The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

How is the Belarussian border crisis affecting Polish politics?

The Belarussian border crisis has boosted, but not transformed, the poll ratings of Poland’s right-wing ruling party, as most Poles have backed its tough stance on controlling migration. The liberal-centrist opposition has struggled to develop a clear and unified response as attempts by its leadership to convey a more nuanced message have been overshadowed by high profile public figures who, to many Poles, appear more concerned about the plight of migrants and political stunts than border security.

Fighting a ‘hybrid war’

Throughout much of the late summer political tensions in Poland grew over a migration crisis on the country’s Eastern border with Belarus. In recent months, border guards have recorded a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of attempts by migrants, primarily from the Middle East and Asia, to enter Poland illegally, apparently with assistance from the Belarussian authorities. The main controversy focused on a group of around thirty migrants who found themselves stranded for weeks with no shelter, nor access to regular food supplies and medical attention, in a makeshift camp on the Belarussian side of the border near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny, after Poland refused to admit them and the Minsk authorities prevented them from turning back.

The Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – accused Belarus of orchestrating the influx by deliberately organising transport for thousands of migrants on the false promise of legal entry to the EU, and then inducing them to cross its Western borders illegally. This, Warsaw argued, was part of a Russian-backed ‘hybrid war’ aimed at violating the integrity of the Polish state and thereby creating a broader pan-European migration crisis. It was intended as retaliation against Poland and other post-communist states that had pushed for tough EU sanctions to be imposed on the Belarussian regime following President Alexander Lukashenka’s disputed 2020 re-election and subsequent persecution of the country’s opposition.

In response, the Polish government took an uncompromising stance and strengthened its Eastern frontier by: deploying additional troops to assist border guards in sending migrants back to Belarus, laying barbed wire border fencing, and pledging to reinforce this with a new, more solid border wall. At the government’s request, the Polish President also introduced a state of emergency (initially for 30 days, but subsequently extended for a further 60) in parts of the two Polish regions bordering Belarus. This order, the first of its kind in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989, increased the powers of the border guard, police, and armed forces, and restricted large public gatherings in, and prohibited non-resident civilians (including politicians and the media) from visiting, the affected localities. An additional reason cited for bringing in the state of emergency was concern about the potential risk of provocations in the build-up to the September Russo-Belarussian ‘Zapad’ military exercises, which involved thousands of troops and took place near the Polish border.

An increasingly emotive debate

However, emotive images of migrants stranded in a field and exposed to the elements provoked an increasingly emotionally charged political debate in Poland about the border crisis. Migrant rights groups and opposition politicians described the government’s treatment of those trying to enter the country as a national scandal, claiming that the administration was breaching their rights and putting lives at risk. At the end of September, Polish authorities found the dead bodies of three men who had tried to cross the border, while a woman’s corpse was also seen on the Belarussian side. The government’s critics attacked it for failing to provide migrants stuck near the frontier with humanitarian assistance and accused border guards of blocking efforts to deliver aid to them from the Polish side by rights groups and opposition parliamentarians. They criticised what they described as illegal ‘pushback’ by the Polish authorities arguing that they had an obligation to let migrants cross the border if they declared a desire to apply for asylum.

Law and Justice’s critics also accused the ruling party of playing on anti-migrant (and specifically anti-Muslim) sentiments and (at least to some extent) of over-stating the severity of the border situation to fuel a moral panic. They argued that the Belarussian regime could only use migrants as geo-political weapons if the Polish authorities continued to present them as a threat. Many opposition politicians also said that the government’s state of emergency was disproportionate and constitutionally dubious, pointing out that Law and Justice never resorted to such a measure in response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis. They claimed that the government’s real intention was to prevent scrutiny by journalists and rights groups of the border authorities’ illegal and inhumane actions.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that border authorities were simply fulfilling their obligation to prevent migrants from crossing illegally, and that the Latvian and Lithuanian governments had introduced similar emergency measures. They insisted that the migrants in the camp near Usnarz Górny were on Belarussian territory, so Minsk was responsible for them, and that it was illegal for activists and opposition politicians to send aid across parts of the border that were not marked as crossings. The Polish government said that it had offered to send a convoy of humanitarian aid to help the migrants, but the Belarussian authorities refused to let it cross. Law and Justice also argued that admitting even a small group would set a dangerous precedent and could lead to an even more serious crisis that the Belarussian authorities and people traffickers would exploit to orchestrate further and larger migration waves.

The migration issue boosts Law and Justice

In fact, the border crisis boosted support for Law and Justice which had faced an accumulation of problems over the summer. These included internal divisions within the governing camp which led to the loss of Law and Justice’s formal parliamentary majority, and ongoing clashes with the EU political establishment over the government’s judicial reforms and the US Biden administration over a foreign media ownership law which would impact negatively upon the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster. The crisis provided Law and Justice with an opportunity to present itself as a strong and determined defender of Poland’s external borders against those who, it argued, wanted to open the country up to a mass influx of uncontrolled immigration.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that Law and Justice had been in an ongoing political dispute with EU political establishment throughout much of its six years in office, it could even count on the Union institutions’ support over the border crisis. This is interesting because during the 2015 parliamentary election, which first brought Law and Justice to power, the party benefited hugely from its robust opposition to the EU’s then-mandatory quotas for re-distributing (predominantly Muslim) Middle Eastern and North African migrants located in Greece and Italy, which the previous Polish government – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently Poland’s main opposition party – had agreed to. This time, well aware of how the 2015 crisis shook up European politics and strengthened the hand of Eurosceptics, while the European Commission expressed general concern about migrant rights and offered Poland assistance from the EU Frontex border agency, it also argued that Warsaw had a duty to defend its external frontier (as the Eastern border of the Union’s passport-free Schengen zone) from illegal migration.

Polls also showed that Law and Justice’s approach to this issue was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion. For example, a September survey conducted by the CBOS agency found that 48% of Poles were even against admitting refugees (never mind economic migrants) fleeing from countries where there were armed conflicts, with only 40% in favour (and only 9% wanted to allow them to settle permanently in Poland rather than granting temporary sanctuary until they could return to their home countries). 52% were against allowing those migrants located on the Polish-Belarussian border to apply for political asylum, and only 33% were in favour. 77% supported strengthening Poland’s borders and only 14% were against. Not surprisingly, therefore, the border crisis issue improved, although did not transform, Law and Justice’s poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice’s poll average increased from 32% in July and 33% in August to 35% in September; still short of the 40% average that it enjoyed last summer, which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

Mr Tusk struggles to control the opposition narrative

All of this left Poland’s opposition in an awkward position as it struggled to develop a unified and credible response to the crisis. Indeed, it provided the first real test of leadership for former prime minister and EU Council President Donald Tusk, who returned to front-line Polish politics at the beginning of July once again taking over as head of Civic Platform. Conscious of the difficulties that the migration issue caused his party in the run-up to the 2015 election, Mr Tusk attempted to steer a centrist course claiming that there was no contradiction between maintaining border security and responding to migrants’ humanitarian concerns. On the one hand, he criticised Law and Justice for reacting too slowly to the crisis and failing to build a national political consensus with the opposition around migration and border security, while calling upon the government to help the migrants stranded on the border on humanitarian grounds. At the same time, knowing that the opposition was in danger of finding itself on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue, and concerned that the ‘open borders’ rhetoric coming from pro-immigration radicals was playing into Law and Justice’s hands, Mr Tusk also admitted that Belarus was primarily responsible for the crisis and appeared to endorse a tough stance on strengthening the Polish border.

However, Mr Tusk’s efforts to steer a more nuanced, middle course were undermined by the public statements and actions of more outspoken opposition-linked public figures. Public perceptions of the opposition’s stance on the border crisis were often shaped by politicians such as Civic Platform deputy Franciszek Sterczewski, who made headlines attempting to escape from border guards preventing him from crossing illegally in order to take supplies to the trapped migrants. While this may have appealed to the anti-Law and Justice liberal-left hard core, it also appeared to confirm the ruling party’s narrative that, while the government was on clearly the side of the Polish army and border guards protecting the country’s territorial integrity, much of the opposition seemed to be calling for migrants procured by the Belarussian regime from unstable parts of the world to be freely admitted into Poland and the EU Schengen zone.

A crisis lasting weeks – or even months?

The Belarussian border crisis provided Law and Justice with an issue where it was clearly in tune with Polish public opinion, and an opportunity to present itself as heading up a strong government defending the country’s border security. For sure, media interest will wax and wane and it is difficult to tell how long the crisis will remain a salient issue or whether the government’s other problems will re-assert themselves and overshadow it; although there is every chance that it could last for several more weeks, and possibly even months. While Law and Justice has a clear, simple, and popular message, Mr Tusk has struggled to control the opposition narrative with, in the eyes of many Poles, many of its other, most high profile and vocal public figures apparently more interested in political stunts than developing a credible and popular critique of, and alternative to, the government’s response. Although Mr Tusk is often portrayed by opposition-linked commentators as its most effective political strategist and convincing authority figure, the border crisis is a good example of the kind of problems that he faces trying to set out more nuanced stances on controversial issues where the political centre ground is more sympathetic to Law and Justice than its opponents.

Can Poland’s ruling party still govern?

In spite of losing its majority, Poland’s right-wing ruling party is very unlikely to call a snap autumn election. However, given the precarious parliamentary arithmetic this could change if the situation proves too unstable, and it may call an early spring poll if it can secure the passage of flagship economic reforms.

Mr Gowin leaves the government

Earlier this month, the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – fractured following the dismissal of deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin. Mr Gowin is leader of the liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) party, Law and Justice’s junior partner in the ‘United Right’ (ZP) coalition, and his sacking was followed by the immediate departure of a group of his closest allies from the governing camp’s parliamentary caucus.

Mr Gowin’s departure is the culmination of months of unrest within the government. The dispute dates back to last summer when he resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. On that occasion, ‘Agreement’ remained within the ruling coalition, the election was postponed by a few weeks, and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following an autumn ministerial reshuffle. Nonetheless, Law and Justice remained wary of him, suspecting he had undertaken behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition, and the next few months were characterised by ‘Agreement’ deputies repeatedly contesting and voting against key elements of Law and Justice’s governing programme. Indeed, some commentators argued that Mr Gowin was a semi-detached member of the government, and it was only a matter of time before he left it formally.

The situation escalated dramatically in August when Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired Anna Kornecka, one of Mr Gowin’s deputy ministers and also an ‘Agreement’ member, after she criticized the ruling party’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) post-pandemic recovery programme, claiming that proposed tax increases would not be limited to higher earners. Launched in May, the ‘Polish Deal’ includes a wide range of (partly EU-funded) ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards including tax reforms favouring lower and middle-income earners. Law and Justice is hoping that the ‘Polish Deal’ will re-build support for the government and help the party win an unprecedented third term in office.

‘Agreement’ responded to Ms Kornecka’s sacking by placing three conditions on its future membership of the government. These included calls to amend plans to introduce steep increases in health care premiums and tax burdens for small and medium-sized firms, and supplement the ‘Polish Deal’ with new rules to protect local authorities, who they argue could see a substantial drop in funding. A third condition involved amending a draft media ownership law designed to strengthen the existing ban on companies from outside the European Economic Area (EU states, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) from owning a controlling stake in Polish media firms.

The latter is widely seen as targeting TVN, Poland’s largest private television network which is controlled by the US-based media conglomerate Discovery but formally owned by a Dutch-registered company so that it meets existing Polish rules; which it would not if the new law is passed. TVN’s news channel TVN24 provides extremely critical coverage of the government from a liberal-left perspective and Law and Justice’s opponents argue that the legislation is intended to silence the independent media; as well as damaging Poland’s image and creating a rift with the USA, the country’s main international security guarantor. Law and Justice, on the other hand, says that the new rules are similar to those in other EU countries and necessary to prevent companies from non-democratic states taking control of Polish media companies, and money launderers and the narco-businesses entering the country’s media sector.

Relying on Mr Kukiz and independents

This ultimatum proved to be the tipping point that led to Mr Gowin’s dismissal. The key question then became: how many of his allies would follow Mr Gowin in leaving the governing camp? There were originally 18 ‘Agreement’ members elected to parliament in autumn 2019 but since then deputies have been peeling away from the group. In February, for example, a pro-Law and Justice faction within ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried (reportedly with the ruling party’s tacit support) unsuccessfully to wrest control of the party from Mr Gowin. In June Mr Bielan’s supporters formed a breakaway grouping, the Republican Party (Partia Republikańska), which four ‘Agreement’ parliamentarians joined. Although most of the party’s deputies stuck with Mr Gowin, by the time of his departure from the government he was down to a hard core of 11 and only five of these left the ‘United Right’ to form a new ‘Agreement’ parliamentary caucus (together with one previously unaffiliated parliamentarian), while the remainder continued to support the administration.

Nonetheless, the departure of Mr Gowin and his allies reduced the ‘United Right’ caucus from 232 to only 227 deputies out of 460 in total in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of parliament. This deprived the government of its formal majority and left Law and Justice dependent upon deputies outside of the governing camp to win key votes. There are currently two independents who, although not formally part of the ruling party, normally vote with Law and Justice. The party also has a co-operation agreement with right-wing anti-establishment rock star-turned-politician Paweł Kukiz, who leads the eponymous Kukiz’15 grouping comprising four deputies, and has promised to back the government in key votes; it can normally rely on the support of three of these. Assuming, no further defections, this gives the government a de facto parliamentary majority, albeit a very narrow and unpredictable one. Law and Justice also hopes to secure support from the 11-strong ‘Confederation’ caucus, an eclectic mix of radical free marketeers and nationalists, in at least some votes; although this is a very unreliable and controversial partner whose strategic objective is to replace the ruling party as Poland’s main conservative grouping by challenging it on its radical right flank.

The first test of the government’s parliamentary strength was a vote on the media law which, as noted above, was one of main bones of contention between Law and Justice and ‘Agreement’. Indeed, the ruling party suffered a shock defeat when the Sejm passed, by 229 votes to 227, an opposition-sponsored procedural motion that would have delayed consideration of the law until September. However, Kukiz’15 deputies said that they supported the opposition motion by mistake and Law and Justice-nominated Sejm speaker Elżbieta Witek repeated the vote, illegally according to the opposition. The draft media law was then finally voted through with 228 deputies in favour, 216 against and 10 abstentions (including nine ‘Confederation’ deputies).

Is the ‘Polish Deal’ a game-changer?

The parliamentary arithmetic is, therefore, very precarious for Law and Justice and it has clearly taken a huge risk in forcing out Mr Gowin. The ruling party will now have to engage in numerous policy compromises and concessions, as well as using its full arsenal of state appointments and government patronage, to keep Kukiz’15, independents and potential defectors on board. Law and Justice is particularly vulnerable to losing second-order and procedural votes through pro-government deputies peeling off to demonstrate their independence or simply being absent; especially as many ruling party parliamentarians also have day-to-day ministerial responsibilities. Moreover, to over-turn amendments voted through by the Senate, Poland’s opposition-controlled second chamber, Law and Justice needs an absolute majority of all Sejm deputies present, not just those voting for or against, so any abstentions (by, say, ‘Confederation’ deputies) count as votes against.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice is very unlikely to gamble on an early election (the next one is scheduled for autumn 2023), at least not before next spring. This is partly because a motion to dissolve parliament requires a two-thirds majority so needs opposition support. An early election can also be called if the government resigns and there are three unsuccessful attempts to secure a vote of confidence in a successor, but this is a potentially lengthy and politically debilitating process that Law and Justice could easily lose control of. There is also a serious risk that the ruling party would lose an early election. Although – according to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys – Law and Justice remains Poland’s most popular party, its poll ratings have fallen from an average of around 40% last summer and now fluctuate around the 30-35% mark, which would leave it short of a parliamentary majority.

Law and Justice is instead hoping that its ‘Polish Deal’ programme will be a political game-changer. Up until now, it has had not had a transformative effect on the ruling party’s polling numbers. But Law and Justice believes that this is because many Poles associate the plan with the tax hikes that are required to help finance it, rather than the package of tax cuts and social spending measures from which a large majority will benefit. A June survey conducted by the CBOS polling agency found that only 23% of respondents felt that they would benefit from the proposed tax reforms, 30% thought they would lose, and 31% that the effects would be neutral.

And a key reason for this, Law and Justice feels, has been the criticisms of the programme’s fiscal elements by Mr Gowin and his allies. This is why the party concluded that losing its formal parliamentary majority was a lesser evil than having a leading government member constantly undermining the ‘Polish Deal’. Law and Justice is hoping that when these reforms are enacted, and most Poles realise that they will benefit from them, this will push up its polling numbers. That is why it is so important for the party to secure the passage of the relevant legislation before the next election is held.

A spring 2022 election?

Whether or not the government really has a stable majority will become clearer when parliament resumes in September. In addition to securing the passage of the main elements of the ‘Polish Deal’, a key test for Law and Justice will be whether it can defend its ministers and other key appointees from parliamentary votes of no-confidence. The first trial of strength here is likely to be an opposition attempt to oust Mrs Witek, following her controversial chairing of the parliamentary session on the draft media law.

If it transpires that the government lacks a reliable majority, there could still be an autumn election. For sure, Polish experience suggests that it is possible for a party to govern for a considerable period of time as a minority administration. To replace a government an opposition has to secure the passage of a so-called ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ in favour of a specific alternative prime ministerial candidate. This will be extremely difficult in the current parliament where even a minimal majority for any alternative to Law and Justice would have to encompass an extremely broad range of parties ranging from the radical left to radical right. However, Law and Justice knows how debilitating it will be if it finds itself simply being in office administering but unable to govern effectively. It could then conclude that the only way to break the deadlock is to risk a snap parliamentary poll

In fact, even if Law and Justice finds that it can command a working majority over the next few months, with the parliamentary arithmetic being so uncertain it is still unlikely to let the parliament run its full course. If it can secure the passage of the ‘Polish Deal’ reforms and starts to see its polling support recover, the most likely scenario is probably a spring 2022 election. Not least because, if Law and Justice can block approval of next year’s state budget, there is a more straightforward constitutional pathway to dissolving parliament at the start of next year that only requires the consent of party-backed President Andrzej Duda.

Can Donald Tusk save Poland’s opposition?

Opponents of Poland’s right-wing ruling party hope that the return of former prime minister Donald Tusk to front-line politics will re-energise the country’s divided opposition. But supporters of the governing party, and even some anti-government commentators, sense that Mr Tusk is a polarising figure who could actually be less of an electoral asset than other potential opposition leaders.

A boost for Civic Platform

Former European Council President and leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational party federation Donald Tusk returned to front-line Polish politics at the start of July when he took over from Borys Budka as acting leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main governing party until the 2015 elections and currently the largest parliamentary opposition grouping. Mr Tusk led Civic Platform to two parliamentary election victories and was prime minister between 2007-14. The lacklustre Mr Budka was accused of failing to take the initiative effectively against the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015.

Given his international standing and high domestic media profile, Mr Tusk’s return to front-line Polish politics has re-energised Civic Platform and provided it with an opinion poll boost. Previously, the party had been trailing behind ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050), a new centrist party formed by TV presenter-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia after his strong third place in last summer’s presidential election. Mr Hołownia has succeeded in attracting some Civic Platform defectors and his appeal to ‘newness’ and claim to transcend the simple ‘pro-versus-anti-Law and Justice’ binary divide resonates with many liberal and centrist voters.

In June, the ‘E-wybory’ website which aggregates opinion poll data showed ‘Poland 2050’ as the second largest party averaging 20% support, despite having just six parliamentary deputies, compared with only 17% for Civic Platform. Since Mr Tusk’s return, however, Civic Platform’s average has increased quickly to 22% and ‘Poland 2050’’s has fallen back to 17%; although both groupings remain well behind Law and Justice, which is averaging 33%.

A polarising figure

However, Law and Justice – and many commentators, including some who are sympathetic to the opposition – believe that Mr Tusk’s return will not necessarily be the game-changer that government opponents are hoping for. He is certainly a very articulate and effective critic of Law and Justice, which explains why opposition voters have already started to rally around his leadership. But while this appears to be reviving support for Civic Platform, Mr Tusk is a very polarising figure with loyal devotees but also fierce opponents, so may actually help to mobilise supporters of the ruling party as well.

Mr Tusk could also struggle to connect with voters beyond the opposition hard core and be much less successful at winning over potentially disillusioned ‘soft’ Law and Justice supporters. Law and Justice’s election victory over Civic Platform in 2015 reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change; and most Poles do not want to simply go back to the political status quo ante. Given that Mr Tusk was prime minister for seven out of the eight years that Civic Platform was in office, few politicians better embody the previous administration which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs, while several of its ministers were forced to resign after being embroiled in scandals. Opinion polls appear to show both that Mr Tusk is one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians and that most Poles do not want him to return to front-line domestic politics. However, his supporters argue that, because Mr Tusk has not been active in day-to-day Polish politics for several years, these surveys are misleading and based largely on negative media stereotypes.

Opposing Law and Justice is not enough

In fact, the Polish opposition’s biggest problem has been its inability to develop an attractive and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles appear to care most about. Law and Justice has certainly lost support over the last few months: from 45% in the autumn 2019 parliamentary election – and, according to ‘E-wybory’, an average of around 40% last summer – its opinion poll rating now fluctuates around the 30-35% mark. However, the party can still credibly claim to have delivered on the popular, high profile social spending and welfare pledges that were the key to its 2015 and 2019 parliamentary election victories, notably the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme.

In May, Law and Justice launched its new flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) post-pandemic recovery programme which includes a wide range of ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards. The party is hoping that this will provide it with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliament, scheduled to run until autumn 2023. For sure, the ‘Polish Deal’ has not, as yet, transformed Law and Justice’s opinion poll ratings. Nevertheless, not only does the opposition currently lack an effective counter-offer, the fact that Law and Justice is in office means that it can actually start to implement this plan and offer Poles something concrete and not just aspirational.

Although Mr Tusk’s blistering critique of Law and Justice has certainly been effective at rallying the core anti-government electorate and channelling opposition to the ruling party, his current message is a very negative one. Mr Tusk has not yet provided any indication that he is able to put forward the kind of credible and popular programmatic alternative that the opposition needs to reach out beyond this hard core. Moreover, even if he proposes popular alternative policies, the fact that he previously served as a long-serving prime minister leaves Mr Tusk open to questions as to why he failed to implement them when in office himself. Indeed, Mr Tusk’s critics argue that he previously rubbished Law and Justice’s popular social welfare spending pledges as unaffordable and unrealistic.

A struggle for the opposition leadership

Mr Tusk’s return has also complicated the plans and weakened the position of other potential opposition leaders, notably Mr Hołownia and the popular Warsaw mayor and Civic Platform deputy leader Rafał Trzaskowski. Mr Hołownia was increasingly confident that his ‘Poland 2050’ grouping was consolidating its position as the main opposition challenger and that Civic Platform would not be able to recover under Mr Budka’s weak and indecisive leadership.

Mr Trzaskowski, on the other hand, leads the faction of ‘young’ politicians who installed Mr Budka as Civic Platform leader in January 2020 because the Warsaw mayor did not then want the job. Having been narrowly defeated in last summer’s presidential election by Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda, in spite of securing more than 10 million votes, Mr Trzaskowski has been keeping his future options open. Knowing that he was easily the party’s most popular leader, Mr Trzaskowski was well-placed to challenge Mr Budka’s leadership at any time if this fitted with his political plans. At the same time, Mr Trzaskowski was building his own ‘Common Poland’ (Wspólna Polska) civic movement if he felt that Civic Platform could not regain its hegemony as the main opposition grouping and he needed to form an alternative political support base. At one point, Mr Trzaskowski also suggested that he would be prepared to run against Mr Tusk for the Civic Platform leadership, although an open confrontation would be very risky as day-to-day mayoral responsibilities leave him little time to engage in the kind of internal party manoeuvring in which the former prime minister excels.

In fact, both Mr Hołownia and Mr Trzaskowski are, arguably, more dangerous political opponents for Law and Justice than Mr Tusk. In their different ways, both have been able to offer a ‘newness’ to voters (in spite of the fact that Mr Trzaskowski was actually a member of the previous Civic Platform government) which has allowed them to mobilise support beyond the core anti-Law and Justice electorate in a way that Mr Tusk finds difficult because of his historical baggage. Arguably, they also have a much better ‘feel’ for how to develop an appeal to some of the key groups of voters that the opposition needs to win over and mobilise, notably younger Poles. While Mr Tusk is undoubtedly very effective at energising and mobilising hard core opposition voters, this will almost certainly not be enough to defeat Law and Justice, especially if the ruling party can start to win back support based on its ‘Polish Deal’ post-pandemic recovery programme.

Out-of-touch and de-motivated?

Finally, there are question marks as to whether Mr Tusk is the political driving force that he once was and still has his finger sufficiently on the political pulse, or simply has the appetite, for the kind of hard grind of campaigning that will be required to secure victory in an election that could be more than two years away. One of Mr Tusk’s great strengths when he was at the peak of his political influence in Poland was his ability to read and respond to the Polish public mood. This combined with his rather schizophrenic, but effective, image as simultaneously a political unifier (in contrast to the allegedly ‘divisive’ Law and Justice) and ‘street-fighting moderate’ able to face down political extremists.

Having been out of active Polish politics, and relying on secondary sources for on-the-ground political intelligence, for nearly seven years – and with the domestic political situation having clearly changed so markedly during this time – there is a question mark over whether his long stint abroad has dulled Mr Tusk’s previously extremely well-attuned political antennae. Moreover, some commentators argue that Mr Tusk was always prone to have something of a lazy streak and question whether, after years of moving in the exulted salons of the international political establishment, he has the energy and appetite to engage in the kind of sustained, grassroots campaigning in small town, provincial Poland that will be needed to lay the groundwork for renewed electoral success. Although he has promised to visit every county in Poland before the next parliamentary election, an ominous sign here was the fact that, only a few days after his spectacular re-entry on to the domestic political scene, Mr Tusk broke off from campaigning for a family holiday in Croatia.

Autumn will be the key test

Mr Tusk is undoubtedly an impressive political operator with a knack for taking full advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses and who can communicate effectively with, and generate enthusiasm among, his supporters. Civic Platform has clearly benefited from the energy and momentum generated by his high-profile re-entry into Polish politics and powerful anti-Law and Justice message, re-establishing itself (for the moment at least) as the main opposition grouping. Indeed, some commentators appear to believe that Mr Tusk’s re-entry onto the Polish political scene is a game-changer that can transform the opposition’s fortunes.

The key question is: how far can the ‘Tusk effect’ expand Civic Platform and the opposition’s support? Up until now Mr Tusk’s return has proceeded along fairly predictable tracks with his message focused on polarizing the political debate and appealing to hard core anti-Law and Justice voters. Moreover, in some ways Mr Tusk’s comeback could actually help the ruling party by rallying its own core voters, while consolidating the opposition around a figure who, potentially, has less political appeal than other alternative leaders. The key test of whether Mr Tusk can really pose an effective challenge to Law and Justice will come when the new political season begins in earnest in the autumn. By then it should start to become clearer how he will develop his relations with other opposition leaders and parties; and whether the momentum and enthusiasm that his return has undoubtedly generated has simply provided Civic Platform with a short-term opinion poll boost, or if Mr Tusk has a long-term plan and forward-looking programmatic agenda that can broaden his appeal beyond the anti-Law and Justice hard core.

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

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

Turning the corner?

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

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

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

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

A de facto working majority?

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

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

An unreliable governing partner

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

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

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

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

An early election?

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

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

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

How has the coronavirus pandemic crisis affected Polish politics?

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

Taken aback by the ‘second wave’

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

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

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

Support for Law and Justice slumps

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

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

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

What about other issues?

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

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

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

Focusing on the post-pandemic recovery

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

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

A ‘fourth wave’?

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

Can younger voters revive the Polish left?

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

In the doldrums

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

Following its defeat, many commentators wrote the Alliance off as a cynical and corrupt political grouping whose ageing, communist-nostalgic electorate was literally dying off. However, the party continued to have deep social roots in those sections of the electorate that, due to their personal biographies, had positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime, especially those whose families were connected to the military and former security services. This was a relatively small, and steadily declining, segment of the electorate but sizeable enough to allow the Alliance to retain its hegemony on the Polish left.

The Alliance faced a challenge on its left flank from the ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism and programmatic clarity. It accused the Alliance of betraying left-wing ideas by pursuing orthodox liberal economic and Atlanticist foreign policies when in office. In the event, ‘Together’ won 3.6% of the vote in the 2015 election which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that it peeled away sufficient left-wing votes to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold. However, ‘Together’ failed to capitalise on its early promise and attract a broader range of support beyond the well-educated urban ‘hipsters’ that formed its core electorate.

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

A false dawn?

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

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

Young Poles swing to the left?

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

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

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

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

Fickle and unreliable?

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

The problem here for the ‘Left’ is that in Poland less well-off, economically leftist voters, who should be one of their natural bases of support, tend to be older and more socially conservative, so often incline towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy. At the same time, the kind of younger, better-off, social liberals who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well.

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

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

Defeating Law and Justice is the priority

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

Will Poland’s governing coalition survive?

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

The governing camp’s structural weakness

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

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

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

Numerous escalating conflicts

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

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

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

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

Administering not governing?

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

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

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

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

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

Voters will not forgive self-indulgence

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

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

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

Poland’s most popular politician?

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

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

Deliberate programmatic vagueness?

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

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

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

Finessing the abortion issue

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

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

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

Political marketing or policy substance?

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

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

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

Experience or generational change?

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

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

A product of ‘virtual’ politics?

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

How will the Biden presidency affect Polish politics?

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

The vanguard of an anti-liberal backlash

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

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

Law and Justice’s key international ally

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

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

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

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

Geopolitical interests or ‘shared values’?

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

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

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

Will ‘rule of law’ issues be a priority?

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

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

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

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

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

Another flashpoint in an ongoing power struggle

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

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

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

A trap for Mr Morawiecki?

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

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

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

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

An acceptable compromise?

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

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

Mr Ziobro overplays his hand

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

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

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

Laying the groundwork for a new political formation?

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

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