The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

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

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

One bloc or several?

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

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

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

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

Unity is not enough

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

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

Lacking leadership and a credible programme

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

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

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

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

Too little time left?

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

 

 

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

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

A huge boost for Law and Justice

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

However, this time overall turnout was significantly higher at 46%, closer to the level in parliamentary elections. Indeed, Law and Justice’s campaign was focused primarily on mobilising its core electorate in smaller towns and rural areas. In order to signal to its supporters just how important this election was, Law and Justice stood some of its best-known ministers as leading candidates and its campaign was fronted by party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. While Mr Kaczyński is a polarising figure and traditionally one of Poland’s least trusted politicians among more centrist voters, he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters.

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

Uniting the opposition was not enough

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

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

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

The minor parties were squeezed

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

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

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

Problems for the opposition (but also the ruling party)

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

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

Why does Poland’s European Parliament election matter?

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

Turnout patterns will be crucial

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

However, the level and pattern of turnout will be crucial to determining the EP election outcome. In Polish EP elections this is traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher in urban areas where the liberal-centrist opposition enjoys greater support, making these particularly difficult polls for Law and Justice. In order to signal to its core electorate just how important this election is, Law and Justice is standing some of its best-known ministers as leading candidates and its campaign is being fronted by party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. While Mr Kaczyński is a polarising figure and traditionally one of Poland’s least trusted politicians among more centrist voters, he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters.

Raising the stakes for government supporters

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

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

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

A de facto EU membership referendum?

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

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

Minor parties are crucial

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

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

Does the European Coalition have a future?

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

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

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

Mobilising conservative voters

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

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

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

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

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

A problematic issue for the opposition

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

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

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

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

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

Turnout will be key

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

Have the ‘Kaczyński tapes’ had any impact on Polish politics?

The opposition was hoping that recordings of the leader of Poland’s right-wing ruling party discussing a lucrative construction project would undermine the government’s ethical legitimation and political appeal. But the governing party retains credibility among its core supporters, and the circumstances surrounding the revelations are too complex for them to be a political game changer.

Disputed construction project payments

At the end of January, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, found himself on the defensive when the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper published transcripts from secret recordings of his summer 2018 discussions with Gerald Birgfellner, an Austrian businessman and one of his distant relatives. Although he does not hold any formal state positions, Mr Kaczyński exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. The so-called ‘Kaczyński tapes’ record a discussion where Mr Birgfellner complained that he had not been paid for his work on a project to build a skyscraper in the centre of Warsaw, at a total estimated cost of 1.3 billion złoties, dubbed the ‘K-Towers’.

The land for the potential development was owned by a company called Srebrna which was founded in the mid-1990s by the Centre Agreement (PC) party, a forerunner of Law and Justice. Srebrna is majority-owned by the Lech Kaczyński Institute (ILK), which was created to commemorate the ruling party leader’s twin brother and former Polish President who died in a 2010 plane crash. Mr Kaczyński is on the supervisory board of the Institute, which was to locate a museum dedicated to his brother in the building and would earn income generated from renting out the remaining space. The financing for the K-Towers project was to come from Poland’s second largest bank, the state-controlled Pekao SA.

In the tapes, Mr Kaczyński explained that the project had to be stopped because it was too risky from a political perspective if Law and Justice was linked to the building of a skyscraper in central Warsaw. He also complained that Warsaw city council – controlled by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main opposition grouping and Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 – refused to issue a construction permit. Mr Kaczyński said that he had no control over the Srebrna management and recommended that Mr Birgfellner take legal action, believing that this was the only way he could be re-imbursed.

Mr Birgfellner’s lawyers then filed a complaint against Srebrna and Mr Kaczyński to the public prosecutor’s office and, over the next few weeks, ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ published several new documents and extracts from the recordings, including an apparent invoice for the work undertaken by the Austrian businessman. In his evidence to the public prosecutor, Mr Birgfellner also claimed that in February 2018 Mr Kaczyński had persuaded him to pass a 50,000 złoties bribe on to a former priest and member of the Lech Kaczyński Institute’s council whose consent was required for the project to go ahead.

Party leader or property developer?

 The opposition seized on the leaked recordings, arguing that they showed the most important politician in the country acting as a property developer negotiating on behalf of a company of which he was not formally a board member. The tapes thereby revealed, they said, the ruling party’s true nature as a corrupt and cronyistic grouping prepared to use its power and influence over public institutions to advance partisan interests. They pointed out that the law forbade parties from engaging in business activity and obliged parliamentary deputies to declare all their interests even if they were not linked to any direct financial payments.

The government’s opponents argued that, even if nothing strictly illegal occurred, Mr Kaczyński’s actions conflicted with the spirit of the law as it was not normal practice for the leader of a political grouping with an absolute parliamentary majority to conduct property negotiations in the party’s headquarters. Srebrna, they said, was closely tied to Law and Justice’s business interests so that these could be hidden behind a political-business conglomerate without formally breaking any rules. The fact that Mr Kaczyński had complete control of the ruling party, chaired the Lech Kaczyński Institute which owns Srebrna, and placed some of his most loyal and trusted associates in senior management positions within the company meant that he could manage its assets from behind-the-scenes.

The recordings appeared to confirm, they claimed, that Mr Kaczyński was very much in charge of Srebrna, acting as its informal intermediary with Mr Birgfellner, even though he had no formal link with the company. These tangled business arrangements were a cover for the fact that Law and Justice was involved indirectly in a potentially hugely profitable construction project. The government’s opponents also argued that the fact that the head of a state-controlled bank attended meetings in the party’s headquarters to discuss loans to Srebrna represented a pathological arrangement and that no other investor would be treated in this way.

Groundless, politically-motivated sensationalism?

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, dismissed the furore surrounding the revelations as a ‘gun cap’ (‘kapiszon’, used in Polish as a metaphor for a pseudo-sensation) arguing that the opposition and its media allies’ claims were not borne out by the evidence presented in the recordings. They argued that Mr Kaczyński was involved in normal business negotiations and denied that the recordings contained evidence of anything illegal or of any wrongdoing on his part. The Law and Justice leader was within his rights as a citizen and parliamentary deputy (even as a party leader) to discuss a real estate investment, head up the Lech Kaczyński Institute’s supervisory body, and take an interest in a company owned by the foundation. Law and Justice and Srebrna were completely separate entities and there were no legal, institutional or financial links between them.

Indeed, they argued that the recordings actually testified to the Law and Justice leader’s honesty, and determination to observe the law, and ensure that the Lech Kaczyński Institute’s assets were not put at risk. Mr Kaczyński was willing to settle up with Mr Birgfellner but only if there was a solid legal basis with documentation setting out exactly what services the Austrian businessman had provided. Mr Kaczyński would not have benefited personally from the investment and his actions were motivated by a desire to honour his late brother’s legacy and provide the broader Law and Justice-linked milieu with a steady, long-term financial base.

The government’s supporters pointed to the fact that Mr Birgfellner appointed lawyers with opposition ties as proof that the allegations were politically motivated; notably Roman Giertych, who once led a party in a governing coalition with Law and Justice but has become one of Mr Kaczyński’s harshest critics. Mr Birgfellner’s invoice, presented by ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ as a key piece of evidence, they said, did not fulfil formal requirements, and his recollections about the supposed bribe were too hazy. The real scandal, they argued, was the apparent politicisation of the planning process by the Civic Platform-led Warsaw city council. For its part, Pekao SA said that its practices in this case were completely normal and that it lent money in line with the banking law and its own commercial criteria.

Undermining Law and Justice’s moral legitimation?

Poland faces elections to the European Parliament (EP) in May, and a crucial parliamentary poll in the autumn. Secret tape recordings have played an important role in Polish politics in the past, perhaps most notoriously as a result of the 2014 ‘tape affair’. This drew popular anger at the cynicism and crude language revealed in conversations between senior Civic Platform-led government ministers and public figures when discussing state matters in high-end Warsaw restaurants at the taxpayers’ expense. The scandal drained the government’s support, and Law and Justice’s victories in the subsequent 2015 elections were based in large part on portraying itself, in apparent contrast to its predecessor, as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than venal and self-serving political and business elites.

The ‘Kaczyński tapes’ thereby posed huge risks for Law and Justice because the party made fighting corruption and raising moral standards in public life a core element of its ethical legitimation and political appeal. They also came at a time when the ruling party had to deal with the fallout from a number of other controversies, including an alleged bribery scandal at the country’s financial regulator, and outcry over the high salaries paid to National Bank of Poland (NBP) officials. At the same time, although it was difficult to point to any direct breaches of the law, the ease with which Mr Kaczyński conducted these tough business negotiations appeared out-of-character with the his image as an ascetic driven by grand political ideas and unconcerned with material wealth. The revelations thus appeared to strike at the personal credibility of Mr Kaczyński, whose leadership is a key element ensuring the cohesion of the governing camp. The opposition and its media allies hoped they would provide a knockout blow, undermining Law and Justice’s moral foundations in a spectacular way.

Re-inforcing and deepening existing divisions

For sure, a February survey by the IPSOS agency for the OKO.press portal found that, by a margin of 55% to 31%, respondents felt that Mr Kaczyński’s negotiations with Mr Birgfellner were inappropriate. However, although polling trends do show some weakening in Law and Justice’s support in recent months, its popularity remains roughly were it was in 2015 and, up until now, the ‘Kaczyński tapes’ do not appear to have really damaged the ruling party. Partly, this was because the anti-Law and Justice media over-hyped the story, hinting that it could be the biggest bombshell to hit the political scene for years. But for many Poles the controversies surrounding the recordings were just too complex and contained too many nuances, and public and media interest in them faded as the news cycle moved on.

At the moment, rather than being a game changer the ‘Kaczyński tapes’ appear to be yet another one of those issues that have simply re-inforced and deepened existing political divisions. In particular, they do not seem to have had any significant impact on Law and Justice voters. The February IPSOS/OKO.press survey, for example, found that, by a margin of 77% to 13%, supporters of the ruling party felt that Mr Kaczyński had acted appropriately compared with 13% and 73% respectively among voters of other parties. Moreover, in spite of his other-wordly image, most Poles know that Mr Kaczyński is a deeply pragmatic politician and shrewd operator. For most Law and Justice supporters the negotiations appeared to be about legally securing the finances of a foundation linked to the party’s broader political milieu rather than his personal enrichment.

More critical will be the reaction of ‘softer’ Law and Justice supporters whom the party needs to win the elections. Its support among these voters may not collapse overnight, or even in the course of a few weeks, but experience suggests that the impact of high profile scandals can often be delayed, gradually chipping away at a party’s credibility until a further (sometimes relatively minor) incident or revelation acts as a tipping point that shifts the public mood very rapidly. While Law and Justice is hoping that interest in the ‘Kaczyński tapes’ will fade, they could develop a new dynamic if, for example, the public prosecutor opens up a full-blown investigation involving the Law and Justice leader; although this appears unlikely at present. However, a key difference between the ‘Kaczyński tapes’ and earlier ‘tape affair’ is that the latter was linked to a broader sense that Civic Platform had run out of steam and represented an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. In spite of its recent difficulties, Law and Justice retains credibility among many voters for having delivered on most of the flagship social spending promises that were the key to its 2015 election victories, and has not yet reached this kind of tipping point.

How will mayor Paweł Adamowicz’s killing affect Polish politics?

The brutal, high-profile killing of the opposition-linked mayor of one of Poland’s largest and most politically important cities produced fiercely contested interpretations of its meaning and significance. But experience suggests that ‘martyrdom politics’ is not an effective political strategy and, although the tragedy was an extremely traumatic one for Polish society, it will probably be subsumed within existing divisions rather than representing a game changer.

A hate-fuelled ‘political murder’?

In January, Paweł Adamowicz, an opposition-affiliated politician who was mayor of the northern Polish coastal city of Gdańsk since 1998, died after being fatally stabbed while taking part in the local finale of the so-called Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (WOŚP), Poland’s largest annual charity drive organised outside of the Catholic Church. Such an unprecedented and high profile killing involving a prominent, well-known local politician was clearly an extremely traumatic experience for Polish society. However, it is not clear how, and to what extent, the tragedy will impact upon the country’s political scene, in a year which sees European Parliament (EP) elections in May and a crucial parliamentary poll in the autumn. This will depend, in part, on which of the fiercely contested interpretations of the meaning and significance of the tragic Gdańsk events becomes accepted as the dominant public narrative.

Opposition politicians and anti-government commentators have tried to link the killing to the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, arguing that it was a ‘political murder’. They pointed to the fact that, immediately after stabbing the mayor, the culprit, identified in the media as ‘Stefan W.’, seized the microphone and claimed that he had been wrongly imprisoned and tortured by Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s liberal-centrist ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Mr Adamowicz was previously a member of Civic Platform since it was founded in 2001, although his membership was suspended in 2015 and he stood as an independent candidate in last autumn’s local elections.

Comparing the Gdańsk tragedy to the 1922 assassination by a fanatic of the then-Polish President Gabriel Narutowicz, who had earlier been fiercely criticised by the nationalist right, the government’s opponents argued that Mr Adamowicz’s killing could not be blamed solely on the attacker and that the mayor’s death was linked to his political beliefs. They held Law and Justice responsible for creating what they argued was an increasingly toxic social and political climate by feeding the presence of, and normalising, ‘hate speech’. The ruling party did this, they claimed, both through their rhetoric and the alleged weak response of state institutions to manifestations of such hatred directed against opposition politicians.

They pointed to the fact that Mr Adamowicz’s high profile criticisms of the government’s opposition to Poland accepting EU quotas of Muslim migrants, and increasingly vocal liberal stance on issues such as the rights of sexual minorities, meant that he was regularly subjected to personal abuse from government supporters and radical political groupings. For example, two years ago in a publicity stunt the radical nationalist All-Poland Youth (MW) grouping published a series of fake ‘political death certificates’ for a number of local politicians, including Mr Adamowicz, putting the cause of death as ‘liberalism, multiculturalism and stupidity’.

In particular, the government’s critics said that the barrage of criticism to which Mr Adamowicz had been subjected prior to his killing by Law and Justice’s media allies – especially Polish public TV news which, they argued, had been turned into an instrument of brutal pro-government propaganda – legitimised violence and made attacks on him more likely. Such harsh criticisms, they argued, created a fertile ground for individuals who may not have been directly associated with Law and Justice and more radical political groupings but were motivated by their rhetoric and felt attracted to committing such crimes; making Mr Adamowicz’s murder ‘political’ in the broader sense.

No evidence of political motivations?

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, accused the opposition and its media allies of trying to cynically exploit, and create a political myth surrounding, Mr Adamowicz and his tragic death by engaging in ‘martyrdom politics’. They argued that the opposition deliberately used the ambiguous term ‘political murder’ to create a moral panic by conflating the killing of a politician with a murder that was overtly politically or ideologically motivated. Pro-government commentators said that there was no clear evidence that the perpetrator was in any way linked to, or involved with, Law and Justice, nor that the ‘political climate’ led to such extreme behaviour. They pointed out that Stefan W. was a career criminal with a reported history of severe mental health problems who had recently been released from prison after serving a five-and-a-half year sentence for a series of violent armed bank robberies. They suggested that it was likely that Stefan W. felt that Civic Platform was to blame for imprisoning him because it was in government when he was convicted in 2014, and thus saw Mr Adamowicz as a symbol of the state authorities at that time.

Law and Justice acknowledged that there needed to be greater mutual respect among political adversaries and that the language of public debate should be toned down. However, they insisted that political divisions were not the cause of the Gdańsk tragedy, and argued that opposition parties and their media allies had also used inflammatory rhetoric against Law and Justice. They pointed out that, although Civic Platform was trying to present Mr Adamowicz as a political martyr, the party also distanced itself from him due to alleged irregularities in the Gdańsk mayor’s financial statements. Indeed, it was during the previous Civic Platform-led government’s term of office that the public prosecutor levelled tax fraud charges against him. Civic Platform, they noted, stood its own candidate against Mr Adamowicz in last autumn’s local elections and only supported him in the second round run-off against Law and Justice.

Government supporters also claimed that the ‘hate speech’ narrative was invented by liberal elites and being used instrumentally by Law and Justice’s opponents as a political weapon to morally and politically discredit the ruling party and its (as they saw it) legitimate (if sometimes harsh) criticisms of the Poland’s post-communist establishment. Criminalising ‘hate speech’ in other countries, they argued, resulted in attempts to censor and eliminate from public life defenders of national identity and culture, and supporters of traditional social values. Rather, the broader lessons that needed to be drawn from the tragedy were, they said, about lax security arrangements at public events and changing the penal code to ensure that those found guilty of the most serious crimes faced harsher sentences, and dangerous offenders with psychiatric problems did not slip through the net.

Complicating Law and Justice’s ‘de-mobilisation’ strategy

Knowing that (whatever Poles’ evaluations of him as a politician) the human tragedy of Mr Adamowicz’s killing has evoked a great deal of natural sympathy for him, the liberal-centrist opposition is likely to return to this topic in political debates running up to this year’s elections. Its strategy will be to try and draw upon the Gdańsk mayor’s legacy by presenting him as a symbolic political martyr of the struggle against the Law and Justice government. It will thereby cast the political choice facing Poles in the forthcoming elections in moral terms; presenting Law and Justice as a pariah party responsible for what they argue was the toxic atmosphere that led to Mr Adamowicz’s ‘political murder’.

At the same time, whether one believes the ruling party’s motives were instrumental or genuine, in the wake of the tragedy Law and Justice tried to present itself as the party of conciliation in apparent contrast to the opposition whom it accused of escalating tensions by pursuing ‘revenge politics’. For sure, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński was heavily criticised for missing the minute’s silence for Mr Adamowicz in parliament (some commentators argue that this was because he was concerned that Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna would use a preceding eulogy speech to accuse the ruling party of political responsibility for the killing; Mr Kaczyński says he was simply delayed) and the mayor’s funeral. The government’s opponents also accuse Law and Justice of hypocrisy arguing that it tried to politicise the October 2010 killing of one of its party workers, Marek Rosiak; although Law and Justice supporters respond that the killer’s motivations in this case were much more clearly political: upon his arrest the perpetrator said that he had also wanted to kill Mr Kaczyński.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice’s response to the Gdańsk tragedy dovetailed with its broader strategy of trying to lower the emotional temperature of political debate and downplay more controversial issues ahead of the elections in order to de-mobilise its opponents, especially in the larger towns and cities. However, Mr Adamowicz’s killing complicates the ruling party’s plans as it will be very difficult for Law and Justice to maintain its moderate, unifying tone when the opposition accuses it of being politically responsible for the ‘hate’ that led to the Gdańsk mayor’s death. If Law and Justice does not offer a counter-narrative to this then it will appear to be passively accepting the opposition’s arguments. On the other hand, if it does respond in kind then Law and Justice will find itself on the defensive rather than promoting its own positive policy agenda. Moreover, such a response also risks undermining the party’s broader ‘de-mobilisation’ strategy by prompting a further escalation of emotions and potentially greater polarisation of the political scene.

‘Martyrdom politics’ is not an effective strategy

On the face of it, the unprecedented, brutal killing of an incumbent mayor of one of Poland’s largest and most politically important cities should have a major impact on the country’s political scene, and some opinion polls carried out in recent weeks do show a small dip in support for Law and Justice. However, this may well be due to other factors, there is no clear trend, and Civic Platform does not appear be the beneficiary. For sure, the effect of such dramatic events in re-shaping public opinion can sometimes be delayed. However, experience suggests that, while may they remain part of the broader public debate, even traumatic and emotional occurrences such as Mr Adamowicz’s death – which, at the time, appear to have the capacity to be political turning points – gradually decline in salience as the news cycle moves on relentlessly and Poles turn their attention to other issues. For example, the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy – a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed, and which Mr Kaczyński’s party tried to blame on the incumbent Civic Platform-led government (and Russia) – did not benefit it in electoral terms (nor, indeed, did Mr Rosiak’s killing).

The experience of the Smolensk tragedy, therefore, suggests that – other than consolidating and building strong emotional links between Law and Justice and its core supporters for whom, at one point, it became almost a touchstone issue – ‘martyrdom politics’ is not an effective political strategy. Indeed, it can actually prove a distraction from the more prosaic and painstaking, but ultimately electorally rewarding, task of developing popular and credible programmatic alternatives. So rather than representing a political game changer with the capacity to influence the outcome of this year’s elections and re-set the political scene, Mr Adamowicz’s killing is more likely to be subsumed within existing political divisions and debates between Law and Justice and its opponents. Most Poles will, therefore, probably simply accept the narrative of the political current with whom they already identify most strongly as to what the Gdańsk tragedy represents: a hate-filled ‘political murder’ or the actions of a mentally-ill, violent convict with no broader political context.

 

Is Robert Biedroń the Polish left’s saviour?

Poland’s most popular and charismatic left-wing politician’s new initiative has a good chance of achieving short-term success in this year’s elections. But the grouping faces sharp criticism that it is dividing the opposition and playing into the right-wing government’s hands, and its longer-term prospects are much more questionable.

‘Newness’ and authenticity

The Polish left is in deep crisis. For most of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed the country from 1993-97 and 2001-5. The Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals, and it contested the most recent October 2015 poll – won decisively by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition in alliance with the ‘Your Movement’ (TR) grouping. The latter was an anti-clerical social liberal party led by controversial businessman Janusz Palikot which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the votes in the 2011 election but failed to capitalise on its success. However, in 2015, winning 3.6% of the votes, the new radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party peeled away enough support to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold for electoral alliances to secure parliamentary representation (it is 5% for individual parties). This meant that, for the first time since 1989, there were no left-wing parties represented in the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament.

Robert Biedroń is by far the most popular and charismatic left-wing politician in Poland today. In 2011, he was elected as a ‘Your Movement’ parliamentary deputy but, seeing that the party was in a downward spiral, sought an escape hatch and in 2014 became mayor of Słupsk, a provincial city the northern Pomeranian region. Another weak performance by left-wing parties in last autumn’s local elections – the Democratic Left Alliance secured 7% and 11 seats (out of 552) in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, while ‘Together’ only won 1.6% of the vote – created an opening for Mr Biedroń, who decided not to stand for re-election as Słupsk mayor in order to launch a new political initiative in 2019.

Mr Biedroń should not be under-estimated. He has many assets including excellent political antennae and communication skills. Mr Biedroń used his Słupsk mayoralty to project himself as a hard-working, effective and popular common-sense manager and leader, boasting a set of positive achievements during his term of office. He has also worked hard to develop an image of authenticity and ‘newness’. Although Mr Biedroń has been on the political scene as a left-wing activist for many of years – originally building his reputation and national political profile in the early 2000s as founder of the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) – he has never participated in national government. Indeed, given his own small-town background, a key element of his political appeal has been to portray himself as an anti-establishment ‘outsider’ trying to open up a sclerotic Polish political system. Although many Poles are culturally conservative, the fact that Mr Biedroń is in a same-sex relationship and has a clear social liberal-left ideological profile does not appear to have put off significant numbers of potential voters, because he has the rare political quality of being able to communicate with, and engender sympathy among, very diverse groups of voters and portray himself as a consensus-builder.

Transcending the ‘old’ politics?

Mr Biedroń, who will launch his new political initiative in February, claims that he can win over voters who are disillusioned with Law and Justice but would not otherwise support the opposition. His broad programmatic appeal is based on the ideas of what some commentators call the ‘symmetrists’ (symetryści), who accuse the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping, of simply wanting a return to the status quo ante, and ignoring the fact that previous governments were also guilty of many of the pathologies which are ascribed to Law and Justice. The symmetrists argue that it is both morally right and strategically sensible to develop some equidistance between these two political camps. So, while pledging to roll back the government’s reforms of state institutions such as the judiciary – which, its opponents, argue have undermined the rule of law and civic freedoms (a claim the government vehemently denies) – Mr Biedroń accuses the liberal-centrist opposition of failing to properly acknowledge that Law and Justice’s popular social spending policies have improved the living standards of, and restored a sense of dignity to, many ordinary Poles.

His programme, which is being drawn up by a group of relatively unknown expert advisers, is likely to include policies such as: removing state support for the Catholic Church and reducing its role in public institutions; greater environmental regulation; and increased spending on public services, especially education and health. However, rather than building his new movement around an existing programmatic agenda, over the last few months Mr Biedroń has organised a series of local meetings – many in smaller, provincial towns – where he claimed that he was ‘writing a programme with the people’. This is obviously somewhat artificial but these ‘brainstorms’, at which Mr Biedroń skilfully acted as master of ceremonies, did appear to create a genuine sense of interest and grassroots participation. In doing so, Mr Biedroń tried to portray himself as someone who transcends ‘old’ party politics; and, interestingly, consistently avoids the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’, preferring to define himself as a ‘progressive’ (some commentators have dubbed him the ‘Polish Marcon’).

Mr Biedroń’s critics argue that both he and his political project have major weaknesses. They accuse him of being too much of a ‘political celebrity’ more interested in building up his national media profile than serious politics. They point to the fact during his first three years as Słupsk mayor he spent seven months on business trips, and claim that, in spite of his popularity and skilful public relations, he did not actually solve any of the town’s fundamental problems. They also argue that while Mr Biedroń often comes across as friendly and sympathetic, in order to make a national political breakthrough he will have to transcend a purely personal and emotional appeal and convince Poles that he can actually take responsibility for the running of the state. This will involve him developing clearer positions on issues that he has either avoided completely or where his programmatic statements have, to date, been rather vague: such as economic policy and foreign affairs.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Mr Biedroń faces the problem that in Poland the less well-off, economically leftist electorate tends to be older and more socially conservative, so often inclines 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. Although Mr Biedroń is quite subtle in the way that he articulates his social liberalism, using the discourse of diversity and inclusion, it will still be a challenge for him to win over poorer, economically leftist but culturally traditionalist voters. At the same time, the (relatively narrow) base of younger, better-off, socially liberal urban voters, who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. Mr Biedroń may alienate them if he tries too hard to outbid Law and Justice’s social spending promises in order to win over less well-off voters.

‘Adding value’ or fragmenting the opposition?

Early opinion polls suggest that potential support for Mr Biedroń’s grouping is solid if not spectacular: around the 5-10% mark that many such new political initiatives enjoy when they are launched. However, to play a pivotal role in the next parliament his grouping will need to secure around the 10-15% support that polls suggest Mr Biedroń could pick up as a candidate in a presidential election. Indeed, given that highly personalised elections have helped charismatic individuals build up new political movements in the past, a presidential poll would have been the best launch pad for his new grouping. However, the next presidential election is not scheduled until summer 2020.

Nonetheless, the May European Parliament (EP) election could also work well as a testing ground for his new movement. EP elections involve low start-up costs, because parties do not have to find many candidates, and the pattern of turnout – extremely low overall, but higher in urban areas – means that a liberal-left grouping can cross the 5% representation threshold by mobilising a relatively small number of voters around a distinctive appeal or well-known individual. The timing of these elections also allows Mr Biedroń to keep his options open and, depending on his grouping’s result, either contest the more important autumn parliamentary election independently or as part of a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance.

Indeed, considerations of Mr Biedroń’s prospects map on to broader debates about whether or not the opposition should contest the next elections as a single bloc. Mr Biedroń’s supporters claim that his new grouping will ‘add value’ by attracting support from those voters who would not otherwise back the liberal-centrist opposition. However, his critics say that the anti-Law and Justice parties are involved in a zero-sum game and that Mr Biedroń’s new grouping would simply further fragment the opposition. A September 2018 poll by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that Mr Biedroń’s new party was most likely to pick up support from the existing opposition groupings, with 61% of his supporters coming from Civic Platform, and only 10% from previous non-voters. Mr Biedroń’s critics draw attention to the fact that the Polish electoral system, proportion representation in multi-member districts using the so-called d’Hondt counting method, favours larger groupings and that a broad anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance would secure a ‘premium for unity’, attracting more support overall than several parties standing independently. What these arguments do not really account for is how the political dynamics and dominant narratives might change if an effective ‘third force’ challenger were to emerge on the Polish political scene.

Playing a longer game

Mr Biedroń’s prospects are one of the great unknowns of Polish politics in the country’s year of elections. It is relatively easy to launch a new political grouping around a well-known personality that is electorally successful in the short-term, and Mr Biedroń would not be first Polish politician to benefit from the effect of such ‘newness’. A respectable result of around 5-10% in the EP elections would not be a great surprise and his grouping certainly has the potential to secure parliamentary representation. However, many such groupings have also failed to live up to their early promise, and quickly lost support once the initial enthusiasm subsides.

In fact, Mr Biedroń is playing a much longer political game in which this year’s elections are simply a staging post. Indeed, in some ways it is actually in the longer-term interests of his political project if Law and Justice were to remain in office as this would create an opening for Mr Biedroń’s new grouping to emerge as the main opposition party; although he would obviously never admit this. But a sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs will strengthen the argument that the opposition needs to unite under the leadership of Civic Platform as the largest party and make it extremely difficult for Mr Biedroń’s new initiative to cut through with a distinctive message. Indeed, in those circumstances Mr Biedroń could come under increasing attack from the liberal-left media and cultural elites, which should be his natural allies, if they start to feel that he is playing into Law and Justice’s hands by dividing the opposition.

Will Poland’s Law and Justice party win this year’s elections?

The right-wing ruling party’s strategy is based on claiming to offer socio-economic stability and prosperity while downplaying controversial issues to avoid mobilising its opponents. It has been on the defensive for most of last year but remains ahead in the polls and more credible than the liberal-centrist opposition on issues that Poles care most about.

On the defensive

The coming year will be a crucial one for Polish politics as the autumn parliamentary election could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. Having set the political agenda for the previous three years, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015, found itself on the defensive throughout much of 2018. The year began with a sweeping government re-shuffle by Mariusz Morawiecki, a respected former banker who replaced incumbent Beata Szydło as prime minister at the end of 2017, having earlier served as her finance minister. Law and Justice was hoping to re-focus the government’s priorities on to economic development and improving its international standing, particularly within the EU. The ruling party hoped that, having carried out difficult and controversial reforms during the first half of the parliament, a pivot to the technocratic political centre would win over moderate voters.

However, almost immediately the government found itself on the back foot as a result of an accumulation of political controversies. Firstly, it faced a major crisis of international relations with Israel – and, as a consequence, the USA, the administration’s key foreign policy ally. This was prompted by the passage of a controversial anti-defamation law which made it a criminal offence to falsely ascribe responsibility to the Polish nation or state for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Israeli critics argued this could lead to the punishment of Holocaust survivors for their public testimony against Poles who harmed Jews during the German occupation, and the crisis was only defused when Law and Justice agreed to amend the law.

This was followed by controversy over the generous bonuses paid to Mrs Szydło and other ministers which exposed the government to criticism that it was failing to live up to its claimed higher ethical standards; and once again Law and Justice was forced to climb down as ministers donated their bonuses to charity. The government also failed to close down its ongoing dispute with the European Commission over its controversial judicial reform programme. Brussels felt that the government’s concessions on this issue did not address its main concerns and continued with its action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, which it can invoke against any EU member state where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy, as well as referring some of the reforms to the European Court of Justice.

In the October/November local elections, Law and Justice’s hopes that its pivot to the centre would expand its support base in urban areas, and programme of large-scale social transfers mobilise swathes of (previously electorally passive) beneficiaries, failed to materialise. Although the ruling party won the highest share of the vote in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, it performed poorly in medium-sized and larger towns, partly as a result of a much higher than usual turnout among the government’s opponents in these areas.

A threat to Law and Justice’s ethical legitimation

In November, Law and Justice once again found itself on the defensive following media reports of a recording which appeared to show that the head of Poland’s financial supervisory commission (KNF) Marek Chrzanowski was involved in a 40 million złoties bribery solicitation from the owner of Getin Noble Bank Leszek Czarnecki; an allegation which Mr Chrzanowski vehemently denied. The scandal posed huge risks for Law and Justice because the party has made reforming state institutions to raise moral standards a core element of its ethical legitimation and political appeal. Law and Justice’s 2015 electoral success was based in large part on promising clean and honest government and portraying itself, in apparent contrast to its predecessor – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, currently the main opposition grouping – as representing the interests and values of ordinary Poles rather than venal and self-serving political and business elites. Consequently, Law and Justice moved quickly to force Mr Chrzanowski to step down and order state agencies to investigate the allegations.

The opposition argued that the investigator’s delayed response allowed Mr Chrzanowski to clear his office, and called for a special parliamentary commission to investigate the scandal. Moreover, although Law and Justice was at pains to point out that Mr Chrzanowski, a former central banker, was not a political figure, he was nominated to his post in 2016 by Mrs Szydło at the recommendation of Adam Glapiński, the head of the of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) and long-time political ally of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

Up until now, the scandal has not developed sufficient momentum to really damage the government and Law and Justice is hoping that it will fade with the passage of time. However, experience suggests that the impact of high profile scandals such as these can often be delayed, gradually chipping away at the governing party’s credibility until a further (sometimes relatively minor) incident or revelation acts as a tipping point and shifts the public mood very quickly. In this case, it could be the emergence of new recordings damaging to the government.

Finally, at the end of the year the government was embroiled in concerns as to how it intended to protect households, firms and local authorities from surging electricity price increases being proposed by state-run power vendors. In the event, it avoided the crisis by pushing through emergency legislation giving tax relief to electricity consumers and providing compensation for utilities, which it promised would guarantee that prices would remain unchanged in 2019.

Winding down conflicts

Law and Justice’s strategy for regaining the political initiative is based on trying to persuade moderate voters to focus on the government’s achievements in delivering on its highly popular social spending promises while maintaining economic growth and fiscal stability. The party’s approach is aimed at winning over undecided and passive non-voters who are not particularly interested in politics by offering them socio-economic stability and prosperity, and re-assuring them that politics will be quieter and less turbulent moving forward. It appears to be learning from its mistakes and getting better at portraying Poland as a stable and secure country under its leadership. Although Law and Justice’s support has fallen back recently, it continues to enjoy an average of around 40% in opinion polls, ten percentage points ahead of Civic Platform, and remains on course to emerge as the largest party after the parliamentary election, although whether it will be able to continue to govern without coalition partners is much more uncertain.

At the same time, drawing lessons from the local elections the ruling party is trying to lower the temperature of the political debate and downplay more controversial issues in order to avoid mobilising the anti-Law and Justice electorate. This has included trying to defuse the party’s row with the EU institutions by withdrawing some of the most contested elements of its judicial reform programme in order to neutralise the opposition’s apparently effective – and, from Law and Justice’s perspective, extremely dangerous – claim that the party wants to take Poland out of the Union (so-called ‘Polexit’). It also involves distancing the party from attempts by Catholic-inspired civic organisations to further tighten Poland’s already restrictive abortion law, an issue that is felt to mobilise anti-Law and Justice voters in urban areas. The nightmare haunting Law and Justice is that the next election becomes a repeat of the 2007 snap poll when, as the incumbent, it mobilised its core supporters and even increased its share of the vote on the back of a strong economic performance, but ultimately lost because larger numbers turned out to vote for Civic Platform which promised a calmer and more stable political environment.

Moreover, the political formula that worked so well for Law and Justice in 2015 – when it won support from voters not altogether convinced by its radical critique of the functioning of the post-1989 Polish state but disillusioned with the former governing elites and attracted by the party’s social policies which held out the promise that they could share more fully in the country’s economic successis slowly becoming exhausted. It will be difficult for Law and Justice to match the high profile spending pledges that were the key to its election victories; although it is apparently planning a series of new policy initiatives focusing on tax cuts in the New Year. Moreover, even when Law and Justice is appealing on bread-and-butter issues the nature of the party is such that it needs to locate its socio-economic policies within a broader political project, which makes it difficult to portray a purely technocratic-centrist image.

At the same time, the governing camp is not always consistent in pursuing its strategy of winding down conflicts, with many commentators citing justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is on bad terms with Mr Morawiecki, as the worst offender. They argue that Mr Ziobro ignited the ‘Polexit’ debate by asking the constitutional tribunal whether Polish judges had the right to refer queries on EU law to the European Court of Justice, which the opposition interpreted as a possible pretext for Poland to ignore the Court’s verdict. The justice ministry also shifted public attention back on to the financial regulation scandal by arresting former heads of the supervisory body for alleged negligence in their oversight of the SKOK Wołomin credit and savings union, which went bankrupt in 2014. Critics argued this was a ham-fisted attempt to distract from Mr Chrzanowski’s arrest. But Mr Ziobro is difficult to sack because he leads the ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party, a small grouping but one which, if it stood independently from Law and Justice, could deprive the ruling party of victory. An even greater threat would be if he joined up with a potential new right-wing challenger party that could emerge from the milieu linked to the Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, which is very influential among Poland’s ‘religious right’ electorate.

Still more credible on issues Poles care about?

Finally, Law and Justice’s electoral prospects also depend upon whether the liberal-centrist opposition can mount an effective challenge. For sure, it retains considerable cultural, financial and media assets, and enjoys close links with the EU political establishment. It is also helped by the fact that the European Parliament (EP) election, where turnout is very low but higher in the urban areas that the opposition enjoys stronger support in, will be held in May. A good performance here could provide it with valuable momentum in the run-up to the autumn parliamentary election; one of the reasons why Law and Justice is considering bringing the latter forward to the spring.

However, the opposition lacks convincing leadership around whom the government’s opponents can unite and rally around. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is an effective political operator who has emerged as the undisputed leader of the opposition, but lacks dynamism and charisma, and his ruthlessness has made leaders of smaller opposition groupings wary of working too closely with his ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) electoral alliance. Moreover, the opposition still lacks an attractive programmatic appeal on socio-economic issues. Mr Schetyna’s strategy, of hoping that Poles will simply rally around whoever happens to be the main alternative to the incumbent, worked reasonably well in urban areas during the local elections but a more positive approach will be needed to win a national poll. Although Poles will not vote for Law and Justice out of gratitude, the fact that the ruling party has fulfilled the majority of its social spending promises gives it much greater credibility than the opposition on these issues that voters appear to care most about.

 

How will the ‘Polexit’ issue play out in Polish politics?

The liberal-centrist opposition’s claim that Poland’s right-wing government wants to take the country out of the EU is potentially extremely dangerous for the ruling party. To neutralise the opposition’s apparently effective narrative, it is trying to defuse its row with the EU institutions while leaving the core of its contested judicial reforms intact.

Stand-off with the Commission

Last month, the government – which, since autumn 2015, has been led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – rushed through amendments reversing its earlier law lowering the retirement age for supreme court judges from 70 to 65. The original law required two dozen judges, including the court’s first president Małgorzata Gersdorf, to take early retirement before their terms of office expired, except for those re-instated by party-backed President Andrzej Duda. The amendments were a response to the European Court of Justice’s October preliminary injunction which called for the contested reforms to be suspended and the retired judges to be re-instated pending a final ruling. The injunction came after the European Commission launched a legal action against Poland, arguing that the early retirement provisions violated EU law.  Law and Justice officials had earlier given conflicting signals as to whether they would abide by it.

The government’s concessions were the most significant to date in its protracted stand-off with the Commission which has been ongoing since January 2016. Initially, the dispute was over the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal but last year escalated to include Law and Justice’s fiercely contested judicial reform programme. In addition to the Court of Justice case, the Commission has also taken the unprecedented step of initiating an action against Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties which it can invoke against any EU member state where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule; threatening Warsaw with sanctions including the suspension of its European Council voting rights. In doing so, it agreed with criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 – that the reforms undermined judicial independence and threatened the key democratic principle of separation of powers. The government’s opponents argued that by putting appointments under political control these reforms allowed the ruling party to pack the courts and judicial supervisory bodies with its own, hand-picked nominees.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argued that the reforms were needed because Polish courts were deeply inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary, like many key Polish institutions, was expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. It accused the Commission of bias and double standards, arguing that the reforms were in line with practices that existed in other established Western democracies. The Commission was, they argued, motivated by the fact that Warsaw has been robust in promoting Polish interests and values, and opposing the socially liberal and multi-cultural policies supported by the EU political establishment, such as the Union’s compulsory migrant relocation scheme.

The Court judgement changes the political calculation

Up until now Law and Justice was prepared to face down the Commission, calculating that, even if many Poles had misgivings about its specific reforms, they strongly supported overhauling the judiciary and were wary about EU institutions becoming involved in the country’s domestic affairs. However, the European Court’s ruling changed this political calculation. Under the Article 7 procedure the pressure on Poland is solely political because sanctions require unanimity in the Council of Ministers and several member states, notably Hungary, have indicated that they will vote against. The Court, on the other hand, can impose heavy financial penalties on countries that do not comply with its rulings, which would unsettle the many Poles whose support for their country’s EU membership is driven increasingly by the tangible material benefits that it is felt to offer.

Non-compliance with the European Court’s ruling would also involve an open breach of the EU’s rules allowing the opposition to associate Law and Justice with so-called ‘Polexit’, Polish withdrawal from the Union. How the EU issue plays out in Polish public opinion depends critically on how it is framed. If it is a question of Law and Justice vigorously asserting Poland’s interests – particularly on an issue such as enforced migration quotas, where the vast majority of Poles are hostile to EU policy – then it plays well for the ruling party. However, if the issue is framed in terms of whether the government’s actions threaten the material benefits that Poland receives from the EU, or the country’s membership, then it becomes extremely problematic for the ruling party. However instrumental they may have become in their attitudes towards the Union or misgivings they may have about specific EU policies, Poles continue to support membership overwhelmingly. For example, an October survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found 84% of respondents (including 76% of Law and Justice voters) would vote for Poland to remain in the EU against only 8% who would vote to leave. With the salience of the European migration crisis having receded, the Polexit narrative appears to have become increasingly important as the way that many Poles frame the EU issue.

A referendum on Polexit?

The recent October/November local elections illustrated what a toxic slogan Polexit is for any mainstream politician to be associated with. Although Law and Justice won the highest share of the vote in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, it performed poorly in medium-sized and larger towns, partly as a result of a much higher than usual turnout among the government’s opponents in these areas. Many commentators attributed this, at least in part, to the liberal-centrist opposition’s claim that Law and Justice was contemplating leaving the EU. A few days before the elections it emerged that justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro had asked the constitutional tribunal whether Polish judges had the right to refer queries on EU law to the Court of Justice. The opposition interpreted this as a pretext for Poland to ignore the Court’s verdict if the constitutional tribunal questioned the primacy of EU law in Polish affairs, arguing that undermining the EU treaties in this way could be a precursor to Polexit. Drawing analogies between the situation that led the UK to leave the EU, opposition leaders warned that frequent clashes between Warsaw and the EU political establishment could accidentally trigger a slow motion Polexit in the same way that Britain stumbled out of the EU. The debate was further ignited when the Court issued its preliminary injunction on the final day of election campaigning.

The local elections were the first of a series over the next 18 months with the European Parliament (EP) poll in May 2019, parliamentary election in the autumn, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll. EP elections are particularly difficult for Law and Justice. Its electorate is divided over EU issues and includes a substantial number of Eurosceptics, which makes it hard for the ruling party to develop a distinctive message. Turnout is very low (only 24% last time) but higher among better-off, urban voters who tend to support the liberal-centrist opposition, whose strategy will be to try and turn the EP elections into a de facto referendum on continued Polish EU membership. A good result would provide the opposition with a psychological boost and momentum in the run-up to the crucial autumn parliamentary poll. Law and Justice strategists were concerned that a European Court final ruling against the Polish government falling in the middle of the EP campaign would have provided further traction for the opposition’s Polexit narrative.

Neutralising the issue, leaving the core reforms intact

The government’s retreat over its supreme court reforms was, therefore, part of a concerted effort to defuse the Polexit issue. In recent weeks Law and Justice leaders have gone overboard to stress that the party is strongly committed to continued EU membership as a core element of Polish foreign policy. For sure, Law and Justice is Eurosceptic in the sense of being anti-federalist and wary of further extensions of EU competencies, but the dominant view within the party remains that it is in Poland’s interests to try to reform the Union from within. Indeed, party leaders argue out that the only leading politician to call for a referendum on this specific issue in recent years was actually the pro-EU Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna! A hopeful sign for Law and Justice was a November poll for the CBOS agency that found that only 16% of respondents felt Law and Justice wanted Polexit while 12% said the party actually favoured deeper EU integration.

At the same time, however, many Law and Justice supporters feel that the government has been too accommodating on this issue. The November CBOS survey also found that although, by a margin of 53% to 31%, Poles supported the government making concessions to EU institutions on its reforms, Law and Justice voters were opposed by 57% to 35%. The party has, therefore, tried to re-assure them that this was a price worth paying to neutralise the opposition’s Polexit narrative while retaining the core elements of the judicial reform programme. The majority of the National Judicial Council (KRS), the body that appoints judges and determines the functioning of the courts, is now selected by parliament (by a qualified three-fifths supermajority) rather than the legal profession. The justice minister retains broad powers to appoint and replace the heads of ordinary courts. Although for many Law and Justice supporters Mrs Gersdorf personifies the despised judicial establishment, her position is not critical to the reforms, while nearly 40 new supreme court judges (out of 110) have been appointed by the President, there are still 10 vacancies to fill, and the re-instated ones will gradually retire and be replaced. There are also two powerful new supreme court chambers dominated by new appointees: one dealing with disciplinary issues relating to the legal profession; the other overseeing a new ‘extraordinary appeals’ procedure that allows for the review of ‘wrongly passed’ court judgements from the past 20 years.

As a consequence, although the government is hoping that the judicial reforms will become less salient in framing public perceptions of Poland-EU relations, the issue is not going to disappear. While the Commission welcomed the re-instatement of the retired judges, it also indicated that it would not withdraw its Court of Justice referral, to prevent Warsaw from returning to the issue, and would continue with the Article 7 procedure over other contested issues. It also has an earlier European Court referral relating to the functioning of the ordinary courts (although not subject to the emergency mechanism). Indeed, the fact that the Court has proved to be more willing to intervene in the functioning of national judicial systems than many commentators anticipated has encouraged the government’s opponents to urge the referral of other disputed measures, particularly the National Judicial Council changes which are the real core of the reforms.

Focusing too much on Polexit?

How the Polexit issue plays out over the coming months could have a crucial impact on next year’s elections. It is a potentially extremely powerful weapon for the government’s opponents and, if the conflict between Warsaw and Brussels escalates and the elections become framed as referendums on continued Polish EU membership, Law and Justice could be in trouble. On the other hand, if the government’s opponents focus too much on the Polexit issue – and the ruling party develops a convincing counter-narrative that it is strongly pro-EU, and its conflict with the EU political establishment subsides – then the opposition could appear to have little else to offer Poles as a positive reason to support it.

Who really won Poland’s local elections?

The liberal-centrist opposition mobilised its core supporters in urban areas winning high profile mayoral races, but the right-wing ruling party won the more politically significant regional polls. Unless the opposition can broaden its appeal and attract more voters in smaller towns and rural areas, the governing party remains on track to win next year’s parliamentary election.

Opposition success in the larger towns and cities

Poland’s autumn local elections – the first of a series over the next year-and-a-half that will include European Parliament (EP) elections in summer 2019, parliamentary in autumn 2019, culminating in the summer 2020 presidential poll – were always going to be difficult for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s ruling party since autumn 2015. This was partly due too high expectations, Law and Justice has been averaging over 40% in opinion polls, but mainly because much of the media focus was on mayoral contests in larger towns and cities where the ruling party is relatively weak.

Sure enough, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – made a very strong showing in these urban areas, winning high profile mayoral races without the need for second round run-offs (to be held on November 4th where no candidate obtained more than 50%). Civic Platform was particularly buoyed by its surprisingly easy victory in Warsaw, the most prestigious and high profile contest which developed into a major strategic battleground between the government and opposition and set the tone for the campaign more generally. Here the uninspiring Civic Platform contender Rafał Trzaskowski won with 57% of the vote in spite of the extremely energetic campaign run by deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki, his Law and Justice-backed opponent.

Polish local elections normally see a higher turnout in small towns and rural areas, where Law and Justice enjoys strong support. This time, however, many urban liberal voters appear to have been mobilised by the fact that (albeit in different ways) both Law and Justice and the opposition presented these elections as a plebiscite on the ruling party’s transformative but highly controversial and polarising programme of socio-economic and systemic reforms. As the first nationwide elections after three turbulent years of Law and Justice government, many otherwise electorally passive urban voters were thus encouraged to use the local polls to pass a verdict on national politics. Overall, turnout was 55%, a record high for Polish local elections.

But Law and Justice wins the regional poll

However, as the only local government tier contested on national party lines, the aggregated share of the vote in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities was actually the best indicator of party support. Given that they play a major role in distributing EU funds and are a key source of local party patronage, the regional elections were also the most significant politically of the local government polls. Here the results were much more encouraging for Law and Justice which won 34% of the vote overall and emerged as the largest party in nine regional assemblies. This represented a 7% increase on its performance in the previous 2014 local elections, and the highest ever national vote share by a party in Polish regional polls. Civic Platform contested the elections as part of the ‘Civic Coalition’ (KO) in alliance with the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party (and a tiny left-wing grouping led by feminist activist Barbara Nowacka) which won 27% of the regional vote and is the largest grouping in seven assemblies. This was slightly more than the 26% secured by Civic Platform in 2014 but less than the 32% combined vote share of these two parties in the 2015 parliamentary election.

Given Law and Justice’s previous difficulties in building local coalitions – in 2014 the party won the most seats in six regions but only ended up governing in one of them, while Civic Platform secured control of the remainder either on its own or in coalition – there was concern that it would again struggle to secure control of regional authorities, even where it won the largest number of seats (3-5 was a realistic target). In fact, thanks to a counting system that favours larger parties, Law and Justice actually secured outright majorities in six regions and could take control of a seventh in coalition with non-party independents. Nonetheless, Law and Justice’s share of the vote was less than the 38% it won in the 2015 election and there was some disappointment that the party did not secure a larger electoral bonus for delivering on its costly but extremely generous social spending programmes.

Some commentators also felt that debates about possible ‘Polexit’, Polish withdrawal from the EU, during the last week of the campaign may have cost Law and Justice votes and helped to mobilise its urban liberal opponents. It emerged that justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro had asked the constitutional tribunal whether Polish judges had the right to refer queries on the interpretation of EU law to the European Court of Justice. The European Commission has referred a law reforming the Polish supreme court to the European Court, arguing that it violates EU law, and Mr Ziobro’s query was interpreted by the opposition as a pretext for Poland to ignore the Court’s verdict if the constitutional tribunal questions the primacy of EU law in Polish affairs. Although Law and Justice accused the opposition of manipulation, and denied vehemently that it had any plans to leave the EU, the government’s opponents argued that undermining the EU treaties in this way could be a precursor to de facto ‘Polexit’. The debate was further ignited when, on the final day of campaigning, the European Court issued a preliminary injunction ordering the immediate suspension of the supreme court law’s early retirement provisions until it could hear the Commission’s case.

Another reason why Law and Justice’s regional vote share was lower than its national opinion poll ratings, and why it was not been able to gain control of even more regional councils, was the fact that the ruling party did not succeed in eliminating the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), its main competitor in rural areas. The Peasant Party, Civic Platforms’s coalition partner in regional assemblies (and previously in government), secured 12% of the votes, well above the 5% that it has been scoring in national opinion polls. Nonetheless, this was still the Peasant Party’s worst local election performance since 2002 and its overall tally of regional councillors fell to only 70 from 157 in 2014 when it won a stunning 24% of the regional vote (although commentators questioned the reliability of these results). As a consequence, the party – primarily an office-seeking grouping which, critics argue, only survives because it has developed powerful networks of patronage and interest clusters at the local level – has lost considerable influence in the regions. Moreover, Law and Justice strategists believe that there is a segment of the rural electorate that may vote for the Peasant Party in local polls but supports the ruling party in parliamentary elections. Barely a year after its stunning 2014 local election performance the Peasant Party recorded its worst result in any post-1989 election and only just scraped over the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation.

The prime minister, opposition leader (and Mr Biedroń?) strengthened

The local elections were a key test of popularity for prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who took over the premiership last December but is relatively new to front-line politics, having worked in the banking sector before he joined the government as deputy prime minister for economic affairs (and later finance minister) in 2015. During the campaign, Mr Morawiecki became embroiled in a scandal following the publication of tape recordings of private conversations with business colleagues, held in Warsaw restaurants five years ago, which portrayed him in an unflattering light as a member of the post-communist business elite.

Nonetheless, Mr Morawiecki was generally felt to have fronted Law and Justice’s national campaign effectively and strengthened his position within the party. Crucially, he still enjoys the support of party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. On the other hand, Law and Justice’s poor results in the larger towns and cities suggest that Mr Morawiecki may have spent too much time shoring up his credibility among the party’s less well-off, provincial core electorate rather than trying to atttact new supporters among better-off, centrist urban voters; the potential for which was felt to be part of his original appeal as prime minister.

The local elections also confirmed the position of Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna as the leading figure within the liberal-centrist opposition. Mr Schetyna lacks dynamism and charisma, has been subject to constant criticism from the liberal-left media for his alleged ineffectiveness, and for many voters is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform-led government (opinion polls show him to be Poland’s least trusted politician). However, he is an effective political operator who has restored purpose and discipline to a party shattered by its 2015 defeat. For sure, the ‘Civic Coalition’ regional vote fell short of the combined share its two main component parties secured in 2015. Nonetheless, the fact that it reduced Law and Justice’s lead to single figures convinced many (although by no means all) commentators that only an electoral alliance led by Mr Schetyna’s grouping is capable of mounting an effective challenge to the ruling party.

The clear loser in these elections was the Polish left. The once-powerful communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which failed to secure parliamentary representation in 2015, was hoping to use the local elections to launch a comeback. However, it only secured 7% of the regional council vote and won 11 seats compared with 9% and 28 respectively in 2014 (felt, at the time, to be disappointing results). Smaller left-wing groupings performed even worse: the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party (which came from nowhere to win 3.5% of the vote in 2015), for example, only secured 1.6%. This creates an opening for Robert Biedroń – another political hopeful often touted as the left’s potential saviour, who decided not to stand for re-election as mayor of the provincial town of Słupsk. Mr Biedroń is waiting until next year to launch a new initiative, although he may struggle to carve out a niche in a political scene so polarised between the two large electoral blocs.

Law and Justice still on course to win?

One should be wary of drawing far-reaching national conclusions from local election results, but they can help us to identify certain trends ahead of next year’s crucial parliamentary poll. Despite its poor performance in urban areas, on the strength of the regional results Law and Justice still appears on course to emerge as the largest party – although with a lead of only 7% over the opposition this may not be enough for it to retain its outright parliamentary majority. The ruling party’s hope that its programme of large-scale social transfers would mobilise large swathes of (previously passive) beneficiaries to start voting for Law and Justice has yet to materialise, while its attempts to eliminate the Peasant Party as a challenger in rural areas also appear to have been unsuccessful. For its part, the ‘Civic Coalition’ has consolidated and mobilised its core liberal supporters, especially in urban areas, on the basis that it is the grouping best placed to defeat Law and Justice. However, the liberal-centrist opposition will struggle to win the parliamentary election if it cannot significantly dent the ruling party’s bedrock support in the countryside and smaller towns. And while the Peasant Party offered a challenge in rural areas, which reduced Law and Justice’s share of the regional vote and denied it control of some councils, no one expects the agrarian grouping to repeat their local election performance in next year’s parliamentary poll.