How will the European migration crisis affect the Polish election?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

The European migration crisis has dominated news headlines and emerged as an important issue dividing Poland’s parties in the run-up to October’s parliamentary election. Although the outcome is likely to be determined by domestic factors, the migration issue could make an important difference at the margins: possibly helping the right-wing opposition to secure an overall majority or boosting support for anti-immigration fringe parties.

Walking a political tightrope

The migration issue has polarised the Polish political scene, provoking disagreements between the two major parties in the run up to the October 25th parliamentary election which have grown shaper as the crisis has intensified. The ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) and its leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz have been walking a political tightrope trying to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, the ruling party was concerned to be seen to be responding to popular anxieties and defending Polish interests against EU institutions trying to impose migrants upon the country. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with very few ethnic minorities, and virtually none who are non-European, which has had little experience of the modern migrations that have transformed Western Europe. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

On the other hand, the Kopacz government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU member states – to do more to help alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. Civic Platform’s EU strategy has been to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting it as a reliable and stable member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main EU powers, especially Germany. So it was also keen to be seen to be playing a positive role in helping to resolve the migration crisis.

Civic Platform flip-flops

As a consequence, the Civic Platform-led government has flip-flopped on the migration issue. Initially, along with the three other Central European ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia), Warsaw opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states and only reluctantly accepted the 2,000 envisaged for Poland under the Union’s original plan. However, the further wave of migration over the summer led Brussels to increase the number that Poland was expected to admit to 12,000 under a revised EU scheme encompassing 120,000 migrants in total. At this point the Kopacz administration began to change its rhetoric, saying that it was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. Calling for what she termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, Mrs Kopacz described Poland’s proposed quota as ‘symbolic’, comparing it to the numbers who attend a Legia Warsaw football match every week.

In the event, at the September European Council meeting Poland went against its Central European allies voting for a distribution plan involving 66,000 asylum seekers initially (increasing to 120,000 next year) and agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (around 7,000 in total). Civic Platform defended its about-turn on the grounds that the crisis had to be tackled urgently in order to prevent the collapse of free movement of labour across the EU Single Market zone, and because Poland had too few potential allies to form a blocking minority within the Council. However, the party was also concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media, coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight.

Moreover, even though Poland ‘voluntarily’ accepted the same proportion of migrants as envisaged in the Commission’s original plan, Civic Platform argued that, because the EU relocation scheme was not being determined by a mandatory ‘automatic’ algorithm based on population size and wealth, the Council had avoided setting a precedent on how future migrant distributions would be determined. It also pointed out that the EU had accepted Polish negotiating demands on strengthening the Union’s external borders, a clearer division between genuine refugees and economic migrants, and giving Poland full control in vetting and excluding migrants if they represented a security threat; although critics argued that these provisions were either unrealistic or already in the pipeline, so hardly a triumph for Polish negotiators.

Law and Justice warns of migration consequences

On the other hand, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, has argued that the government should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish concerns. The party warned that there was a serious danger of making the same mistakes as many West European countries, whereby a large number of migrants who do not respect Polish laws and customs end up imposing their way of life so that Poles become ‘guests in their own country’. It cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claimed that such a scenario was already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the region.

While it supports Polish EU membership Law and Justice is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) party committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty, especially in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. The party has argued that the Civic Platform government needs to be more robust in advancing Polish national interests within the EU rather than simply following European mainstream politics which it sees as being driven by Germany.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Law and Justice accused the Kopacz government of betraying its Central European allies and violating national sovereignty by taking decisions under EU pressure that might undermine Polish culture and security without the agreement of the nation. The party argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals. It also said that it was naïve to believe that the quota that Poland had accepted voluntarily would not be used as a precedent to force it to take in additional migrants in the future.

Re-igniting the ‘politics of fear’

Civic Platform has hit back by arguing that it is Poland’s duty to take in people fleeing for their lives and accusing Law and Justice of being anti-European and promoting xenophobia, warning that its approach could lead to the country’s isolation within the EU. A key element of Civic Platform’s strategy in previous election campaigns has been mobilising its supporters through generating fear of a Law and Justice victory. Although this did not appear to be working as successfully as before, party strategists were banking on the fact, that with Law and Justice’s combative leader Jarosław Kaczyński as the focus of its parliamentary campaign, Civic Platform’s negative campaigning would be more effective this time. Mr Kaczyński has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters but is a polarising figure and one of the country’s least trusted politicians among more moderate voters. Law and Justice has, therefore, tried to finesse this by making the party’s emollient deputy leader Beata Szydło its prime ministerial nominee rather than Mr Kaczyński. However, the migration crisis appears to have, for the moment at least, drawn Mr Kaczyński back into the political fray: he made the party’s keynote speech during September’s highly-charged parliamentary debate on the issue.

In fact, Civic Platform’s attempts to use the crisis to re-ignite the ‘politics of fear’ may lead many Poles to interpret the ruling party’s stance as supporting a, potentially very unpopular, ‘open door’ migration policy. It is difficult to get to the grips with what Poles really think about migration from opinion polls because political correctness is likely to prevent respondents answering truthfully and a lot depends on how the question is phrased. For example, a September survey conducted by the Millward Brown agency found that 53% of respondents felt that Poland had a ‘moral duty’ to accept refugees from the Middle East and Africa while only 44% disagreed. However, only 36% of respondents were prepared to accept more than 1,000 migrants, while more than two-thirds felt that immigration would lead to religious and cultural conflicts, an increase in crime, and abuse of Poland’s welfare system, and three-fifths feared the creation of migrant ghettos in Polish towns and an increased threat of terrorism. Interestingly, a more recent Millward Brown survey for the TVN broadcaster suggested that negative attitudes were hardening with 56% against accepting migrants from these countries and only 38% in favour.

A boost for radical parties?

The migration issue could also boost support for some radical groupings campaigning on an anti-immigration platform. At the moment, the party that has focused most on this issue is the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic Freedom and Hope (KORWiN). This is the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke: a veteran eccentric of the political scene who has contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989 and is notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. Mr Korwin-Mikke was elected to the European Parliament in May 2014 as leader of the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which finished fourth securing 7.2% of the votes, but he broke away from his previous party to form a new grouping in January 2015. The core of his political ideology has always been radical economic liberalism, social conservatism and Euroscepticism, but in this election his party’s main campaign theme is opposition to the Islamisation of Poland.

Opinion polls suggest that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party is currently just under the 5% threshold required for parties to secure parliamentary representation. It could possibly emerge as the main ‘anti-system’ grouping in this election, a mantle that, at one stage, appeared destined for the ‘Kukiz ‘15’ election committee formed by charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Mr Kukiz came from nowhere to pick up more than one-fifth of the vote in the first round of the May presidential election but his electoral prospects have plummeted since then, although he too has started to take a greater interest in the migration issue. However, Law and Justice’s tough anti-immigration stance will probably limit the potential scope for fringe parties to mobilise around this issue.

A marginal (but potentially significant) impact?

Although the migration crisis has dominated Polish news headlines in recent weeks it does not, as yet, appear to have had any significant impact on levels of party support. Opinion polls continue to show Law and Justice clearly ahead of Civic Platform by around 10% but this is largely due to more general disillusionment with and hostility towards the political establishment which appears to be directed primarily against the ruling party. However, even if, as appears increasingly likely, Law and Justice emerges as the largest grouping in the new parliament, it is unclear if it will win an overall majority, something that no party has achieved in post-communist Poland. The composition of the next government could, therefore, depend on the performance of the minor parties and none of the current ones in parliament appear likely to want to form a coalition with Law and Justice. In this situation, even if the migration issue only affects party support at the margins, it could still have a significant impact on the election outcome, possibly giving Law and Justice enough of a boost to win a majority or helping a potential right-wing coalition partner campaigning on an anti-immigration platform to secure parliamentary representation.