The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

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.

What are the prospects for the Polish opposition?

The Polish liberal-centrist opposition’s future prospects depend critically upon how Warsaw’s mayor builds on the political capital derived from his strong presidential election challenge. But there are question marks over his proposed new civic movement’s relationship with the main opposition party, and he faces a challenge from an insurgent TV presenter-turned-politician, and strategic dilemmas over which model of opposition to adopt and how to develop an attractive alternative programme.

Mr Trzaskowski’s strong challenge

In July, incumbent Andrzej Duda – who was backed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – defeated Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – in a presidential election second round run-off by 51% to 49%. The opposition now faces a three-year period of difficult soul-searching until the next elections and Law and Justice has a clear run in control of all the main state institutions to continue implementing its radical state reconstruction programme. However, Mr Duda’s narrow margin of victory also shows that the opposition retains a sizeable base of support, especially in the larger towns and cities, and among well-educated, better-off, and (increasingly) younger Poles. At the same time, Mr Trzaskowski’s result confirmed that Civic Platform continues to be the main challenger to the ruling party.

When the election, originally scheduled for mid-May, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Trzaskowski replaced Civic Platform’s struggling presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, who had seen her poll ratings slump to single figures. Mrs Kidawa-Błońska’s disastrous campaign provided an opportunity for other opposition candidates to emerge as the main challenger to Mr Duda. At one point, it appeared that this would be Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, the leader of the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL) which, heading up the broader centre-right ‘Polish Coalition’ (KP) electoral bloc, had performed surprisingly well in the most recent October 2019 parliamentary election securing 8.6% of the votes. However, Mr Kosiniak-Kamysz’s campaign failed to take-off and he ended up with only 2.4%. Similarly, although the ‘Left’ (Lewica) electoral alliance finished third in the 2019 election with 12.6% of the votes, regaining parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus, the grouping’s presidential candidate, sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, also secured an extremely disappointing 2.2%. Mr Trzaskowski, on the other hand, proved to be a much more formidable campaigner and, picking up Civic Platform voters who were planning to abstain or vote for another candidate, quickly regained the mantle of main opposition challenger, securing 30.5% in the first round, and then almost defeated Mr Duda in the run-off.

‘New Solidarity’

The liberal-centrist opposition’s future prospects depend critically on how Mr Trzaskowski builds upon this enormous political capital. For sure, the opposition retains several important political assets, notably: a strong local government base, substantial financial resources and the backing of much of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, Poland’s cultural, legal and business elites, together with the sympathy of the EU political establishment and international opinion-forming media. At the same time, the socio-economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has put a huge strain upon Law and Justice’s ability to deliver on its popular programme of expanding social spending and welfare policies while maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the budget deficit.

In order to broaden the opposition’s base of support, Mr Trzaskowski is planning to launch a new civic movement at the beginning of September provisionally called ‘New Solidarity’ (Nowa Solidarność), based on the title of his election programme where he set out his socio-economic and public spending priorities for Poland at a time of crisis. The name is also an allusion to the 10-million strong original 1980-81 manifestation of the legendary anti-communist Solidarity trade union and social movement; Mr Trzaskowski’s 49% vote share corresponded to more than 10 million votes. The concept is rather vague at present but appears to involve building a civic movement allied to Civic Platform but focused primarily on local government leaders, in order to attract support from Poles who oppose Law and Justice but do not identify with the current opposition groupings or traditional party politics more generally.

Maintaining momentum will be difficult

However, although Mr Trzaskowski is now Poland’s most popular opposition politician it will be very difficult for him to maintain the momentum from his presidential campaign for the next three years. Mr Trzaskowski is not a member of parliament, which will continue to be the main arena for political contestation and debate. Although the post of Warsaw mayor gives him a high profile political platform Mr Trzaskowski’s performance of this role will now come under much more intense national scrutiny. It will be a major challenge for him to combine this post with the role of de facto national opposition leader: if he devotes too much time to building up his new civic movement then he will inevitably be criticised for neglecting his mayoral responsibilities. Indeed, there are question marks over whether Mr Trzaskowski actually has the staying power to stick with the civic movement project for such a long haul.

Moreover, it is a convenient myth that Mr Trzaskowski personally secured the support of 10 million voters. His second round base of support was actually very heterogeneous and united around Mr Trzaskowski primarily as a means of voting out the Law and Justice-backed incumbent. This makes it very difficult for Mr Trzaskowski to craft a programmatic appeal and ideological platform that such a diverse group of voters can identify with. ‘New Solidarity’ is certainly an attractive label but it is unclear what precise organisational form it will take. Beneath the packaging, the new movement could simply be a vehicle for maintaining Civic Platform’s hegemony over the rest of the opposition; indeed, some commentators argue that the party is actually more interested in achieving this objective than defeating Law and Justice. More broadly, it is very difficult to build a genuine grassroots civic movement from the top-down. Successful ones generally emerge spontaneously driven by new ideas, issues or interests that are not being articulated in mainstream politics. In post-communist Poland, they have often been very transitory phenomena. For example, following a brief period when it organised a number of large street demonstrations, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an earlier attempt to build a broad grassroots anti-Law and Justice civic movement during the previous 2015-19 parliament, fizzled out very quickly.

Any political strategy aimed at using Mr Trzaskowski’s presidential election vote to expand the opposition’s base must also include revamping Civic Platform. Although it remains Poland’s main opposition grouping, Civic Platform has a very negative image because of its association with the previous unpopular administration which Poles rejected decisively in 2015. Not surprisingly, Mr Trzaskowski tried (not entirely successfully) to hide his party affiliation during the presidential election campaign even though he is one of Civic Platform’s deputy leaders. However, Civic Platform made a poor start in its efforts to re-build public trust when, in August, it was completely wrong-footed by Law and Justice which persuaded it to vote in favour of a draft law substantially increasing salaries and expenses for parliamentarians and other government and public officials. Given that Poland is currently facing a major economic downturn this led to a huge backlash even among commentators sympathetic to the opposition (in the event, the proposal was abandoned when Civic Platform U-turned and the opposition-controlled Senate rejected it).

Moreover, it will be difficult for Mr Trzaskowski to reform Civic Platform to fit in with his own political project unless he can develop an effective working relationship with party leader Borys Budka. Mr Budka’s leadership position is very insecure and was only saved by Mr Trzaskowski’s relatively good presidential election performance, so he is wary that the Warsaw mayor’s plans could further undermine his authority within the opposition camp. Being manoeuvred into supporting the draft law on increasing public officials’ salaries put Mr Budka’s troubled leadership in further doubt and it is likely that he will be replaced as Civic Platform parliamentary caucus leader in the autumn.

Mr Hołownia’s challenge

The formation of ‘New Solidarity’ is also, in part, an attempt to stymie the challenge to Civic Platform from Szymon Hołownia, the TV presenter, writer and humanitarian activist known for his liberal Catholic views, who stood as an independent candidate in the presidential election. In fact, 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, and some polls even suggested that he could defeat Mr Duda in a second round run-off. Although Mr Trzaskowski’s entry into the race limited Mr Hołownia’s scope for picking up disillusioned Civic Platform voters, the TV presenter was still able to make an attractive pitch to the many Poles who craved a ‘new’ non-party candidate, and finished a strong third with 13.9%.

Mr Hołownia is now using his presidential election success as a springboard to create his own political movement, provisionally called ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) to indicate a time horizon of more than one generation. However, Mr Hołownia’s plans (like Mr Trzaskowski’s) appear rather vague and it will also be very difficult for him to maintain political momentum and media interest without parliamentary representation. In fact, Mr Hołownia is not the first charismatic individual who has tried to shake-up the Polish political scene in recent years. Such groupings have typically received an early poll boost, and sometimes gone on to secure parliamentary representation, before quickly disintegrating or being absorbed by one of the main parties. An instructive recent example is 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 the Peasant Party’s ‘Polish Coalition’ slate to secure re-election for himself and his closest political allies. In fact, at the end of August, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found support for ‘Poland 2050’ running at only 8% compared with 26% for Civic Platform (and 40% for Law and Justice).

Key strategic dilemmas

More broadly, the liberal-centrist opposition faces two key strategic dilemmas. Firstly, the question of how vigorously and comprehensively to oppose Law and Justice’s reform programme and policy agenda? Here it has often sent confusing signals. For example, knowing that a lot of the opposition’s radical anti-Law and Justice rhetoric was off-putting for Poles who feared further political de-stabilisation, during the presidential election Mr Trzaskowski tried to re-assure more moderate conservative-centrist voters by invoking the rhetoric of reconciliation and political unity. On the other hand, the government’s hard core opponents expect a confrontational approach and the ramping up of so-called ‘total’ opposition, reflected in the fact that Civic Platform leaders partially boycotted Mr Duda’s presidential swearing-in ceremony. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the opposition also has to develop an attractive and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles care most about. Up until now it has been on the defensive on programmatic issues: Mr Trzaskowski only published his (rather thin) presidential election manifesto two days before the first round of voting. To mount an effective challenge it will have to some put some more programmatic flesh on its clever but vague concepts and slogans such as ‘new solidarity’.

What does Andrzej Duda’s presidential election victory mean for Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing ruling party is hoping that its presidential election victory will encourage domestic and international elites to accept it has a clear three-year run controlling all the levers of state power to continue with its radical state reconstruction programme. The re-elected President also has a huge personal mandate, giving him the potential to carve out a more independent role, but to do so he will need a more distinctive political agenda and stronger support base.

Mobilising small-town provincial Poland

Earlier this month, incumbent Andrzej Duda – who was supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015 – won a closely-fought presidential election run-off against Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski – who was backed by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – by 51% to 49%. In what was effectively a plebiscite on the Law and Justice government, Mr Duda’s narrow victory was secured on the basis of a 68.2% turnout, the second highest in any election since the return of democracy in 1989, reflecting the fact Poles are evenly divided and polarised in their attitudes towards the ruling party.

Mr Duda’s success was secured by mobilising Law and Justice’s core supporters in small-town provincial Poland where election turnout is traditionally lower. The most significant increase in voting between the first and second rounds was precisely in the smaller towns and rural areas that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands. Mr Duda made great efforts to reach out to these often-forgotten areas and earlier this year fulfilled his pledge to become the first President to visit every one of Poland’s 380 administrative counties during his term of office.

Mr Duda’s core appeal was as the guarantor of Law and Justice’s extremely popular social spending and welfare programmes directed especially at poorer families and households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. This was part of a claim that Law and Justice was the first party to show as much respect to citizens living in the provinces as those in larger urban agglomerations, including respecting their more traditional culturally conservative values and views on issues such as the legal status of sexual minorities. Mr Duda’s appeal, therefore, dovetailed with the party’s broader political project which some commentators term the ‘redistribution of prestige’, whereby ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and self-respect.

Completing the judicial overhaul

Mr Duda’s victory is crucially important because it gives Law and Justice a clear three-year run until the next parliamentary election during which time it can continue to push ahead with its radical state reconstruction programme. Given that the ruling party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, a victory for Mr Duda’s challenger would have been a disaster for Law and Justice, seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

A key priority will be completing the government’s radical but fiercely-contested overhaul of the judicial system, which the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition, and Poland’s legal establishment, have strongly criticised as an attack on the rule of law and infringement of the key democratic principle of constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents argue that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms allowed Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees, and thereby undermined their independence. Law and Justice’s sweeping judicial reforms also triggered an ongoing conflict between Poland and the EU political establishment.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the reforms were sorely needed because Polish courts were too slow, deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite, they said, operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself, so making judges and their supervisory organs more accountable to elected bodies was both justifiable and in line with practices in other established democracies. Mr Duda will continue to approve new judicial appointments and legislation preventing any attempts by the legal establishment to block Law and Justice’s reforms. The ruling party may also try and find ways of accelerating judicial turnover by, for example, re-organising the Polish court system.

Gagging critical media or ensuring greater pluralism?

Another highly contentious policy area is likely to be Law and Justice’s plans for media reform. The opposition argues that under Law and Justice Polish public TV has turned into a government propaganda tool, and during the presidential election campaign Mr Trzaskowski called for the scrapping of its news and information service. However, Law and Justice argues that public TV brings greater pluralism to a broader media landscape which it says has an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left. It also believes that ensuring media balance in Poland currently depends solely upon Law and Justice retaining influence within public TV. It fears that if there was a change of government not only would Law and Justice lose access to this crucial element of its communication strategy but also that sections of the privately-owned media that are currently adopting a more neutral political stance (such as the Polsat TV station) would quickly revert to their instinctive liberal-left bias. Consequently, Law and Justice will be looking to extend its influence in the privately-owned media.

One means of achieving this are proposals to ‘deconcentrate’ and ‘repolonise’ the media. Law and Justice argues that foreign-owned media conglomerates openly interfered in, and tried to tip the scales in favour of the opposition during, the presidential election. For example, the party was furious when, in the final days of the campaign, Law and Justice felt that Poland’s most popular newspaper ‘Fakt’, which is owned by the German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer group, reported one of Mr Duda’s presidential pardons involving a child abuse case in a highly misleading way. ‘Deconcentration’ would involve placing limits on a publisher’s share of the media market thereby obliging some foreign-owned concerns to sell their share to Polish companies, possibly including state-owned enterprises or private investors more sympathetic to Law and Justice. The government’s critics argue that such plans would be a pretext for the ruling party to close down critical media and that it would be hard to draw up such legislation without breaking EU law. Law and Justice says that foreign-owned media companies exercise too much influence in Polish internal affairs and such measures would ensure greater media pluralism.

Coming to terms with Law and Justice

Beyond the policy sphere, Law and Justice is banking on the fact that Mr Duda’s victory will encourage the business and cultural elites, and those working in public administration, who may have been hedging their bets up until now to come to terms with the fact that there will be a Law and Justice government controlling all the main state institutions for at least another three years. They will also be hoping that some opposition politicians will defect to the governing camp. This could help Law and Justice increase its narrow five-seat majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, and regain control of the Senate, Poland’s second chamber which is less powerful but can delay legislation for up to 30 days and block some key appointments. 51 out of 100 Senators are currently aligned with the opposition. The ruling party will also be looking to increase its influence in the country’s 16 regional councils, which play a major role in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage but half of which are currently controlled by the opposition.

Law and Justice is hoping that the same process of pragmatic acceptance will play out at the international level, particularly within the EU where, the opposition argues, Poland has been increasingly marginalised during the last five years. In fact, Law and Justice has for some time pursued a twin-track approach to its EU relations. On the one hand, it accepts that there will be disagreements with the EU political establishment on moral-cultural issues, where Law and Justice rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. It argues that policy clashes with the major EU powers are inevitable because Poland often has interests that conflict with the dominant Franco-German axis, and Law and Justice is, the party claims, pursuing a more robust and assertive approach than its predecessors. The party also recognises that the EU political establishment largely agrees with the Polish opposition and legal establishment’s argument that Law and Justice’s actions in areas such as judicial reform are undermining democracy and the rule of law (although it strongly contests these claims).

At the same time, Law and Justice has tried to present Poland as a positive and constructive EU member, arguing that these disagreements do not prevent it from developing normal pragmatic day-to-day working relations on bread-and-butter policy issues. It is now hoping that, for all their political differences, Mr Duda’s victory will help to persuade the EU political establishment to put contentious issues that could undermine broader strategic co-operation with Poland, such as ‘rule of law’ compliance, on the back-burner and develop a positive working relationship with a Law and Justice government that they now know will be in office for at least three years. A key early challenge here for Law and Justice’s EU strategy is its attempt to de-couple systemic ‘rule of law’ compliance (which, Law and Justice argues, is difficult to measure objectively) from the disbursement and management of EU funds. The Polish government appears to have had some initial success on this front at July’s European Council summit negotiations on the next EU budget round and coronavirus recovery fund.

A more autonomous presidency?

Finally, although the election result was extremely close, the very high turnout provides Mr Duda with a huge personal mandate. This, together with the fact that it will be his final presidential term, potentially gives the President much greater room for manoeuvre to carve out a more independent political role for himself. Mr Duda’s biggest weakness during his first term was his vulnerability to the accusation that he was marginalised in key state policy decisions and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. Now he could, for example, try and develop some new political initiatives aimed at de-escalating the conflict between the government and opposition. Mr Duda made precisely such an apparently conciliatory gesture when, shortly after polls closed but with his victory not yet confirmed, he invited Mr Trzaskowski to the presidential palace to formally end the campaign with a public handshake.

However, except on a few rare occasions, up until now Mr Duda has not made any serious attempts to develop the kind of distinctive political agenda required to transcend the government-opposition divide. In many ways, this is not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agrees with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements are generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But part of the problem here is also the fact that, up until now, Mr Duda has preferred to surround himself with technocrats rather than experienced political operators. If Mr Duda wants to go beyond occasional disagreements over tactics or the pace of reforms, and carry forward his independent initiatives more effectively, then he will need to develop a much clearer defining concept for his second term, and a stronger intellectual and political support base to carry it forward.

Who will win Poland’s crucial presidential election?

Poland’s presidential election run-off is on a knife-edge. The right-wing incumbent won the first round convincingly and remains narrow favourite as no second placed challenger has ever come from so far behind to win. But his liberal opponent has much greater potential to win over supporters of the defeated first round candidates.

A plebiscite on the ruling party

Poland’s July 12th presidential election run-off is of crucial importance and will determine the shape of the political scene until the next parliamentary poll scheduled for autumn 2023. A victory for incumbent Andrzej Duda – who is supported by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the ruling party since autumn 2015 – would give the government a three-year run without any national elections to continue implementing its radical state reconstruction programme. However, the ruling party lacks the three-fifths legislative majority required to over-turn a presidential veto so a victory for Mr Duda’s challenger – Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski who is backed by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – would be a disaster for Law and Justice, seriously hampering its ability to govern effectively and possibly precipitating an early parliamentary election.

The election was originally scheduled for May 10th, with a second round run-off a fortnight later if no candidate secured more than 50% of the votes. Given his relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that he was Poland’s most trusted politician, Mr Duda was widely assumed to be the favourite. He made great efforts to build up a strong base of support in the often-forgotten parts of small-town, provincial Poland that constitute Law and Justice’s electoral heartland which provided him with enormous political capital going into the campaign. Mr Duda’s core appeal was as the guarantor of Law and Justice’s programme of extremely popular social spending and welfare policies for families and low income households, who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist transformation, while simultaneously maintaining strong economic growth and reducing the state budget deficit.

Mr Duda’s biggest weakness was his vulnerability to the accusation that he was a partisan President who lacked any political independence and simply acted as the government’s ‘notary’. In many ways this was not surprising as Mr Duda broadly agreed with much of Law and Justice’s critique of the alleged dysfunctionality of the post-communist state and its core institutions; his disagreements were generally over how radical reforms should be and the best means of achieving them. But Mr Duda did not really make any serious attempt to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor able to transcend the government-opposition divide.

Last autumn’s parliamentary election – when Law and Justice retained its overall majority but lost control of the Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber – showed how evenly balanced support for the government and opposition was, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block the ruling party. Although polls suggested that Mr Duda would easily win the first round of voting with around 40-45% of the vote, the second round run-off was always expected to be extremely closely fought and unpredictable. The opposition’s strategy was to turn the presidential election into a plebiscite on the government by tying Mr Duda as closely as they could to the ruling party. The danger for Mr Duda was that a key group of voters who were positively inclined towards him personally but did not necessarily support Law and Justice would use the election to express their hostility towards the government.

Changing election dynamics

In March, the Coronavirus pandemic crisis changed the dynamics of the presidential campaign and initially Law and Justice benefited from the so-called ‘rally effect’: the inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and state institutions as the embodiment of national unity at times of a sudden and dramatic external threat. This strengthened Mr Duda and polls started to show that he could win a clear victory in the first round. In the event, the May election never took place because legislation proposed by Law and Justice that would have introduced universal postal voting to allay public safety concerns was not approved in time due to a split within the governing camp. Subsequently, the Polish parliament agreed a new electoral law that allowed Poles to either vote traditionally in polling stations (which would have to adhere to sanitary standards) or cast postal ballots (which very few chose to), and the first round was re-scheduled for June 28th.

The fact that Mr Duda’s electoral strategy was premised on there being a May poll meant that when the election was postponed he needed to re-invigorate his campaign. Moreover, as the ‘rally effect’ waned the election dynamics once again changed with the economic slowdown arising from the pandemic putting pressure on the state budget and making it difficult for Mr Duda to offer any substantial new social spending and welfare pledges. This forced him to recalibrate his campaign message to claim that Law and Justice was the party best placed to oversee recovery while protecting families and low income households. Mr Duda also argued that only his re-election offered governing stability at a time of ongoing epidemiological and economic crisis, saying that the opposition would simply use the presidency to undermine the government and sabotage its policies.

The election delay also allowed Civic Platform to replace its struggling presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Blońska, who proved completely unsuited to a national crisis situation and saw her poll ratings slump to single figures. Mr Trzaskowski is a much more formidable campaigner and made an energetic start, quickly regaining the mantle of main opposition challenger and putting Mr Duda on the back foot. Although much of his initial polling surge came from core Civic Platform voters who were planning to abstain or vote for another opposition candidate returning to the fold, it gave his campaign a sense of momentum.

However, Mr Trzaskowski’s credibility among well-educated metropolitan voters, which helped him to quickly re-build Civic Platform’s support, also gave Law and Justice an opportunity to portray him as embodying the urban liberal elites that looked down upon culturally conservative small-town provincial Poland. For example, as part of an effort to both consolidate and mobilise Law and Justice’s core traditionalist electorate and highlight the fact that Mr Trzaskowski was distinctly more liberal on moral-cultural issues than the average Pole, Mr Duda introduced a ‘family charter’ (karta rodziny) that included pledges to not allow same-sex couples to marry or adopt children and ban propagation of what Law and Justice termed ‘LGBT ideology’ in schools and public institutions. Last year, in one of his first high profile policy initiatives as mayor, Mr Trzaskowski signed a declaration which included a proposal to introduce a comprehensive, LGBT-approved sex and anti-discrimination education programme intended to teach children about all aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviour in the city’s schools starting at an early age.

Nonetheless, Mr Trzaskowski worked hard to shake off claims that he was an economic and cultural liberal extremist. He bent over backwards to re-assure Poles that he would not reverse Law and Justice’s popular social spending and welfare policies, while sidestepping moral-cultural issues, speaking instead in general terms about equality and tolerance. Mr Trzaskowski also tried to counter Law and Justice’s accusations that he would sabotage the government by arguing that the President needed to be more independent of the governing party and provide it with constructive opposition.

Wooing the defeated candidates’ supporters

In the event, Mr Duda emerged as the clear first round winner securing 43.5% with Mr Trzaskowski on 30.5%. Mr Duda’s support was roughly the same as Law and Justice’s 2019 vote share but at the higher end of the party’s expectations; some polls had suggested that he could fall below 40%. Mr Trzaskowski scored better than Civic Platform did in 2019 but was hoping to break through the 30% barrier more decisively and reduce Mr Duda’s lead to single figures. To win the run-off, Mr Trzaskowski will have to increase his vote share by twenty percentage points, something no previous Polish presidential challenger has managed to achieve.

Given the scale of this challenge, as well as mobilising even more of this core supporters (difficult, as the 64.5% turnout was already extremely high by Polish standards), Mr Trzaskowski will need to win support among those Poles who voted for other candidates in the first round. In particular, he will have to attract the supporters of the independent TV presenter and liberal-centrist Catholic journalist Szymon Hołownia. By precipitating a shift from traditional campaigning to political communication through the Internet and social media, the pandemic crisis played to Mr Hołownia’s strengths as a skilled direct-to-camera performer. Although Mr Trzaskowski’s entry into the race limited Mr Hołownia’s scope for picking up disillusioned Civic Platform voters, he was still able to make an attractive pitch to the many Poles who craved a ‘new’ non-party candidate, and finished a strong third with 13.9%.

For sure, Mr Hołownia’s success was, in large part, a vote against Law and Justice. By portraying himself as an insurgent candidate of change, Mr Trzaskowski, whose unofficial campaign slogan was ‘we have had enough!’ (mamy dość!), is hoping that he will win over most of the Mr Hołownia’s supporters. However, Mr Hołownia’s endorsement of the Civic Platform candidate was heavily qualified because he also wants to use his presidential election success as a springboard to create a new political movement, ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050). Moreover, it is not clear to what extent Mr Hołownia’s vote represented a more general rejection of the Law and Justice-Civic Platform duopoly. The Ipsos agency’s exit poll found that 31% of abstainers in the 2019 election supported Mr Hołownia, comprising 15% of his total electorate. If many of these end up considering Mr Trzaskowski to be as much a part of the political establishment as Mr Duda then they may simply stay at home. Law and Justice is, therefore, trying to associate Mr Trzaskowski as much as possible with the previous Civic Platform governments in which he held a number of ministerial posts but has, up until now, managed to distance himself from.

Mr Duda, on the other hand, has better prospects of picking up support among those who voted for Krzysztof Bosak, the candidate of the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping who finished fourth securing 6.8%. For sure, Mr Duda’s defeat would serve the Confederation’s narrow partisan interests because its long-term political project is to challenge Law and Justice on its right flank. Moreover, Mr Bosak’s voters hold radical free market views on economic issues and Mr Trzaskowski has attempted to woo them by promising to veto any government tax increases (although he also pledged to maintain Law and Justice’s costly social welfare policies). However, Mr Duda’s traditionalist-conservative views on moral-cultural issues and promoting Polish national identity and traditions are much more likely to appeal to Mr Bosak’s supporters than Mr Trzaskowski’s cosmopolitan social liberalism.

On a knife-edge

Poland’s presidential election is too-close-to-call with polls showing the two main candidates running neck-and-neck. A larger-than-expected first round victory makes Mr Duda the narrow favourite, but he will need to continue to mobilise and energise his voters in smaller towns and rural areas where turnout is traditionally lower. Although no presidential challenger has ever come from so far behind to win a second round run-off, the government’s opponents in the opposition’s urban heartlands are highly motivated and Mr Trzaskowski appears to have much greater potential to pick up new voters among supporters of the defeated candidates. The key to the election could well be moderate conservatives in provincial towns who are wary about concentrating too much power in the hands of Law and Justice but like Mr Duda personally and need to be convinced that Mr Trzaskowski can offer a vision of the presidency that goes beyond simply opposing the government.