platform cannot completely ignore its more traditionalist conservative-centrist supporters and it remains wary of taking too radical a left-wing stance on moral-cultural issues; its leader Grzegorz Schetyna has talked about the party having a ‘conservative anchor’. The prominence of the LGBT issue is also a particular problem for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), another key European Coalition member, because it raises serious doubts among its socially conservative small-town and rural electoral base as to whether they really want to support such an apparently overtly liberal electoral alliance.

For sure, opinion surveys appear to show that Poles have become increasingly tolerant towards LGBT lifestyles in recent years. For example, a November 2017 CBOS survey found that the number of respondents who felt that homosexuality should not be tolerated fell from 41% in April 2001 to only 24%, while the number who said that it was something normal increased from 5% to 16% over the same period. Although conservative politicians and commentators warn of a ratchet effect, to many Poles legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships does not appear to be a particular threat to them in their everyday lives. The LGBT lobby cite a February IPSOS poll published by the OKO.press portal, showing that a majority (56%) support such unions, as a key piece of evidence of apparent value change in Polish society (although other polls show less support, partly depending on how the question is phrased).

Nonetheless, beyond the larger towns and cities Poland remains a culturally conservative country and tolerance of LGBT lifestyles is certainly not unconditional. For example, the same November 2017 CBOS survey found that a majority (55%) of Poles still felt still that, although homosexuality could be tolerated, it was not something normal. Substantial majorities of Poles remain opposed to same-sex marriage and they are overwhelmingly against adoption of children by same-sex couples. A lot depends on how the debate is framed and popular acceptance starts to decline when the LGBT agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives and into areas which Poles feel belong to the realm of the family. This is exemplified by attitudes towards the particularly sensitive topic of sex education in schools, where most Poles are hostile to proposals felt to clash with traditional moral codes or seen to be promoting an approach to the subject or version of sexual relations that many parents do not approve of. For example, a March IBRiS poll for the ‘Super Express’ newspaper found that 64% of respondents felt that parents and families should be the primary educators of children in matters of sexual education (30% disagreed).

Turnout will be key

Poland’s EP election campaign is very evenly matched with opinion polls showing Law and Justice and the European Coalition running neck-and-neck, so apparently relatively minor events or issues could determine the final outcome. Turnout will be crucial and, although this is likely to be higher than usual, it will still be the most loyal and committed party supporters who vote, so mobilising these core electorates remains the key to victory. Although Law and Justice planned to make its main campaign theme a generous package of new social welfare spending promises and tax cuts, the Warsaw charter and Mr Rabiej’s comments created an opportunity for the ruling party to bring the LGBT issue to fore. It is certainly a polarising issue that strikes an emotional chord with many Poles because it involves a clash of basic moral-cultural values and thus maps on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. For sure, raising the salience of this very controversial issue certainly carries risks for Law and Justice and could prove to be a double-edged sword. By increasing the polarisation of the political scene in this way, Law and Justice could up strengthening the resolve of its urban liberal opponents to turn out and vote. However, if, in the process, it mobilises even more of the ruling party’s core supporters in small-town and rural areas, where EP election turnout is traditionally low, it could be worth the risk.