The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Does Poland’s ruling party still have a parliamentary majority?

In spite of losing its formal majority last month, Poland’s right-wing ruling party should still be able to win key parliamentary votes with the support of smaller groupings and pro-government independents. But it has an unreliable junior coalition partner, whose leader appears increasingly semi-detached from the governing camp.

Turning the corner?

In June, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, lost its formal majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house parliament, when three deputies left its caucus to set up a new grouping called ‘Poland’s Choice’ (Polski Wybór). The three defectors – Arkadiusz Czartoryski, Zbigniew Girzyński and Małgorzata Janowska – criticised the government’s proposed economic reforms – which, they argued, could harm small businesses – and expressed disappointment at Law and Justice’s apparent shift in energy policy away from fossil fuels towards renewables and nuclear power. For its part, Law and Justice suggested that the deputies may have had ulterior motives; Mr Girzyński, for example, was said to be linked to a public relations company being investigated by Poland’s anti-corruption agency. Their departure left the ruling party with 229 seats, down from the 235 it secured at the most recent October 2019 parliamentary election and two short of an overall majority in the 460-member Sejm.

The defections raised serious doubts as to whether Law and Justice could secure the passage of key elements of its governing programme and came at a point when it finally appeared to be turning the corner after a torrid few months. While the government gained politically from the fact that it was judged to have handled the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic crisis in spring and summer 2020 reasonably well (or, at least, no worse than any other country), there was a widespread feeling that its response to the second and third waves in autumn 2020 and winter 2021 was chaotic in terms of both decision-making and public messaging. The revival of the pandemic issue coincided with a bitter political dispute over the Polish constitutional tribunal’s hugely controversial ruling that abortions as a result of foetal defects were unconstitutional, which effectively meant a near-total ban. Many less socially conservative elements of Law and Justice’s electorate appeared to give credence to opposition claims that the tribunal was under the political control of a ruling party increasingly dominated by ‘religious right’ ideological extremists.

At the same time, the unity of the governing camp was undermined by bitter internal conflicts between its various component parts over policy, strategy and leadership, raising questions about the government’s cohesion and even survival. Law and Justice’s two junior partners within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) governing camp – the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumiene), led by deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin – both had enough deputies to deprive the government of its slim majority and repeatedly contested key elements of the ruling party’s programme. Not surprisingly, according to the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice saw its opinion poll support slump from an average of 41% in August 2020 to only 31% in March 2021, still ahead of other parties but not enough to secure a parliamentary majority.

However, in recent weeks it appeared that Law and Justice was finally starting to turn the corner. In May, as the pandemic crisis subsided and the government progressively removed restrictions on economic and social life, Law and Justice launched its flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) recovery programme which, it hoped, would provide the party with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliament, scheduled to run until autumn 2023. The ‘Polish Deal’ includes a wide range of ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards through: tax reforms favouring Law and Justice’s less well-off core electorate; significant increases in spending on the health service and support for house-buyers, young families, and pensioners; and expanding investment in infrastructure and development projects, especially in sectors of the economy weakened by the pandemic crisis. Following its launch, ‘Ewybory’ showed an uptick in support for Law and Justice to around 34% at the end of May.

A de facto working majority?

So these three defections, and concomitant loss of Law and Justice’s formal parliamentary majority, came at a critical time for the ruling party. However, it can try and compensate for them and muster a de facto working majority by garnering the support of smaller parliamentary groupings and independents who, although not formally part of the governing camp, would vote with Law and Justice on key divisions. Last month, the party took the first step in this process when it formalized a co-operation agreement with right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz, who leads the eponymous Kukiz’15 grouping comprising four Sejm deputies, and promised to support the government in key votes on policy, appointments and votes of confidence.

Law and Justice has also tried to build support among non-aligned deputies. It persuaded Lech Kołakowski, who became an independent last autumn in protest against a ruling party-sponsored animal welfare bill but often continued to vote with Law and Justice, to rejoin its caucus bringing it back up to 230 members. It is hoping to see the formation a new pro-government parliamentary caucus clustered around two independents, Łukasz Mejza and Zbigniew Ajchler – who stood unsuccessfully as opposition candidates at the last election and have since taken up vacancies arising from the death and resignation of incumbents, but appear to have aligned themselves with the ruling party – and possibly other opposition defectors. Law and Justice is also optimistic that the three deputies who have formed ‘Poland’s Choice’ will continue to support the government in at least some key parliamentary votes.

An unreliable governing partner

However, a complicating factor here is that Law and Justice needs to be sure of solid support from the remainder of the ‘United Right’ parliamentary caucus but cannot necessarily rely on Mr Gowin and most deputies from the ‘Agreement’ grouping. The dispute with Mr Gowin dates back to last summer when he resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. In the event, the election was postponed by a few weeks and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following an autumn ministerial reshuffle but Law and Justice remained wary and suspected him of undertaking behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition. Since then, Mr Gowin and his allies have voted against Law and Justice on a number of occasions and indicated their unease about certain elements of the ‘Polish Deal’ reform programme, notably proposals to increase taxes on businesses and higher income earners.

Some commentators argue that Mr Gowin is already a semi-detached member of the governing camp, and it is only a matter of time before he leaves it formally. Indeed, negotiations with Mr Kukiz and non-aligned pro-Law and Justice deputies were originally part of the ruling party’s attempts to construct an alternative parliamentary majority which did not include Mr Gowin and his allies. Moreover, in February a pro-Law and Justice faction within the ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried (reportedly with the ruling party’s tacit support) to wrest control of the party from Mr Gowin by arguing that his statutory term of office as leader had expired. A court case to resolve the dispute is still ongoing but an initial ruling found in Mr Gowin’s favour. So last month Mr Bielan’s supporters formed a breakaway grouping, the Republican Party (Partia Republikańska), hoping to attract ‘Agreement’ deputies to its ranks, but also pledging to merge the two parties if it is resolved that Mr Gowin is not the legitimate leader. However, most ‘Agreement’ deputies stuck with Mr Gowin, and the three Law and Justice defections have made plans to construct an alternative majority that excludes him much more problematic.

An important litmus test of the balance of parliamentary forces, and ominous sign for Law and Justice, was the June Sejm vote, held before the recent defections, on the appointment of a new Civic Rights Advocate (RPO) when ruling party-backed independent Senator Lidia Staroń, secured a narrow majority of 231 votes (her candidacy was later rejected by the opposition-controlled Senate). Three of the four Kukiz’15 deputies supported her as did Mr Mejza and then-still non-aligned Mr Kołakowski (Mr Ajchler accidentally voted against). However, in spite of huge efforts by Law and Justice to win over Mr Gowin’s allies, only two of them supported Mrs Staroń while the other nine voted against. In the event, she only secured a Sejm majority thanks to the support of three deputies from the opposition radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) party.

This vote suggests that, even with the support of Kukiz’15 (and clearly not all four of these deputies can be relied upon) and some independents, the defection of three Law and Justice deputies to ‘Poland’s Choice’ means that, without Mr Gowin and his allies, the ruling party would not be unable to construct a stable parliamentary majority, unless it could win over members of the 11-strong ‘Confederation’ caucus. But the ‘Confederation’ would be a very problematic and unreliable partner for Law and Justice, even as an informal ally. Moreover, while some ‘Confederation’ deputies might be prepared to support the ruling party on less important parliamentary votes, its long-term strategic aim is to replace Law and Justice as Poland’s main right-wing political formation by challenging it on its radical right flank.

An early election?

If Law and Justice can muster a stable, even if not formally visible, parliamentary majority then then the government should still be able to continue to function. However, the situation remains very uncertain as long as the ruling party is dependent for its majority upon Mr Gowin, a theoretically much weaker political partner but whose supporters now occupy a pivotal position in parliament, particularly after the defection of three Law and Justice deputies. A key question is: how many of Mr Gowin’s apparent hard core of nine loyalists would still support him if it meant breaking definitively from the governing camp? Law and Justice strategists estimate that it might only be three or four but, with the parliamentary arithmetic so tight, even this could be enough to deprive the ruling party of its de facto, and not just formal, majority.

For sure, Polish experience suggests that it is possible for a party to govern for a considerable period of time without a stable parliamentary majority. A minority government can cobble together one-off majorities to win votes on specific issues, and there are often enough non-aligned deputies who can be bought off, or are afraid of losing their seats in a snap election, to help to keep an incumbent in office. Moreover, to replace a government an opposition has to secure the passage of a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in favour of a specific alternative prime ministerial candidate. This will be extremely difficult in the current parliament where even a minimal majority for any alternative to Law and Justice would have to encompass an extremely broad range of parties ranging from the radical left to radical right.

However, the Law and Justice leadership knows how politically debilitating governing without a working parliamentary majority can be. Up until now it has rejected the option of calling an early election. But the next few parliamentary sessions are likely to be critical in determining whether the government really can continue to secure the passage of its legislative programme, and approval of, and votes of confidence in, its key appointments. If it transpires that the ruling party lacks a reliable and stable de facto (not just formal) majority, and is simply in office administering rather than actually governing, Law and Justice could well conclude that the only way to break the deadlock is to risk a snap parliamentary poll.

How has the coronavirus pandemic crisis affected Polish politics?

Although misgivings about the government’s handling of the crisis contributed to a significant fall in support for the right-wing ruling party, Poles will want to quickly move on from the issue if the pandemic subsides. But if the crisis drags on beyond the summer this could undercut the government’s ambitious post-pandemic recovery plans and exacerbate tensions within the ruling camp.

Taken aback by the ‘second wave’

Poland appeared to pass through the first phase of the pandemic crisis in the spring and summer of 2020 relatively mildly, experiencing low rates of virus-related deaths compared to other European countries. The Polish government – led, since 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – introduced some of Europe’s earliest and most radical ‘lockdown’ restrictions in March (even denying Poles access to woodlands and forests!) but then started to relax these measures quickly. During the summer, the government’s primary concern switched to the broader socio-economic impact of its restrictions, as it attempted to open up the economy and society and move on from the pandemic issue as much as possible before the holiday season got underway.

Moreover, with a crucial, delayed presidential election being held over two rounds in June and July – won, in the event, by Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda – the ruling party was keen to give the impression that it had dealt with the pandemic crisis successfully. As the presidential campaign moved into full swing, Law and Justice tried to demonstrate that it was on top of the crisis and that life in Poland was returning to some kind of normality. In particular, in what was an extremely closely fought electoral race, Law and Justice wanted to encourage older voters – who comprised a core element of its electoral base, but felt especially vulnerable to the virus – that it was safe for them to come out and vote for Mr Duda; exemplified by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s claim at a July campaign rally that the virus was ‘in retreat’ and Poles no longer had to fear it.

Indeed, even in the early autumn ministers were re-assuring Poles that they had the crisis fully under control. However, in October both the government and Polish public were taken aback by the ferocity of the country’s ‘second wave’ of the pandemic (and then, after a brief lull at the beginning of 2021, ‘third wave’ in February) with sharp increases in the number of positive test results, hospitalisations, and deaths linked to the virus (Poland’s levels were among the highest in the EU). The issue moved back to the top of the political agenda and Law and Justice came under increasing pressure following widespread media reports that Poland’s underfunded health service was not coping effectively with the crisis. The government increased the number of hospital beds and respirators for coronavirus patients and built temporary medical facilities, including turning the national stadium in Warsaw into a field hospital. However, its critics argued that the biggest problem was not hospital capacity but shortages of trained staff and the fact that medical equipment was not in the right places.

Support for Law and Justice slumps

Last spring, Law and Justice benefited from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that they face a dramatic external threat. However, while the government gained politically from the fact that it was judged to have handled the first phase of the crisis reasonably well – or, at least, no worse than any other country – there was a feeling that its response to the second and third phases was chaotic both in terms of decision-making and public messaging.

For example, the CBOS polling agency found that the number of respondents who approved of the government’s handling of the crisis fell from 70% in May/June 2020 (25% disapproved) to 49% in the first half of October (43% disapproved) and only 38% in the second half of that month (45% disapproved). The number of Poles who felt that the government’s restrictions were too harsh increased from 14% in July 2020 to 43% in February 2021 while those who felt they were not strict enough fell from 27% to only 7% over the same period. The numbers who felt that government support for firms and workers affected negatively by the crisis was sufficient also fell from 42% in September 2020 (40% said it was insufficient) to only 30% in the second half of October (52% insufficient). Many Poles felt misled by the government’s earlier optimistic statements, and Law and Justice’s reputation for competence – which it had been working extremely hard to try and establish over the previous five years, to counter opposition claims that it was obsessively pursuing a narrow ideological agenda – was severely undermined as the administration often appeared rudderless in the face of an escalating crisis.

According to the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice saw its opinion poll support slump from an average of 40% in September 2020 to only 31% in November, still ahead of other parties but not enough to secure a parliamentary majority. According to CBOS, the government also saw its approval ratings fall from 44% in May/June 2020 (32% disapproval) to 38% in the first half of October (34% disapproval) and only 33% in second half of that month (43% disapproval). The crisis undoubtedly contributed to these sharp falls in support as they coincided with the revival of the pandemic as one of the main political issues in Poland and concomitant loss of public confidence in the government’s ability to tackle it effectively.

What about other issues?

However, it is difficult to know to what extent Law and Justice’s autumn slump was due to the pandemic crisis issue per se or to other political developments taking place in Poland at that time. Another important contributory factor here was the increasingly bitter internal conflict and lack of trust between the various competing factions within the governing camp, which raised serious questions about the cohesion – indeed, very survival – of the Law and Justice government. Law and Justice’s junior partners within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) governing camp – the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumiene) groupings, both of whom have enough deputies to deprive the government of its slim parliamentary majority – continually and openly contested key elements of the administration’s programme, leaving many Poles feeling that the ruling party was increasingly self-absorbed at a time when it should have been focusing on the pandemic crisis.

The revival of the pandemic issue also coincided with a bitter political dispute over the Polish constitutional tribunal’s hugely controversial October 2020 ruling that abortions as a result of foetal defects were unconstitutional. Given that the vast majority of legal abortions carried out in Poland were in such cases, the ruling effectively meant a near-total ban. Although it is a socially conservative party that draws inspiration from Catholic moral teaching, Law and Justice’s electorate includes many Poles with more liberal views on moral-cultural issues (in Polish terms at least, compared with the West European liberal-left cultural mainstream they are still quite conservative) who support the party largely as a result of its socio-economic policies, and who were strongly opposed to the tribunal ruling.

Law and Justice argued that the tribunal is an independent body and that the abortion ruling was a sovereign decision clearly in line with its earlier judgements on the issue in the mid-1990s (when it was dominated by justices who later became harsh critics of the current government). However, the government’s opponents argued that the tribunal was under the ruling party’s control and its decision was influenced by political calculations. Consequently, the less socially conservative elements of Law and Justice’s electorate may have interpreted the abortion ruling as giving credence to opposition claims that the governing party was increasingly dominated by ‘religious right’ ideological extremists. The fact that this controversial ruling coincided with last autumn’s slump in support for Law and Justice also makes it difficult to clearly pinpoint the precise causal effects of the pandemic crisis on shifts in public opinion compared with other factors and issues.

Focusing on the post-pandemic recovery

It is obviously extremely difficult to predict how the pandemic crisis will play out over the next few months. However, since April the epidemiological situation in Poland has improved significantly with falls in positive test rates, hospitalisations and (although more slowly) virus-linked deaths. As Poland’s vaccine roll-out has accelerated, the government has steadily lifted restrictions and opened up more spheres of economic and social life. If the crisis continues to subside and there is a rapid and sustainable further easing – and, ultimately removal – of remaining restrictions, then the Polish economy could bounce back quickly and decisively. This will both significantly improve the public mood and, as most Poles are likely to want to move on from the crisis as quickly as possible, make them less inclined to dwell on any misgivings that they have about the government’s earlier handling of it. Most Poles also know that Poland was not the only country to struggle with the virus and many also feel that the opposition failed to put forward a credible alternative approach to tackling it.

Moreover, although Law and Justice has a clear run, with an overall parliamentary majority and control of the presidency, until the next legislative elections (scheduled for autumn 2023), the all-enveloping nature of the pandemic has meant that the government has been in crisis management mode for most of the last year, forcing it put many of its planned reforms and policy initiatives on hold. The ruling party is now hoping that its flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) stimulus programme for post-pandemic recovery, which was formally launched in May (originally scheduled for before Easter but postponed due to the ‘third wave’), will help it to win back support by providing the government with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliament. The ‘Polish Deal’ includes ambitious plans to: cut taxes for Law and Justice’s less well-off core electorate; significantly boost spending on the health service and support for house-buyers, young families, and pensioners; and expand investment in infrastructure and development projects, especially in sectors of the economy that have been weakened by the pandemic crisis. These spending plans will be partly financed by the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, which has earmarked 58 billion euros in grants and loans for Poland. Interestingly, following the launch of the ‘Polish Deal’ Ewybory showed Law and Justice’s average poll support ticking back up to around 34% at the end of May.

A ‘fourth wave’?

However, there are also much less optimistic scenarios for the government which involve the pandemic crisis dragging on if there is a problem with vaccine rollout or effectiveness (the main issue in Poland now appears to be one of take-up as much as supply), and a ‘fourth wave’ once again putting the Polish health service under severe pressure. This could mean the government maintaining, or re-introducing further, restrictions prompting both societal frustration and a slowdown, or even reversal, of economic recovery. If the crisis drags on beyond the summer this could also undercut the government’s ambitious post-pandemic recovery plans set out in the ‘Polish Deal’ and further exacerbate underlying tensions and instability within the ruling camp. Indeed, whatever the progress of the pandemic crisis, and even in an optimistic scenario where any ‘fourth wave’ is manageable, the government will struggle to move on from it decisively while there is still a deeply rooted lack of trust between the governing camp’s various component parts, and if Law and Justice’s junior partners continue to assert their autonomy and openly contest key elements of its programme.

Can younger voters revive the Polish left?

Polling suggests that a record number of young Poles identify with the left following their mass mobilisation in last autumn’s abortion protests. But this is not translating into increased support for left-wing parties and may simply signify hostility towards Poland’s right-wing government.

In the doldrums

Although it enjoys considerable influence on public debate, in recent years the Polish left has had very limited electoral success. For much of the post-1989 period the most powerful 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 was 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) coalition but only secured 7.6% of the vote, failing to cross the 8% representation threshold for electoral alliances (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) grouping, the country’s ruling party since 2015, became the first in post-communist Poland to secure an outright majority.

Following its defeat, 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, had 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 was 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 Alliance faced a challenge on its left flank from the ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism and programmatic clarity. It accused the 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 the 2015 election which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that it 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 electorate.

In February 2019, another left-wing challenger party emerged in the form of the social liberal ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) grouping, formed by veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, at the time the Polish left’s most popular and charismatic politician. However, after a promising start ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and its 6.1% vote share in the May 2019 European Parliament (EP) election was well below expectations.

A false dawn?

In the event, these three parties decided to contest the October 2019 legislative election as a united ‘Left’ (Lewica) slate and finished third with 12.6% of the votes, regaining parliamentary representation for the left after a four-year hiatus. Many left-wing activists and commentators hoped that the new ‘Left’ parliamentary caucus – which included several dynamic and articulate younger deputies, such as ‘Together’ leader Adrian Zandberg – would use this platform to shift the terms of the debate decisively to the left, and challenge the right-wing and liberal-centrist duopoly that has dominated Polish politics since 2005. The Alliance also changed its name to the ‘New Left’ (Nowa Lewica) as the precursor to a formal merger with ‘Spring’.

In fact, the ‘Left’’s 2019 election result was broadly in line with the 11.2% combined vote share secured by the Alliance and ‘Together’ in 2015 (albeit on a much lower turnout). Moreover, hopes that the election would represent a political turning point for the ‘Left’ were quickly dashed when Mr Biedroń, its candidate in the June-July 2020 presidential election, finished sixth with only 2.2% of the votes. The ‘Left’ was squeezed as the presidential election turned into a closely-fought bi-polar contest between Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda and Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently Poland’s main opposition grouping and the country’s governing party between 2007-14. Mr Biedroń also lacked the ‘newness’ that helped liberal-centrist TV presenter Szymon Hołownia challenge this duopoly and achieve a respectable third place and 13.9% vote share. Many of Mr Biedroń’s supporters felt betrayed when he took up his EP seat, having previously said that he would stand down in order to focus on the 2019 parliamentary election, leaving him open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project.

Young Poles swing to the left?

However, the ‘Left’ was encouraged by the publication in February of research conducted last year by the CBOS polling agency which showed the number of Poles aged 18-24 who identified with the political left had nearly doubled from 17% in 2019 to 30% in 2020. CBOS has been conducting polling on younger Poles’ political views since the collapse of communism and this represented the highest recorded number of respondents identifying with the left. The research also showed that, for the first time in 20 years, young left-wing self-identifiers outnumbered those who located themselves on the right (27%) or in the political centre (23%). (This compared with only 20% of Poles of all ages who identified with the left, while 37% placed themselves on the right.)

This came on the back of the huge demonstrations, which many young Poles participated in, that erupted in Poland last October, when the country’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions in cases of foetal defects were unconstitutional. Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, and the tribunal’s ruling means that the procedure is now legal only in cases where pregnancy puts the life or health of the mother in danger or if it results from incest or rape. Given that the vast majority of legal abortions carried out in Poland last year were as a result of foetal defects, the ruling effectively means a near-total ban.

The abortion protests were among the largest in Poland since 1989 and involved a broad cross-section of Polish society, expanding beyond the liberal urban agglomerations to the smaller and medium-sized towns that constitute Law and Justice’s provincial electoral heartlands. A November 2020 CBOS survey (admittedly based on a small sample) found that 28% of young Poles said they took part in the protests compared with 8% of all respondents. This contrasted with, for example, earlier waves of street protests organised by the anti-Law and Justice Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) movement over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues which encompassed disproportionately large numbers of middle aged and older participants. Many young Poles were no doubt attracted by the protests’ carnival atmosphere at a time when the scope for social inter-action was severely limited by coronavirus restrictions, but some commentators also argued that they were a formative political experience for those who participated in them.

In February, in an attempt to channel this political energy the ‘Left’ organised a convention addressed by youth activists under the slogan ‘The future is now’ (Przyszłość jest teraz) where it presented a set of policy proposals aimed at younger voters. These included liberalising Poland’s abortion law but also reducing the Catholic Church’s influence in public life, radical climate policies and providing economic support for young people. However, the apparent political mobilisation of Poles (especially younger ones) as a result of the abortion protests does not appear to have provided the ‘Left’ with any opinion poll boost. In April, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found support for the ‘Left’ averaging 9%, less than its 2019 election vote share. The main beneficiary from the abortion protests appeared to be Mr Hołownia’s newly-formed ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) grouping which is currently averaging 20% support.

Fickle and unreliable?

So what do Poles, especially younger ones, actually mean when they say that they identify with the left? In Polish politics, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ refer more to attitudes towards moral-cultural issues than socio-economic policy. Opinion surveys suggest that younger Poles are becoming more socially liberal on issues such as abortion and state recognition of same-sex relationships. For example, a November 2020 CBOS survey, found that support for liberalising the Polish abortion law had increased from 12% in 2016 to 36% among 18-24 year-olds. The abortion protests also appear to have accelerated a longer-term trend of younger Poles becoming more secular and identifying less with the country’s influential Catholic Church. As a long-standing opponent of all forms of abortion, the Church was one of the protesters’ main targets and some of their more radical actions involved painting pro-abortion and anti-clerical slogans on church walls, and picketing and disrupting religious services. This breaking of previous cultural taboos – by targeting an institution that was, for many Poles, an important pillar of the nation and civil society – was encapsulated by the young protesters’ derogatory term for the approach to politics and sources of moral authority associated with older generations: ‘dziaders’ (roughly equivalent to ‘boomers’).

The problem here for the ‘Left’ is that in Poland less well-off, economically leftist voters, who should be one of their natural bases of support, 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. 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.

Young Poles are also a very unreliable group of voters on which to build a political strategy. Although turnout among this group has increased in recent elections – reflecting the fact that Poles are increasingly polarised between government supporters and opponents – younger voters remain a notoriously difficult demographic to mobilise electorally. They are also extremely fickle and liable to shift their political allegiances very rapidly. In previous elections, young voters often supported the various ‘flash’ insurgent and protest parties of all political persuasions that emerged in Poland since 1989. The fact that many of them now associate the ruling party with the political establishment is no doubt one of the reasons why, having secured the largest share of the vote among young Poles in 2015, Law and Justice saw its support slump among this demographic over the last couple of years.

Moreover, young Poles are not politically homogenous and, according to CBOS, the shift to the left was accompanied by a concomitant increase in identification with the right (and shift away from the ‘centre’) among this demographic. Indeed, polling shows a striking gender divide: with younger women, especially those living in larger towns and cities, holding more socially liberal views and tending to identify disproportionately with the left; while younger men, especially those living in smaller towns and rural areas, express more conservative views and tend to identify more with the (often radical) right.

Defeating Law and Justice is the priority

In fact, by identifying with the left younger Poles may simply be signalling their broader, but somewhat inchoate, hostility towards the ruling party. Notwithstanding the uncertainties of basing an electoral strategy on mobilising young voters, the Polish left’s biggest problem is that it is extremely difficult to carve out a distinctive and attractive appeal while the political scene remains so sharply polarised around attitudes towards Law and Justice. As long as this remains the case, many potential left-wing voters – including younger left self-identifiers – will ‘lend’ their support to whichever party appears to have the best prospects of defeating the incumbent, which is currently liberal-centrist groupings such as Civic Platform or ‘Poland 2050’ and not the ‘Left’.

Will Poland’s governing coalition survive?

Despite ongoing bitter internal conflicts between its component parts, the Polish government’s imminent collapse still appears very unlikely. But the right-wing ruling party may conclude that the only way to break the political deadlock is to form a stop-gap minority government and call an early parliamentary election.

The governing camp’s structural weakness

Following the victory of ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda in last summer’s presidential election, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since 2015, appeared to be at the height of its powers with an outright parliamentary majority and clear run until the next legislative elections, scheduled for autumn 2023. However, since then it has suffered a string of political setbacks, not all of which can be put down to the debilitating effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis. In particular, the governing camp has been embroiled in a series of increasingly bitter internal conflicts between various competing factions over policy, strategy and leadership raising questions about its cohesion, and even survival.

The governing camp’s key structural weakness is that its majority in the Sejm (currently 234 out of 460 seats), the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, actually comprises the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance of which Law and Justice is simply the largest component. It also includes two smaller groupings: the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro; and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie), led by deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin. These two parties increased their representation after the 2019 parliamentary election, securing around twenty deputies each, giving them much greater leverage within the governing camp. This was exacerbated by the fact that the previously unquestioned authority of Law and Justice leader and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński – who exercises a powerful influence in guiding and determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and has previously been the main guarantor of its political unity and cohesion – appears to be waning.

These internal tensions first came to a head last summer when Mr Gowin resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. In the event, the election was postponed until June and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following the autumn ministerial reshuffle. ‘Solidaristic Poland’, on the other hand, has tried to stake out a series of hard-line conservative policy positions and criticise the government, especially the more technocratic Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. This included calling upon Mr Morawiecki to veto EU budget negotiations to block a European Commission proposal linking Union funding to so-called ‘rule of law’ conditionality which, the party argued, applies ideological criteria to discriminate against Poland. In the event, Mr Morawiecki agreed to a compromise deal that ‘Solidaristic Poland’ strongly criticised although, unlike Mr Gowin, Mr Ziobro did not follow through and resign from the government.

Numerous escalating conflicts

Since the start of the year there have been numerous clashes between Law and Justice and its junior governing partners. In February, Janusz Kowalski, a ‘Solidaristic Poland’ nominee, was fired as deputy state assets minister, the department that oversees the Polish energy sector. ‘Solidaristic Poland’ has criticised the government’s acceptance of the EU’s energy transformation policy, which envisages a significant reduction of coal consumption, as a threat to Poland’s energy sovereignty. A few days later, and apparently in revenge for the sacking, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ deputies voted for an opposition motion obliging Law and Justice culture minister Piotr Gliński to present information to parliament on a controversial procedure for allocating pandemic crisis aid from the government’s culture support fund.

Similarly, Mr Gowin pledged that ‘Agreement’ deputies would vote against a Law and Justice plan to introduce a media advertising levy to fund additional government expenditure on the health service and culture. At the same time, a pro-Law and Justice faction with the ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried to unseat Mr Gowin as party leader arguing that his term of office had expired. Mr Gowin’s allies suspected that the challenge was initiated by Mr Kaczyński, who has been wary of the ‘Agreement’ leader since his apparent betrayal during last summer’s presidential election controversy and suspects him of negotiating with the opposition. In the event, 13 out of the 18 ‘Agreement’ deputies came out in support of Mr Gowin, who expelled Mr Bielan and called upon Law and Justice to remove his supporters from their ministerial posts.

Then, in March, without informing the ruling party ‘Solidaristic Poland’ deputy justice minister Marcin Warchoł announced his intention to contest a by-election for the post of mayor of the South-Eastern city of Rzeszów where he is a local parliamentary deputy, after the extremely popular incumbent Tadeusz Ferenc (originally aligned with the ex-communist left, but now an independent) unexpectedly resigned and endorsed his candidacy. This election, scheduled for May 9th, will be keenly watched by the national media as a key indicator of party support. Rzeszów is the main town in the Podkarpacie region, a Law and Justice stronghold, but there are currently no local mayors elected on the party’s ticket in any of Poland’s larger towns and cities.

A key political test for determining the coherence of the governing camp is likely to be the forthcoming parliamentary vote on the ratification of the EU coronavirus recovery fund, from which Poland is set to be major beneficiary. ‘Solidaristic Poland’, which is increasingly using Euroscepticism as an identity-marker, has, from the outset, said that it will vote against the fund as a federalist Trojan horse. Theoretically, Law and Justice should be able to rely on opposition deputies, most of whom are very pro-EU, to secure parliamentary support. However, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main opposition grouping – is using the vote to try and force Law and Justice to give a greater say over the distribution of funds to local authorities, many of which are opposition-controlled. The smaller ‘Left’ (Lewica) parliamentary caucus, whose votes would be sufficient to secure the fund’s passage, initially suggested that it would support the government unconditionally but now appears to be backtracking on this. Moreover, even then it would be extremely damaging for the government if it is forced to rely upon opposition votes to pass such an important measure.

Administering not governing?

Moreover, these divisions within governing camp are unlikely to be resolved easily because they are structural and very deeply-rooted. Although Law and Justice leaders insist that the three parties will contest the 2023 election as a coalition, the two smaller groupings are increasingly convinced that the ruling party will limit the number of places available to, or even completely exclude, them from the candidate lists. Consequently, they feel obliged to develop independent political identities for themselves. ‘Solidaristic Poland’ draws upon a very similar core electorate to Law and Justice, so to differentiate itself must attack the ruling party on its right flank. The ‘Agreement’ is less of a direct electoral threat to the ruling party; indeed, there is little social base for a centrist liberal-conservative political formation in Poland. So it needs to look for potential electoral allies among the opposition groupings; which partly explains why Mr Kaczyński is so suspicious of Mr Gowin’s intentions.

Having said that, the government’s imminent collapse still appears very unlikely because there are powerful incentives for the three parties to stick together. For a start, remaining within the governing camp maintains the smaller parties’ access to the power, influence and patronage that flow from government participation. For its part, Law and Justice knows that it would almost certainly be unable to construct an alternative majority in the current parliament, nor govern effectively as a minority administration, never mind implement an ambitious programme of reforms, at a time of crisis. Mr Kaczyński has, apparently, been trying to persuade the right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz to join the governing camp, but his five-member parliamentary caucus would not even compensate for the loss of one of the smaller governing partners.

Moreover, a Law and Justice-led administration is the only one that can guarantee a stable majority in the current parliament. Only three or four of Mr Gowin’s allies would be likely to follow him if he were to actually leave the governing camp, so any alternative coalition would have to encompass an incredibly broad range of parties from the radical left to right, and risk being held responsible for triggering a political crisis when most Poles feel their leaders should be focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, an early election would also be a huge risk. Not only could it be seen as a self-indulgence, but polls currently suggest both that Law and Justice would fail to secure another parliamentary majority and neither of its smaller allies would secure re-election standing independently. In fact, the most dangerous moment for the governing camp, and most likely time for the two smaller parties to break away, is early-to-mid 2023 in the run up to the next scheduled election. At that point, maintaining access to government positions will be less of an incentive, particularly if it appears that Law and Justice will try and exclude them from the ‘United Right’ candidate lists.

However, one also has to factor in human emotions, disappointed ambitions, revenge-seeking and simple miscalculation which could prevent the governing camp’s leaders from evaluating the various scenarios in a rational way. Moreover, Mr Kaczyński has never been interested in, and knows how politically debilitating, simply being in office and administering, rather than actually governing and implementing a legislative programme, can be. For sure, the pandemic crisis has already put the government on the defensive, forcing it to react to ever-changing circumstances. Nonetheless, Law and Justice also appears to have lost the ability to push through the more controversial elements of its policy agenda and governing programme. It is difficult to see how the party can move forward with its radical state reconstruction programme in areas such as reforming the judiciary, media landscape and local government, if it cannot guarantee the cohesion and unity of its parliamentary support base.

So Mr Kaczyński may conclude that the current situation is unsustainable and the only way to break the deadlock is to form a stop-gap Law and Justice minority government and then hold a snap (perhaps autumn) election, particularly if it appears that Poland is emerging from the coronavirus crisis by the late summer following a successful vaccine roll-out and lifting of restrictions. Indeed, Law and Justice is hoping that it can regain the political initiative through its so-called Polish ‘New Deal’ (Nowy Ład) recovery plan designed to boost economic growth and living standards through a wide range of policies including (partly EU-funded) large-scale investment projects in infrastructure and the public services (especially health care), together with tax reforms favouring the less well-off.

Voters will not forgive self-indulgence

Nonetheless, the pandemic crisis continues to be all-enveloping, with the ‘third wave’ hitting Poland particularly hard and forcing Law and Justice to postpone (for a second time) the formal launch of its ‘New Deal’ initiative until after Easter. Moreover, even in an optimistic scenario in which the government can start to move on from the crisis by late summer, the source of the governing camp’s continuing weakness and instability – a deeply-rooted lack of trust between its component parts, with the junior coalition partners continually and openly contesting key elements of the ruling party’s programme – will remain unresolved. Indeed, one of the reasons why Law and Justice has lost popular support is precisely because many Poles feel that the governing camp lacks unity of purpose and is increasingly self-absorbed. Voters may forgive Law and Justice if it makes mistakes at a time of crisis, but not if the governing camp continues to come across as divided and inward-looking.

What are the prospects for Poland’s TV celebrity-politician Szymon Hołownia?

A TV presenter who made his name as a liberal-centrist Catholic commentator and writer has launched a new opposition movement and emerged as one of Poland’s most popular politicians after finishing a strong third in last summer’s presidential election. But when the coronavirus pandemic crisis recedes and ‘normal’ politics starts to resume, he will face more intense questioning about his lack of governing experience, programmatic vagueness and views on controversial issues such as abortion.

Poland’s most popular politician?

Szymon Hołownia – a TV presenter, writer and humanitarian activist known for his liberal-centrist Catholic views – stood as an independent candidate in last summer’s Polish presidential election. Although Mr Hołownia’s campaign was very professionally managed – and his programme contained an eye-catching mix of policies focusing on environmental protection, national security, social solidarity, healthcare and raising standards in public life – it developed little traction until the coronavirus pandemic crisis turned conventional politics on its head. By precipitating a shift from traditional campaigning – where local grassroots organisation, financial resources, and access to the traditional media favoured candidates from the more established parties – to political communication primarily through the Internet and social media, the crisis played to Mr Hołownia’s strengths as a skilled direct-to-camera performer. Making an attractive pitch to the many Poles who craved a ‘new’ non-party candidate, Mr Hołownia finished a strong third securing 13.9% of the votes.

Mr Hołownia used his presidential election success as a springboard to launch a new movement: ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050), whose name is meant to indicate a political vision spanning more than one generation. Opinion polls suggest that Mr Hołownia is now one of Poland’s most popular and trusted politicians; in some rankings he actually comes in first. At the end of February, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys also found support for ‘Poland 2050’ running at 18% compared with 19% for the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main parliamentary opposition grouping – and 33% for Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s right-wing ruling party. Last month, ‘Poland 2050’ also established its own parliamentary caucus as three deputies and one Senator from other parties – including Joanna Mucha, a one-time Civic Platform minister and party leadership contender – switched allegiance to Mr Hołownia’s grouping.

Deliberate programmatic vagueness?

Not only does there appear to be an appetite for the kind of ‘newness’ that Mr Hołownia claims to represent, ‘Poland 2050’ seems to be much more professionalised and carefully planned than previous attempts to develop Polish ‘challenger’ parties. His years of TV experience have made Mr Hołownia a very effective communicator in both the traditional and new media, and he is skilled at avoiding the gaffes that have often sunk other political newcomers. Moreover, the fact that Mr Hołownia is not a member of parliament, and his party only has a minimal presence there, means that he can present himself as above the day-to-day-political fray and choose carefully when and how to insert himself into Polish political debates.

Up until now, Mr Hołownia’s appeal has also been ideologically eclectic and avoided too many programmatic specifics. So, for example, although he was known to hold relatively conservative views on moral-cultural questions, Mr Hołownia has tried to downplay this by prioritising issues traditionally identified with the political left, such as adopting a more radical approach to climate policy. This (arguably deliberate) programmatic vagueness has helped Mr Hołownia avoid alienating potential voters without appearing to depart too far from his previous declared beliefs, and allowed a very wide range of Poles to ‘project’ their own views on to the ‘Poland 2050’ leader.

This is important because Mr Hołownia has the greatest potential for expanding his electoral base among younger, more culturally liberal and increasingly secular Poles who comprise the obvious core constituency for any liberal or left-wing Polish challenger party. Mr Hołownia has tried to counter the fact that he originally made his name as a Catholic commentator and writer by making ‘Poland 2050’’s first major programmatic statement on the need for a clearer separation between the Church and state, unveiling a series of popular anti-clerical policies including: cutting state funding to Church-aligned bodies; more rigorous investigation of clerical sexual abuse; reducing the clergy’s presence at state ceremonies and in public institutions; and providing greater scope for opting out of religious education in schools.

Finessing the abortion issue

Interestingly, ‘Poland 2050’ was the main beneficiary in the polls from the huge wave of street protests that followed last October’s constitutional tribunal ruling – invalidating a provision in the 1993 abortion law allowing termination of pregnancy in cases where the foetus was seriously malformed or suffered from an incurable disorder – which mobilised many younger Poles. This was in spite of the fact that Mr Hołownia was known to be a supporter of the, already very restrictive, current abortion law, while the protests were led by radical left-wing feminists who favoured its liberalisation.

Mr Hołownia tried to finesse this by saying that, although he remained personally opposed to abortion, as a politician he had to take into account those who held different views. He argued that, given that the two sides of the debate were now so polarised, the issue could only be resolved by a national referendum. Mr Hołownia was thus able to position himself as broadly sympathetic to the protestors without doing a complete volte face on his previous, unambiguously anti-abortion statements, or cutting himself off from the political centre-ground which still appears to broadly favour the 1993 law as an acceptable compromise and opposes attempts to both liberalise it and make it more restrictive.

Mr Hołownia is also benefiting from the relative weakness of the other opposition groupings, especially Civic Platform which has failed to develop a convincing programmatic alternative to Law and Justice on the socio-economic issues that Poles care most about, and lacks strong and effective leadership. An January-February poll by the ‘Social Changes’ agency found that only 1% of respondents saw Civic Platform leader Borys Budka as a convincing opposition leader compared with 18% who cited Mr Hołownia. Popular Civic Platform Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski (who scored 12% in this survey) has been bogged down with running the capital and failed to build on his success in last year’s presidential election when he came within two percentage points of defeating Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda.

Political marketing or policy substance?

Nonetheless, Mr Hołownia still faces a number of formidable obstacles and challenges. Although Civic Platform is currently at a low ebb, it has seen off powerful challenges for the mantle of main liberal-centrist opposition grouping in the past and retains considerable organisational assets. These include: a large caucus of experienced parliamentarians; access to substantial financial resources, including state party funding; a nationwide grassroots organisational structure; and strong local government base including control of half of Poland’s 16 regional authorities, which play a key role in distributing EU funds and are a major source of local party patronage.

While Mr Hołownia is still benefiting from the political momentum arising from his relatively successful presidential campaign, there are no national polls scheduled now until 2023 and it will be difficult for him to maintain public and media interest in his project. Previous successful Polish challenger parties were formed in the run-up to parliamentary elections so that they could capitalise on their ‘newness’. Moreover, although ‘Poland 2050’’s ideological flexibility and lack of programmatic clarity have been effective ways of attracting and mobilising a very diverse of group of supporters – and Mr Hołownia’s media savviness has helped him to avoid bear traps on controversial and divisive issues – it will be difficult to keep this up for two-and-a-half years until the next scheduled elections.

To really breakthrough in a sustainable way, Mr Hołownia will need to go beyond being simply an articulate critic of the government and Law and Justice-Civic Platform duopoly and be seen to be offering something genuinely new. For sure, Mr Hołownia has tried to respond to criticisms that his movement lacks programmatic depth. He has set up a think tank, the ‘Strategy 2050 Institute’ (Instytut Strategia 2050), to provide ‘Poland 2050′ with some intellectual ballast. He is also organising a series of events where he will flesh out his programme, with policy statements promised on healthcare and the environment to follow up the one on Church-state relations. However, there is still a sense that Mr Hołownia lacks a clear vision or ‘big idea’ and that his programmatic offensive is being driven as much, if not more, by political marketing than substantive policy concerns.

Experience or generational change?

Moreover, given that the socio-economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to be felt for some time even after the current public health crisis subsides, by the next election Poles may well be looking for leaders with governing experience rather than political novices. The fact that ‘Poland 2050’ currently lacks such notable figures could be a problem if Mr Hołownia needs to demonstrate that his movement is not just a clever political marketing creation built around another ‘protest’ politician. The defection of experienced, high profile politicians from other parties, such as Ms Mucha, could help to counter this, although, of course, most Poles will continue to view ‘Poland 2050’ primarily through the lens of Mr Hołownia’s statements and actions. Indeed, because a key reason why he attracted support in the first place was Mr Hołownia’s promise of generational change in politics, ‘Poland 2050’ cannot be too closely associated with figures from the ‘old guard’ like Ms Mucha. Such political ‘transfers’ can also cause tensions among Mr Hołownia’s original supporters; Ms Mucha’s defection was accompanied by the resignation of the local ‘Poland 2050’ leader in Lublin where she is a parliamentary deputy.

In fact, Mr Hołownia is not the first charismatic individual who has tried to shake-up the Polish political scene, and achieved some short-term success, in recent years. Such challenger groupings have typically received an early poll boost – notably from the kind of younger voters, who often support protest politicians but do not provide a basis for long-term political consolidation – and sometimes gone on to secure parliamentary representation, before quickly disintegrating or being absorbed by one of the main parties. An instructive recent example was that of right-wing rock star Paweł Kukiz who, standing as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate, secured 20% of the votes in the 2015 presidential election. Although his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest following the parliamentary election later that year, it only secured 9% support and within four years he was forced to stand on another party’s slate to secure re-election for himself and his closest political allies.

A product of ‘virtual’ politics?

It is difficult to know whether Mr Hołownia has what it takes to get through the long march to the next elections. The political situation in Poland is in flux at the moment and likely to change significantly when the pandemic crisis starts to recede and more ‘normal’ politics returns. In spite of his high media profile, Mr Hołownia remains an unknown quantity for many Poles and the opinions that they have formed to date are often likely to be based on them simply projecting their own views on to him. Although the public could be looking for ‘new faces’ outside of the existing political elites, concerns will be raised about Mr Hołownia’s lack of governing experience and he will also start to face more intense questioning about his programme and views on controversial and divisive issues. It is easier to contest a personality-based presidential election as a media celebrity; in a parliamentary poll he will need to be much clearer about whom he is appealing to and with what programme. It remains to be seen how effective Mr Hołownia’s Internet-based communications strategy will be when political debate shifts back from the ‘virtual’ to the real world.

How will the Biden presidency affect Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is hoping that ideological disagreements with the new US President do not prevent broader strategic co-operation. Whether these differences impact upon Polish domestic politics depends on if the Biden administration simply ‘turns up the volume’ on ‘rule of law’ and liberal moral-cultural issues, or adopts a more pro-active approach and places conditions upon future Polish-US relations.

The vanguard of an anti-liberal backlash

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, enjoyed very good relations with outgoing US President Donald Trump. For sure, at the time of his election, many Polish conservatives had misgivings about Mr Trump’s vulgar political style and questionable personal morality. Moreover, given his transactional approach to politics and foreign relations, there were also serious concerns about Mr Trump’s potential unpredictability on international issues, particularly whether his administration would be less willing than its predecessors to engage in European security. At one point, Mr Trump even appeared to question Washington’s continued commitment to trans-Atlantic mutual defence implying that the USA would only protect NATO allies who were prepared to pay at least 2% of their GDP on military spending as required under the Alliance’s rules. Indeed, some commentators feared that Mr Trump might try and strike a grand bargain with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, about whom he spoke favourably on a number of occasions, over the heads of Poland and other post-communist states.

However, Law and Justice actually came to see Mr Trump as an ideological soulmate. The party’s supporters have argued that its political success reflects widespread disillusionment with what many Poles see as the country’s out-of-touch and complacent liberal-left ruling elites, who they feel are disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns. Mr Trump’s victory allowed them to present its critique of these elites as not simply an anomalous and isolated local Polish phenomenon. Rather, they saw Law and Justice and the Trump administration as being in the vanguard of a broader anti-elitist, anti-liberal backlash from traditionalist conservatives, who unashamedly put what they saw as the national interest first, against the globalist cosmopolitan elites that have dominated Western politics in recent years.

Law and Justice’s key international ally

For sure, there were several clashes between Warsaw and Washington, notably involving diplomatic interventions by the Trump-appointed US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher, but these tended to involve cases where American commercial interests were at stake. One such disagreement was over Law and Justice’s planned reforms targeting foreign-owned media which it was felt could threaten the US-owned TVN broadcaster that takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Nonetheless, this largely involved symbolic political gestures rather than decisive policy actions, and Poland could generally count on the Trump administration’s goodwill on the issues of greatest importance to it.

For example, although the policy of deepening US military engagement in Poland was set in motion by the previous Obama administration (and the presence of American troops remained on a rotational basis, not permanent as the Polish government had hoped for), the decision was mostly executed during Mr Trump’s term of office. An agreement to further increase the number of US troops stationed in Poland from 4,500 to 5,500 was ratified during the final days of his administration. Under Mr Trump, the USA sustained and deepened the Obama administration’s opposition to the Nord-Stream 2 pipeline project to transfer Russian gas to Germany by-passing Poland via the Baltic Sea, including threatening sanctions against companies involved in its construction, and started delivering liquefied natural gas to help secure Polish diversity of energy sources. Mr Trump also oversaw the long-awaited admission of Polish citizens to the US visa waiver programme, for which Warsaw had campaigned for many years.

Perhaps Mr Trump’s most significant political gesture towards Law and Justice was to give strong support to the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, a Polish-led regional forum to develop solidarity and co-operation between twelve Central and East European states. The main European powers viewed this project with some suspicion as part of an effort by the Polish government to position itself as a regional leader outside the Franco-German dominated EU power structures. Law and Justice has tried to shift away from the EU policy pursued by previous Polish governments of locating Poland within the so-called European ‘mainstream’ and instead build alternative alliances with the post-communist states to counter-balance Franco-German influence. By showing that he was happy to develop closer links with governments such as Poland’s, that challenged the existing EU elites, Mr Trump’s involvement turned the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ into a more meaningful international platform.

Indeed, Law and Justice’s excellent relations with the Trump administration enabled it to counter opposition arguments that, given Warsaw’s difficult relations with the EU political establishment, Poland had become isolated internationally. Knowing that it was one of the few European countries that he could rely on for a warm welcome from both the government and (given its strong historical Atlanticism) general public, in July 2017 Mr Trump chose Warsaw as the venue for his first major visit to the continent and keynote foreign policy speech where he praised his hosts as key American allies. Mr Trump also gave Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda a powerful endorsement days before last summer’s Polish presidential election when he became the first foreign leader to visit the White House after the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

Geopolitical interests or ‘shared values’?

Not surprisingly, therefore, Law and Justice hoped for a Trump victory in last November’s US presidential election. Indeed, Mr Duda initially held back from acknowledging Joe Biden as the new President until the election results were officially ratified, simply issuing an ambivalently worded tweet congratulating him on his ‘successful presidential campaign’. At the same time, the Polish opposition presented Mr Biden’s success as the harbinger of a global ‘liberal restoration’, just as Law and Justice had portrayed Mr Trump’s victory as evidence of a broader anti-establishment conservative backlash. The Polish government’s opponents are hoping that Law and Justice’s ideological proximity to the Trump administration – together with Mr Biden’s likely pivot back to developing stronger ties with the EU political establishment, and his argument that US international relations should be based on the idea of the Western alliance as a community of ‘shared (presumably liberal) values’ rather than simply common geo-political interests – will make it more difficult for the ruling party to pursue its domestic and international policy agenda. Law and Justice’s US-based critics are both influential in America’s opinion-forming media and well-placed in the country’s foreign policy establishment, so are likely to exert a much greater influence over the Biden administration than they did over Mr Trump.

For sure, the Biden presidency provides a much-needed morale boost for the Polish opposition, and Law and Justice is very disappointed to lose such a powerful international ally. There will be no more pro-government publicity from White House photo opportunities and supportive high profile diplomatic visits to Warsaw as there was under the Trump presidency. On the other hand, Polish-US relations were nowhere near the top of Mr Trump’s foreign policy agenda and will not be for Mr Biden either. Nor are US elections proxy wars for Polish party political competition and, apart from avid Poland-watchers and a few Central and East European specialists, virtually no one in America has probably even heard of Law and Justice.

Moreover, whatever lack of ideological affinity there may be between the Biden administration and Law and Justice, the new President is both a pragmatist and strong Atlanticist. Polish-US strategic co-operation is deeply rooted, and both geo-political realities and the two countries’ common interests remain unchanged, so US policy on the key issues affecting Poland are likely to do so as well. Given that, as Mr Obama’s Vice-President, Mr Biden was one of the main architects of the NATO initiative that resulted in thousands of US troops being based in Poland, there is little to suggest that decisions taken by the Trump administration to strengthen the American military presence there will be reversed. Mr Biden has signalled scepticism towards the Nord-Stream 2 project and declared repeatedly that his administration will continue to support making Central and Eastern Europe’s energy market less dependent on Russia; although, given his simultaneous goal of re-building relations with Berlin, he may not follow through on the threat to sanction German companies involved in the pipeline’s construction. Mr Biden will probably also be generally sympathetic towards the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, as long as it is seen as complementary to broader European integration within the EU and not, as Law and Justice originally hoped, a Polish-led counterweight to the Franco-German axis.

Will ‘rule of law’ issues be a priority?

The biggest challenge for Law and Justice is likely to be the extent to which the Biden administration decides to prioritise so-called ‘rule of law’ and liberal moral-cultural issues, especially the status of sexual minorities. While the Trump administration tended not to involve itself in Polish internal affairs unless US commercial interests were at stake, a Biden White House is likely to be much more critical of Law and Justice on these questions. During the presidential election, Mr Biden referred to Poland alongside Belarus as an example of a ‘totalitarian’ regime, suggesting that he viewed Law and Justice as violators of what he feels are the ‘shared values’ of the Western international community. Mr Biden intends to organise a global summit to strengthen democratic institutions and confront countries that he argues are backsliding, in which Poland could feature as a problematic case. Moreover, although the Trump administration was somewhat closer than Law and Justice to the liberal-left mainstream on issues such as state legal recognition of, and adoption of children by, same-sex couples (where Ambassador Mosbacher argued that the Polish ruling party was on the ‘wrong side of history’) the Biden administration is likely to give such a liberal approach to moral-cultural questions an even higher profile.

Law and Justice argues the ‘rule of law’ is a vague and amorphous concept that has been thoroughly politicised and is being used instrumentally against the Polish government by its domestic and international opponents. Nonetheless, it will grit its teeth when such issues are raised and deal as constructively as it can with the Biden administration. Indeed, it is likely to adopt the same twin-track strategy that it has been pursuing for some time in its approach to relations with the EU political establishment. On the one hand, it will accept that on ‘rule of law’ issues the Biden administration is likely to largely agree with the Polish opposition’s argument that Law and Justice’s actions in areas such as judicial reform are undermining democracy (although it will strongly contest these claims). It will also accept that there will be disagreements on moral-cultural issues, where Law and Justice rejects what it sees as a hegemonic Western liberal-left consensus that it believes undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. At the same time, Law and Justice will try and present Poland as a reliable and constructive US ally, arguing that these disagreements on ideological issues do not prevent Warsaw from developing positive working relations on matters where the two countries have common interests.

So Law and Justice is hoping that, for all their political differences, the Biden administration will put contentious issues that could undermine broader strategic co-operation on the back-burner. If the new US government does become more pro-active on these questions, and even tries to place some kind of conditionality on its co-operation with Warsaw with tangible consequences for Polish interests, this could provide an opening for the Polish opposition. However, if, as seems more likely, the Biden administration simply ‘turns up the volume’ in terms of rhetoric and normal diplomatic pressure, this will annoy and unsettle Law and Justice but should not impact significantly on either strategic co-operation or the balance of forces in Polish domestic politics.

How has the EU budget dispute affected the power struggle within Poland’s governing camp?

Poland’s ambitious justice minister attempted to strengthen his power base within the right-wing governing camp, with the possible long-term objective of launching a new challenger formation on the ruling party’s right flank, by calling for an EU budget veto. However, this hardline stance backfired when he failed to follow through on his tough rhetoric and resign from the government after the prime minister, his bitter rival, negotiated a compromise deal.

Another flashpoint in an ongoing power struggle

Last November, Poland (together with Hungary) threatened to veto the EU’s 2021-27 budget and coronavirus recovery fund following controversy over a proposal to link the disbursement of Union fiscal transfers to ‘rule of law’ conditionality. The Polish government accused Germany, the then-holder of the EU presidency, and the European Parliament (EP) of proposing a mechanism positing an extremely wide range of ‘rule of law’ violations that could be considered for sanctions if they even risked affecting the Union’s financial interests. Since it came to office in autumn 2015, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has clashed with the EU political establishment over a number of ‘rule of law’-related issues, notably its judicial reform programme.

Law and Justice argued that the proposed conditionality regulation was a political instrument based on vague and arbitrary criteria and lacked a legal basis in the EU treaties. The party warned it that could be used by the EU political establishment to curb national sovereignty and interfere in almost every sphere of public life by, for example, exerting pressure on Law and Justice to abandon its radical systemic reforms and accept liberal-left moral-cultural norms. However, although the mechanism itself could be passed with the support of a qualified majority, the budget and coronavirus recovery package to which it was linked required unanimous consent.

At the same time, the EU budget negotiations became another flashpoint in the bitter internal power struggle currently taking place within the Polish governing camp. Law and Justice is actually the largest component within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance which includes two smaller parties. Given that the government only enjoys a parliamentary majority of five seats, and each of them has around twenty deputies, these parties increased their political influence after the autumn 2019 election. During the last few months, one of them, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, has been staking out a series of hardline right-wing conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. This included calling, from the outset, for the government to use its EU budget veto to reject the proposed conditionality mechanism in its entirety. Mr Ziobro has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies over the last five years, notably its judicial reforms, and represents what might be termed the ‘traditionalist-revolutionary’ faction within the governing camp that remains committed to pushing ahead with radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values.

A trap for Mr Morawiecki?

At the heart of this jockeying for position were two protagonists who have been rivals since Law and Justice took office and represent the main ideological-programmatic currents within the governing camp: Mr Ziobro and prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Mr Morawiecki is the key figure in the governing camp’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing which also has strong conservative values, and has at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment, but believes that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in urban areas where traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church hold less sway, especially among younger Poles, by focusing on socio-economic transformation rather than moral-cultural and ideological issues.

Mr Morawiecki appears to enjoy the backing of Law and Justice leader and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, who exercises a powerful influence in guiding and determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities and has provided a crucial source of cohesion and unquestioned authority within the governing camp. According to media reports, last summer Mr Ziobro offered to dissolve his party and re-join Law and Justice (which he left in 2011 after questioning Mr Kaczyński’s leadership) but was rebuffed by the ruling party’s leader who feared his future leadership ambitions. Mr Kaczyński seems to believe that, in order to make progress with its radical state reconstruction project and engage effectively in broader ideological debates on moral-cultural issues, Law and Justice has to win public support by demonstrating its competence in socio-economic policy and international relations, and feels that Mr Morawiecki is best placed to achieve this.

Some commentators argued that Mr Ziobro chose the EU budget issue on which to take a stand because he knew that it put Mr Morawiecki in a potentially extremely awkward position. If the prime minister failed to use the budget veto to try and block the conditionality mechanism, Mr Ziobro and his allies could portray him as a weak and ineffective defender of Polish interests. However, one of the main reasons that Mr Morawiecki was appointed prime minister in 2017 was to ‘re-set’ Law and Justice’s relations with the EU political establishment by presenting Poland as a constructive member state and de-coupling the ‘rule of law’ dispute from Warsaw’s ability to develop a pragmatic working relationship with the European Commission and major Union powers. Any Polish budget veto could have seriously undermined Mr Morawiecki’s reputation as an effective EU negotiator and deal-maker, risking the country’s political isolation and potentially bringing very significant financial costs.

Poland was set to be one of the largest beneficiaries from the 2021-27 EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund, with Law and Justice hoping that the 770 billion złoties in grants and loans earmarked for the country would help it to achieve a strong, post-pandemic economic rebound. However, the potential budget impasse prompted the Commission to start work on ways of circumventing Poland (and Hungary)’s objections by pushing through the coronavirus recovery fund as a deal among the remaining member states. At the same time, while Law and Justice said that the EU could move ahead with next year’s spending in a provisional way if the long-term budget was not agreed, the government’s critics warned that this could involve cutting existing programmes and preventing new ones from starting.

An acceptable compromise?

In fact, Poland dropped its veto threat at the December European Council after securing an additional interpretative declaration added to the summit conclusions which explained how the conditionality mechanism would be used. Most importantly from the Polish government’s perspective, although the text of the new ‘rule of law’ regulation remained unchanged the conclusions re-iterated that it applied only to financial irregularities involving the misappropriation of EU funds and that a causal link between the breaches of rules and negative consequences for the Union’s financial interest had to be sufficiently direct and specifically established; the mere finding that a ‘rule of law’ violation had occurred was not sufficient to trigger the mechanism. This was to be guaranteed by guidelines prepared by the Commission on how the new instrument would be used which are expected to include the precise methodology for carrying out its assessment of whether particular ‘rule of law’ violations threaten the EU’s financial interests.

The summit conclusions also delayed the implementation of the mechanism pending a challenge to its legality in the EU Court of Justice by Poland (or other member states) so that the Commission could incorporate such a judgement into its guidelines; a process that could take several months to complete, possibly even longer. Finally, the summit agreed that conditionality would only apply to the new budget starting in 2021 and the coronavirus recovery fund, and not for payments made from the current one (which could still run for another three years). Mr Morawiecki argued that this represented an acceptable compromise that guaranteed Poland’s national interests, while the government’s supporters (and some of its opponents) claimed that the conditionality mechanism was now so watered down that it would not prevent Law and Justice from continuing with its radical state transformation programme, including completing its judicial overhaul.

Mr Ziobro overplays his hand

However, Mr Ziobro and ‘Solidaristic Poland’ leaders disagreed with Mr Morawiecki’s interpretation of the summit outcome and strongly criticised the prime minister’s decision to allow the conditionality regulation to enter into force as part of the budget package without legally enforceable safeguards. The interpretative declaration, and any guidelines that might emerge from them, would, they argued, not amend the mechanism because they did not represent a binding text under EU law.

As it turned out, Mr Ziobro ended up overplaying his hand. To be consistent and follow through the logic of his argument, Mr Ziobro should have resigned from the government. But this would have cut ‘Solidaristic Poland’ off from the power, patronage and funds that flow from government participation. ‘Solidaristic Poland’ was also very unlikely to secure re-election if it were to stand independently in a snap parliamentary poll that would almost certainly have ensued if the party left the government (the next election is not scheduled until autumn 2023). At the same time, potential allies in a new political project challenging Law and Justice on its right flank – such as the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping, or the milieu linked to the Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, which has been very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’ electorate – are currently on the defensive.

In the event, the ‘Solidaristic Poland’ leadership voted by 12 votes to 8 to remain part of the governing camp. This was in stark contrast to the stance taken last May by Jarosław Gowin, the leader of Law and Justice’s other smaller governing partner the liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) party. Mr Gowin resigned from the government and threatened to pull his party out of the ruling coalition over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election, only to return in triumph as deputy prime minister and economy minister following the autumn ministerial reshuffle. Although Mr Ziobro’s party resolved to vote against approving the EU budget deal in parliament, this should not be a problem for Law and Justice as it can rely on the support of most of the opposition on this issue. So by overplaying his hand and not following through on this earlier tough rhetoric, Mr Ziobro was forced to retreat and lost credibility, while Mr Morawiecki emerged from the dispute considerably strengthened.

Laying the groundwork for a new political formation?

However, it is too early to write Mr Ziobro off, not least because Law and Justice needs the votes of ‘Solidaristic Poland’ to retain its slim parliamentary majority, and his ongoing bitter personal rivalry with Mr Morawiecki will continue. The lack of trust and divisions between the governing camp’s more ideologically hardline traditionalist-conservative and ‘centrist’ technocratic-modernising currents, and their two key protagonists, are very deeply-rooted and also run through Law and Justice itself, many of whose old guard are ideologically closer to Mr Ziobro and wary of Morawiecki’s ambitions. Mr Kaczyński’s authority as the dominant figure on the Polish right, which has kept the lid on the various factional and leadership disputes, is also starting to wane and, sooner or later, Mr Ziobro will return to testing its limits.

So although the governing camp has survived the latest challenge to its unity posed by the EU budget veto dispute, the struggle over the future shape of the Polish right continues with further conflicts between the competing factions certain to re-emerge. Mr Ziobro also knows that he has very little of chance of taking over the governing camp’s leadership in its current configuration. As a consequence, his hardline stance on the EU budget veto (and other issues) may be part of laying the groundwork for a new political formation emerging on Law and Justice’s right flank, either from the ruins of an imploding ‘United Right’ or as a breakaway grouping, with Mr Ziobro’s party at its core.

How will the abortion issue affect Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party was taken aback by the scale and vehemence of the backlash against a constitutional tribunal ruling that banned virtually all legal abortions in the country. But the pro-abortion protests appear to have lost momentum with the main parliamentary liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition parties not having derived much political benefit from them.

Tribunal ruling sparks a wave of protests

The abortion issue moved spectacularly up the Polish political agenda following an October ruling by the country’s constitutional tribunal invalidating a provision in the current 1993 law allowing termination of pregnancy in cases where the foetus was seriously malformed or suffered from an incurable disorder. The case came before the tribunal after a group of conservative parliamentarians asked the body earlier this year to check whether the 1993 law was compatible with the constitutionally guaranteed protection of the life of every individual. In its ruling, the tribunal argued that the Constitution protected all human life and dignity equally – and, therefore, also applied to the unborn child – so terminating a pregnancy based on the health of the foetus amounted to discrimination against the ill and handicapped.

Poland already has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws with the procedure only permitted if: the pregnancy puts the life or health of the mother in danger; medical tests indicate a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment or terminal illness threatening the life of the foetus; or if there is a reasonable suspicion that the pregnancy resulted from an illegal act (such as incest or rape). Given that the vast majority of legal abortions in Poland (according to health ministry figures, 1,074 out of the 1,100 carried out last year) are as a result of serious and irreversible birth defects, the ruling effectively means a near-total ban.

However, in spite of a government ban on public gatherings due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, the tribunal ruling set off a wave of large street protests co-ordinated by the ‘All-Poland Women’s Strike’ (OSK) network. As well as disagreeing with the substance of the ruling, its opponents questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal which, they claimed, was under the control of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party; 14 of its 15 members were appointed after the grouping took office in 2015. Specifically, they argued that the ruling was invalid because it included three tribunal members whose appointments resulted from vacancies originally filled in 2015 by the outgoing parliament controlled by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, but then over-turned on procedural grounds and replaced by the incoming Law and Justice-dominated parliament. The latter move was deemed unconstitutional by opposition parties and most of the Polish legal, and EU political, establishment.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the three contested tribunal members were appointed legally and, more broadly, that its membership always reflected the political composition of the parliament that elected it. They also claimed that there was legal continuity between the tribunal’s October ruling and an earlier one in 1997, when it was dominated by justices who later became harsh critics of the Law and Justice government, which struck down an attempt to liberalise the 1993 law.

A problematic issue for Law and Justice

So why has the abortion issue re-surfaced now and how is it likely to play out politically? Law and Justice says that the tribunal is an independent body and that the timing and content of the abortion ruling were sovereign decisions and clearly in line with the Constitution. However, the government’s critics argue that tribunal president Julia Przyłębska is a close personal friend and political ally of Law and Justice leader and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, so the ruling may have been influenced by political calculations. Mr Kaczyński’s objectives were, they argue, to: consolidate and galvanise the ruling party after months of factional infighting; protect his position on the right flank of politics against both potential challengers for the party’s culturally conservative electoral base, such as the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping, and would-be rivals within the governing camp such as justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro; and strengthen the party’s close informal links with Poland’s influential Catholic Church which is, of course, a long-standing opponent of all forms of abortion. The government’s opponents also accused Law and Justice of trying to distract Poles from the fact that it was struggling to tackle the coronavirus pandemic crisis, and use the concomitant restrictions on public gatherings to argue that pro-abortion protests posed a public health risk.

In fact, both the timing and content of the abortion ruling proved to be extremely problematic for the ruling party. While attempts to both tighten and liberalise the abortion law have always provoked powerful emotions in Poland, Law and Justice was taken aback by the scale and vehemence of the backlash against the ruling. The demonstrations that followed the ruling mobilised a broad cross-section of Polish society, notably large numbers of younger Poles. This contrasted with, for example, earlier waves of street protests organised by the anti-Law and Justice Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) movement which focused on so-called ‘rule of law’ issues that were often simply too abstract for many ordinary Poles, and encompassed disproportionately large numbers of middle aged and older participants. This mobilisation of young people is potentially a very serious problem for Law and Justice which, having secured the largest share of the vote among this demographic in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, has been steadily losing support among them since then. Perhaps most worryingly for Law and Justice, the protests expanded beyond liberal urban agglomerations to the smaller and medium-sized towns that constitute the party’s electoral heartlands.

Indeed, the abortion issue has always been a very problematic one for Law and Justice. On the one hand, many Law and Justice politicians personally favour tighter restrictions and the party presents itself as a staunch defender of Christian values. Given that one of Mr Kaczyński’s key strategic objectives has always been to prevent the emergence of any political challengers on the party’s right flank, it is very difficult for the party to completely ignore an issue that is so salient for many of its core supporters on the ‘religious right’. On the other hand, Law and Justice is a broadly based political grouping whose electorate includes many Poles attracted by its socio-economic policies with more liberal views on moral-cultural issues (in Polish terms, if not necessarily compared with the Western liberal-left cultural mainstream). As a consequence, Law and Justice has tried to avoid this issue, and proceeded very cautiously in supporting legislation aimed at restricting the current abortion regulations.

Moreover, the pro-abortion protests coincided with a series of other government crises: the second phase of the pandemic crisis, ongoing infighting within the governing camp, and a bitter clash between the Polish government and EU political establishment over attempts to link the Union’s fiscal transfers to ‘rule of law’ conditionality. Perhaps not surprisingly the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys showed a sharp fall in Law and Justice’s average poll rating from 40% in September to only 31% in November.

At the same time, the already-shaky governing camp was divided on how best to defuse the backlash generated by the abortion ruling. In response to the protests, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda proposed a draft law outlawing abortions in the case of a foetus diagnosed with conditions such as Down syndrome, while allowing the procedure where the baby would be stillborn or die soon after. However, a more strongly anti-abortion faction within Law and Justice, many of whom were instrumental in asking the tribunal to rule on the issue in the first place, is opposed to any watering down of the ruling. The fact that Law and Justice only has a thin parliamentary majority, therefore, makes it difficult for the government to push through Mr Duda’s draft without at least some support from the opposition parties, which is very unlikely given they have an interest in prolonging the crisis. Consequently, the government has postponed officially publishing the abortion ruling, which prevents it from coming into effect and freezes the current legislative status quo, buying time to build the political alliances required to get a compromise through parliament.

Too radical and vulgar?

However, in spite of the carnival atmosphere that the organisers tried to create around the street protests, many of the most visible images and slogans that have shaped public perceptions of them have been too radical or simply too vulgar for many ordinary Poles, including those who may otherwise have sympathised with their cause. The Women’s Strike leaders moved quickly on from simply protesting against the tribunal ruling to demanding the government’s immediate resignation and promoting a wide range of radical policy demands, while one of the protesters’ main slogans was telling Law and Justice to ‘f**k off’. Moreover, a number of the earlier actions targeted the Catholic Church and involved scenes of angry protesters painting pro-abortion and anti-clerical slogans on church walls, picketing and disrupting religious services, and confronting clergy and worshippers – attacking what was, for many Poles, traditionally an important pillar of the nation and civil society. All of this allowed Law and Justice to regain the political initiative somewhat.

At the same time, although the main parliamentary liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition parties tried to use the protests to de-legitimate Law and Justice, they also lacked credibility with many of the young protesters and do not appear to have derived much political benefit from them. Indeed, abortion has also been a difficult issue for Civic Platform because it forces the party to align itself with social movements that are traditionally associated with the more radical elements of the feminist left and thereby risks alienating the moderate conservatives whose support it needs to win elections. Although most Poles oppose the tribunal ruling, and only a small minority support an outright ban on abortion, they are also against liberalising the country’s existing law which they appear to view as an acceptable compromise. Indeed, the main beneficiary from the protests as far as opinion polls are concerned appears to be the new ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) grouping led by liberal-centrist Catholic broadcaster Szymon Hołownia (who finished a strong third in the first round of the July presidential election standing as an independent political outsider) which, according to E-wybory, increased its support from 11% in September to 15% in November. As a relative political newcomer, Mr Hołownia was able to position himself as both broadly sympathetic to the protesters but also in tune with moderate centre-ground opinion on the issue.

Already fizzling out?

Moreover, much of the slump in polling support for Law and Justice – which, in spite everything, remains Poland’s most popular party – appeared to stem from an increase in respondents who said they would abstain if an election were held today. In fact, the ruling party has endured many crises during the last few years and none of them proved to be a political game-changer, so it is playing a long game and hoping that the abortion issue will also fizzle out. Attendance at the pro-abortion protests has already dwindled significantly and, although they may have been a formative experience for many of the young people who participated in them, it is difficult to see this burst of enthusiasm being channeled into day-to-day conventional politics. For sure, it was very problematic for Law and Justice that the abortion controversy coincided with several other political crises, and interest in the issue will revive somewhat when the government eventually publishes, and introduces legislation to implement, the tribunal ruling. But Law and Justice still has plenty of time to re-build its support before the next national elections which are not scheduled for three years, and it is questionable how much the abortion issue will concern voters by then.

How will the second phase of the coronavirus pandemic crisis affect Polish politics?

A perception that the health service is not coping effectively with the second phase of the coronavirus pandemic will lead Poles to seriously question the right-wing ruling party’s claim to be handling the crisis competently. A major economic downturn precipitated by government lockdown restrictions would also make it increasingly difficult for the governing party to deliver on the hugely expensive but extremely popular social spending and welfare spending programmes that are a core element of its appeal.

The pandemic issue re-emerges

Poland appeared to pass through the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic crisis relatively mildly, experiencing very low rates of virus-related deaths compared to other European countries. The Polish government – led, since 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – introduced extremely radical ‘lockdown’ restrictions in early March (even denying Poles access to woodlands and forests!) but started to relax these measures quickly at the end of April with further easing in May and June. Having spent 145 billion złoties on so-called ‘anti-crisis shields’ providing liquidity support and business aid to encourage firms to maintain jobs, the government’s primary concern began to switch to the broader socio-economic impact of its lockdown restrictions. Law and Justice wanted to move on from the pandemic issue and open up the Polish economy as much as possible before the summer holiday season got underway. Moreover, with a crucial, delayed presidential election taking place in July – won, in the event, by Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda – the ruling party was keen to give the impression that it had dealt with the pandemic crisis successfully. In particular, Law and Justice wanted to encourage older voters – a core element of its electoral base, but who felt especially vulnerable to the virus and, therefore, reluctant to venture out to polling stations – to turn out and vote for Mr Duda in what was an extremely closely-fought electoral race.

However, last month the pandemic issue moved back to the top of the political agenda when the Polish government was taken aback by sharp rises in: positive coronavirus test results (albeit following a large increase in the number of tests), the number of hospital beds and ventilators being used by virus patients, and deaths linked to the virus. Law and Justice came under increasing political pressure to be seen to be taking action in response to media reports that the crisis was running out of control and overloading the Polish health service. However, it was also concerned about the broader socio-economic impacts of introducing tougher lockdown restrictions. Consequently, the government argued that it was trying to steer a middle course aimed at introducing measures to try and control the spread of the virus while avoiding shutting the country down for a second time in order to protect the economy and keep society as open as possible.

As a consequence, although the measures introduced so far fall short of the full-scale lockdown imposed in March, the government has tightened its pandemic restrictions on a number of occasions in October. These restrictions include: making the wearing of face masks compulsory in public spaces; closing fitness clubs and swimming pools; banning wedding parties; imposing more curbs on the number of people allowed to enter shops, use public transport and attend religious services; moving universities, secondary schools and classes for older children in primary schools back to online teaching; limiting public gatherings of more than five people and requiring children to be accompanied by an adult when outdoors; shutting down bars and restaurants (except for those selling takeaway meals) for two weeks; instructing the over-70s to stay at home; and closing cemeteries during the the All Saints’ Day weekend at the beginning of November when millions of Poles traditionally visit graveyards to pay their respects to the dead. The government also announced plans to: build new hospitals, provide financial incentives for doctors to treat coronavirus patients, and, knowing that it could not afford another nationwide anti-crisis aid programme, provide targeted financial help to particular sectors.

An opportunity for the opposition?

The revival of the coronavirus issue has provided the opposition with an opportunity to go on the political offensive and accuse the government of being complacent and wasting the summer when it should have been preparing better for the second phase of the crisis. The opposition says that Law and Justice declared a premature victory over the pandemic – citing quotes from prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in July that the virus was in retreat and Poles no longer had to fear it; a claim, which, it argued, undermined his subsequent credibility when trying to persuade Poles to observe the new coronavirus restrictions. The opposition also accused Law and Justice of spending too much time during the summer on a government reshuffle and internal squabbles within the ruling camp when it should have been focusing on preparing the health service for the autumn crisis.

However, notwithstanding its perennial calls for a more effective testing system, the opposition’s weakness is that its arguments are rather vague on what exactly the government should have done to prepare for the autumn and should be doing differently now. The logic of the opposition’s critique inevitably leads it to call for even tighter restrictions, and even a return to a full lockdown, but it has been reluctant to do so explicitly. Interestingly opinion polls suggest that support for further restrictions is actually slightly higher among Law and Justice voters than supporters of the main opposition parties. On the other hand, some critics of the government’s approach – including the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) party, but also a number of conservative commentators generally sympathetic to Law and Justice – accuse it of over-reacting to political and media pressure and introducing harsh restrictions with huge social, economic and broader health consequences without any clear long-term strategy for managing and exiting the crisis.

Law and Justice responded by accusing the opposition of point-scoring and trying to politicise the crisis. It cited quotes from Borys Budka – the leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – from earlier in the year that the autumn would actually be the best time to hold a re-scheduled presidential election as the pandemic would be in retreat by then. Law and Justice argued that the health service had faced years of neglect and under-funding by its Civic Platform predecessor which the current government had been steadily trying to remedy by increasing expenditure systematically over the last five years, and pledged to do so even more in the future.

It also accused the opposition of supporting demonstrations led by pro-abortion activists involving thousands of young people protesting against an October ruling by the constitutional tribunal that terminations due to foetal abnormalities (which make up the vast majority of legal abortions in Poland) violated the Constitution – arguing that these protests contravened pandemic restrictions and posed a potential health threat to the elderly. For their part, the opposition, which refused to recognise the tribunal’s legitimacy, argued that Law and Justice had taken advantage of the pandemic crisis, when Poles could not gather legally in mass protests, to force through the abortion ruling. They also accused the ruling party of orchestrating the tribunal ruling to distract Poles from the fact that the government was failing to tackle the pandemic crisis effectively.

Undermining the government’s claims to competence?

The revival of the coronavirus pandemic crisis as one of the main political issues in Poland is a serious threat to Law and Justice, both in the short-term and long-term. In the spring, Law and Justice benefited from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that they face a dramatic external threat. The government also gained politically from the fact that it was felt to have handled the first phase of the pandemic crisis relatively well. However, given that public health is such an incredibly emotive, high-stakes issue, the ruling party will be held to account ruthlessly for any perceived shortcomings in its handling of the second phase of the crisis, particularly if it is felt that the Polish health service is not coping effectively.

The government was clearly taken aback by how quickly the crisis developed in the autumn and there were widespread media reports that patients were suffering due to the fact that respirators or other medical apparatus were missing or not in the right places. Law and Justice argues that Poland is not the only country struggling to deal with the resurgence of the virus and that Polish hospitals can cope. It is increasing the number of hospital beds and respirators for coronavirus patients and building temporary medical facilities, including turning the national stadium in Warsaw into a field hospital. However, it is unclear how the government will manage to find the doctors and nurses required to staff the temporary hospitals given the huge skill shortages in the Polish health service. Law and Justice leaders also accused some doctors of exacerbating this problem by refusing to work with coronavirus patients.

An autumn health crisis and perception that the Polish service was not coping effectively thus has the potential to seriously undermine Law and Justice’s reputation for competence which it has been working extremely hard to establish over the last five years to counter opposition criticisms that it is a party obsessively pursuing a narrow ideological agenda. Many Poles also feel misled by the government’s optimistic statements about the retreat of the pandemic in the late spring and summer. Worryingly for Law and Justice, the CBOS polling agency found that the number of respondents who approved of the government’s handling of the pandemic crisis fell from 70% in May/June to only 49% in September/October, while the number who disapproved increased from 25% to 43% over the same period. Moreover, the fact that the second phase of the pandemic crisis has coincided with mass protests over the hugely controversial and divisive abortion issue means that Law and Justice now faces the prospect of an accumulation of political crises coming together at the same time. Although most Poles are not in favour of liberalising the country’s restrictive abortion law, a majority, including many Law and Justice supporters, oppose the constitutional tribunal’s ruling and further restrictions.

Threatening Law and Justice’s core appeal

In the long-term, the damage from a major recession precipitated by the various government restrictions increasingly taking their toll on the economy, and strain on the public finances arising from the costs of the expensive support packages, will make it increasingly difficult for Law and Justice to deliver its generous social spending and welfare policies; which could, in turn, lead to an electoral backlash against the ruling party. Up until now, a core element of Law and Justice’s appeal has been its claim to have delivered a programme of hugely expensive but extremely popular fiscal transfers to the less well-off while maintaining economic growth and without increasing the state budget deficit. Indeed, the party’s critics argue that one of the reasons why the Polish health service remains under-funded and under-staffed is because the Law and Justice government has neglected it in order to finance its social spending and welfare programmes (a claim which the ruling party vigorously denies). However, the dilemma that Law and Justice now faces is that while it knows that another full lockdown would paralyse the Polish economy the logic underpinning its claim to be taking the crisis seriously and not losing control of the pandemic could inevitably push the government (however reluctantly) into introducing increasingly radical restrictive measures that would bring about precisely such a deep economic slump.

How will Jarosław Kaczyński joining the government affect Polish politics?

The fact that the leader of Poland’s right-wing ruling party had to overcome his misgivings and join the government as deputy prime minister to solve its most recent political crisis suggests his authority may be starting to wane. Various factions and future leadership rivals are likely to continue to test the limits of his hegemony, which has hitherto been the key to the governing camp’s unity and cohesion.

Conflicts over policy and government composition

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, is the largest component within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance which also includes the smaller right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie). These two groupings have had much greater leverage within the governing camp since the autumn 2019 election, when both increased their parliamentary representation. Indeed, the government almost collapsed in May when ‘Agreement’ leader and then-deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin resigned his ministerial post and threatened to pull his party out of the ruling coalition over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic crisis; in the event, the election was postponed until July.

However, following ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s narrow but hugely consequential presidential election victory, the governing camp has been embroiled in a bitter conflict over policy, government composition and leadership. Initially, it was Mr Ziobro’s party that was the centre of controversy as it engaged in a summer offensive staking out a series of hardline conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. This included Mr Ziobro calling for Poland to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe international treaty aimed at preventing domestic violence against women but which many Polish conservatives felt promoted a radical left ideological vision that undermines traditional families. In another flashpoint, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ called upon the government to threaten to veto the July EU budget negotiations in order to block a proposal linking Union funding to ‘rule of law’ conditionality which, they argued, discriminated against Poland.

The governing camp also became embroiled in negotiations over a revised coalition agreement and planned ministerial re-shuffle aimed at streamlining the government. The latter would involve the two smaller parties losing ministers so, in spite of their ideological differences, they shared a common interest in preventing Law and Justice from increasing its grip on the levers of power in this way. Moreover, looking to the longer-term, both parties were also concerned that Law and Justice could limit the number of places available to them on ‘United Right’ candidate lists at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2023.

Deeper rifts over strategy and leadership

These recent disputes came to the fore because of a deepening rift within the governing camp over its broader strategic and ideological direction, together with an increasingly open conflict over the future leadership of the Polish right. This jockeying for position was prompted by a sense that Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s authority as the dominant force on the political right was starting to wane following speculation that he was considering playing a less prominent role in front-line politics. Although he did not hold any formal state positions, Mr Kaczyński has exercised a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in guiding and determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and thereby provided a crucial source of cohesion and unquestioned authority within the governing camp.

At the heart of these conflicts has been a bitter power struggle between two protagonists who have been rivals since Law and Justice took office in 2015 and represent the main ideological-programmatic currents within the governing camp: Mr Ziobro and prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The justice minister is a ruthless political operator who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies over the last five years in areas such as judicial reform, and represents what might be termed the ‘traditionalist-revolutionary’ camp that remains committed to pushing ahead with radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values. Mr Ziobro has been trying to strengthen his power base by presenting himself as a guarantor of the governing camp’s right-wing credentials. According to media reports, earlier this year he offered to dissolve his party and re-join Law and Justice (which he left in 2011 after questioning Mr Kaczyński’s leadership) but was rebuffed by the ruling party’s leader.

Mr Kaczyński is instead backing Mr Morawiecki, whom he appointed as prime minister in 2017 and is the key figure in the governing camp’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing. This current also has strong conservative values, and has at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment, but believes that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in urban areas where traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church hold less sway, especially among younger Poles, by focusing on socio-economic transformation rather than moral-cultural and ideological issues. Although Mr Morawiecki is a relative newcomer to Law and Justice, Mr Kaczyński appears to regard him as his preferred successor and the prime minister is expected to be elected one of his deputies at the party’s November Congress. Mr Kaczyński seems to believe that, in order to make progress with its radical state reconstruction project and engage effectively in broader ideological debates on moral-cultural issues, Law and Justice has to win public support by demonstrating its competence in socio-economic policy and international relations, and feels that Mr Morawiecki is best placed to achieve this.

Crisis and a new coalition agreement

Although political tensions built up within the governing camp over the summer they actually came to a head at the end of September following a dispute over two draft laws. One of these was an animal welfare bill championed by Mr Kaczyński which proposed: banning all fur production, curbing the ritual slaughter of animals, closing circuses with trained animals, and limiting the tethering of dogs. Although the prominence given to the bill came as a surprise to many commentators, Mr Kaczyński has always been very personally committed to animal welfare (he is renowned for his love of cats!) and it appeared to be part of a wider strategic pivot to broaden Law and Justice’s appeal, especially among younger Poles. However, the bill drew vehement protests from farmers, a key element of the ruling party’s rural electoral base, and outgoing agriculture minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski who is very popular in the Polish countryside. The law was only approved with the votes of the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition as ‘Solidaristic Poland’ and 17 Law and Justice law-makers opposed it in a parliamentary vote (‘Agreement’ deputies abstained).

The second piece of controversial legislation was a bill granting legal immunity to state officials who violated the law when implementing the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which ‘Solidaristic Poland’ argued violated the principle that all citizens be treated equally under the law. Some commentators argued that the immunity bill was designed to protect Mr Morawiecki as, in September, the Warsaw regional administrative court ruled that he had exceeded his competencies when ordering officials to prepare for the abortive May presidential election. At one point, the dispute appeared to be spiralling out control as government reshuffle talks were suspended and senior Law and Justice officials declared that the party would be prepared to govern as a minority without its junior coalition partners, even raising the prospect of an early parliamentary election.

However, after a week of media frenzy the crisis was extinguished when the three parties signed a new coalition agreement. Knowing that they were very unlikely to secure re-election if they stood independently in a snap parliamentary poll, the two smaller groupings insisted they were loyal governing partners. Law and Justice also knew that it would almost certainly be unable to construct an alternative majority in the current parliament (discussions with deputies from other parties came to nothing), nor govern effectively as a minority administration at a time of public health and economic crisis, never mind implement an ambitious programme of reforms and state reconstruction. Nor could the party be sure of securing another outright parliamentary majority in an early election. Law and Justice thus appeared to grant its two smaller partners a certain amount of leeway to assert their independence hoping that the knowledge that they could be expelled from the governing camp at any time would keep dissent within tolerable boundaries, and that Mr Ziobro in particular would stop challenging Mr Morawiecki’s authority.

Stabilising the government or a temporary truce?

The key element of the truce involved Mr Kaczyński joining the government as deputy prime minister responsible for security issues with a mandate to oversee the justice, defence and internal affairs ministries. The Law and Justice leader had always preferred to focus on strategic decision-making without taking on a direct executive role so this signified a major shift of political gravity within the ruling camp towards the government. It was hoped that Mr Kaczyński’s presence as a key figure in the administration would strengthen Mr Morawiecki’s authority in his dealings with Mr Ziobro, by raising the political costs of undermining the prime minister and helping to mediate differences within the government itself so that his protégé does not have to expend further time and energy on disputes with competing power centres. By bringing such an (admittedly very unusual) internal stabilising mechanism, based on Mr Kaczyński’s personal authority, into the heart of government it was hoped that future conflicts could be contained and resolved swiftly, thereby increasing the administration’s overall cohesion and effectiveness.

However, some commentators argue that the most recent government crisis (the second, apparently existential, one in the last six months) revealed a more deeply-rooted lack of trust between the competing factions within the governing camp, particularly the two key protagonists. Although Mr Ziobro was forced to retreat and scale down his media profile, the fact that Mr Kaczyński was not able to actually remove the hugely ambitious justice minister from office means that the ‘Solidaristic Poland’ leader’s bitter personal rivalry with Mr Morawiecki will continue and he is likely to try and push the boundaries again sooner or later. Ironically, the presence of Mr Kaczyński in the government as a deputy prime minister could actually end up undermining Mr Morawiecki who will find himself in the rather awkward position of having the Law and Justice leader as his formal deputy while, at the same time, he is subordinate to him as the de facto key decision maker within the governing camp.

Moreover, these divisions within the governing camp between more ideologically hardline traditionalist-conservative and ‘centrist’ technocratic-modernising currents also run through Law and Justice itself. Many of the its old guard – such as former prime minister Beata Szydło, who remains very popular with the party grassroots – are, in many ways, ideologically closer to Mr Ziobro and wary of the idea of Mr Morawiecki as a future leader. The new arrangement thus represents another temporary truce and further disputes over policy, strategy, ideology and leadership are certain to re-surface at some point.

Is Mr Kaczyński’s authority waning?

Mr Kaczyński’s continued hegemony on the Polish right, keeping the lid on the various factional and leadership disputes, remains the key to the governing camp’s political unity and cohesion. For sure, he has no imminent plans to retire and there is every indication that Mr Kaczyński will remain Law and Justice leader throughout the current parliament. But the fact that he had to overcome his misgivings and finally join the government in order to prevent the collapse of the ruling coalition suggests that Mr Kaczyński’s authority may be starting to wane. If that is the case, then the current truce has simply postponed rather than resolved the crisis in the governing camp, and the various factions and potential leadership rivals are likely to continue challenging, and testing the limits of, that authority.