The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: October, 2015

What does the parliamentary election tell us about Polish politics?

The right-wing opposition’s stunning victory, and centrist governing party’s equally comprehensive defeat, in Poland’s parliamentary election was caused by widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite. The election results herald major changes on the political scene including: a leadership challenge in the outgoing ruling party, the emergence of new ‘anti-system’ and liberal political forces in parliament, and a period of soul searching for the marginalised Polish left.

Why did Law and Justice win?

Poland’s October 25th parliamentary election saw a stunning victory for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, previously the main opposition grouping. The party increased its share of the vote by 7.7% compared with the previous 2011 poll to 37.6%, securing 235 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. This made it the first political grouping in post-communist Poland to secure an outright parliamentary majority. At the same time, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the outgoing ruling party led by prime minister Ewa Kopacz, suffered a crushing defeat, seeing its vote share fall by 15.1% to only 24.1% and number of seats drop to 138.

Two main factors explain this outcome. Firstly, Law and Justice benefited from the fact that the main driver of Polish politics in recent months has been widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. A key element of this was scepticism towards the outgoing government’s triumphalist rhetoric about its apparent achievements and the success of post-communist transition. Many Poles living beyond the large urban centres, especially younger voters, are frustrated not to have shared in this success as the country’s economy has grown in recent years. They are increasingly disillusioned by what they see as an invidious choice between: moving abroad to take jobs that fall well short of their abilities, or remaining in a country which offers them few prospects for the future. Much of this anti-establishment feeling was directed towards Civic Platform, which many voters saw as representing an out-of-touch and complacent elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. The most notorious of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’ which drew popular anger at the cynicism when discussing state matters and crude language revealed in secret recordings of senior government ministers and public figures dining in high-end Warsaw restaurants at the taxpayers’ expense.

Secondly, Civic Platform’s previously highly successful strategy of trying to mobilise the ‘politics of fear’, which has been a staple of all its recent successful campaigns, was not effective this time around. This involved positioning itself as the best guarantor of stability against the allegedly confrontational and authoritarian style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associate with Law and Justice and its combative leader Jarosław Kaczyński. However, this time around Law and Justice focused on ‘bread-and-butter’ socio-economic questions rather than its previous signature issues of corruption and reform of the Polish state, part of the so-called ‘Fourth Republic’ project of moral and political renewal associated with the controversial 2005-7 period when it was in government. It also made a conscious effort to ‘de-toxify’ its image by giving a higher profile to less well-known, second-rank politicians likely to appeal to centrist voters. A good example of this was the decision to make the party’s emollient deputy leader Beata Szydło its prime ministerial nominee rather than Mr Kaczyński. Moreover, Civic Platform undermined its own narrative by recruiting a number of prominent individuals who were closely associated with the ‘Fourth Republic’ project to stand on its candidate lists.

Will Civic Platform implode?

One immediate consequence of Civic Platform’s electoral defeat is that Mrs Kopacz faces a party leadership election. The outgoing prime minister has proved to be a reasonably efficient party manager and political tactician, skilled at neutralising potential challenges to her authority through effective short-term manoeuvring. However, Mrs Kopacz lacks gravitas and charisma, and could not translate the fact that many voters appeared to warm to her personally into electoral support for the ruling party. For all her undoubted energy and commitment, Mrs Kopacz also lacked the capacity for strategic thinking that could have helped Civic Platform develop a more effective response to the changes in societal attitudes that eroded its support. Her main challenger is likely to be Grzegorz Schetyna, a former party deputy leader who retains significant support among the grassroots, and whom Mrs Kopacz appointed as her foreign minister to ensure that her potentially most powerful critic was in the government rather than on the backbenches.

Moreover, although it has been one of the dominant forces in Polish politics for more than a decade, there is a real possibility that Civic Platform could implode under the strain of internal party tensions. It is a deeply divided and factionalised party but, while it encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of views, Civic Platform’s ideological underpinnings are very weak with its most serious internal divisions revolving around personalities rather than programmatic currents. Initially, the party attempted to profile itself as representing a modernising form of pro-market, right-wing liberalism focusing on economic issues and subsequently incorporating a moderate form of social conservatism. However, particularly since it took office in 2007, Civic Platform adopted a deliberate strategy of diluting its ideological profile and projecting itself as a somewhat amorphous modernising, centrist and pro-European ‘catch-all’ party; what its critics have dubbed a non-ideological ‘post-political’ party of power. National and local elites were bound to the party primarily by the access that it provided to state patronage, which does not provide a firm basis for more enduring, long-term organisational stability and makes it vulnerable to implosion if it were to face a really serious internal crisis.

‘Anti-system’ and liberal new entrants

Another important development in this election was the emergence of two new political groupings that crossed the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. The ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee, a right-wing ‘anti-system’ grouping led by the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz, emerged as the third largest formation in the new parliament securing 8.8% of the vote and 42 seats . Standing as an independent, Mr Kukiz came from nowhere to finish third and pick up more than one-fifth of the vote in the May presidential election. His signature issue, and main focus of his earlier social activism, was strong support for the replacement of Poland’s current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), which he sees as the key to renewing Polish politics. However, Mr Kukiz squandered this political capital with a series of bitter rows and splits within his movement, which caused his electoral support to plummet. In the event, it turned out that Mr Kukiz had a hard core of potential voters immune to the kind of gaffes that would be fatal for more mainstream politicians and willing to support him as long as he remained a credible fighter against ‘the system’. However, his parliamentary caucus will be extremely eclectic and could fragment rapidly as it is forced to confront issues that bring its ideological incoherence to the fore.

The other newcomer is the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru, which won 7.6% of the vote to emerge as the fourth largest party in the new Sejm with 24 seats. Although it got off to a slow start, Mr Petru’s party steadily consolidated its support by advocating policies such as a ‘flat tax’ of 16%, appealing to younger, well-educated and better-off urban voters and entrepreneurs. At one time such voters, attracted by the economically liberal policies once associated with Civic Platform, formed the outgoing ruling party’s core electorate, but many of them feel that the party drifted away from its free market roots and turned to Mr Petru’s grouping as a more credible liberal alternative.

No left-wing parties in parliament

The other big story of this election was the failure of the United Left (ZL) alliance to cross the 8% threshold for electoral coalitions, securing only 7.6% of the vote, which means that no left-wing party will be represented in the new parliament. United Left comprised the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and liberal-left ‘Your Movement’ (TR), together with a number of smaller left-wing groupings. The once-powerful Alliance governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but was in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 election. In 2011 the party suffered its worst ever parliamentary election defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote. Your Movement emerged from the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which was formed by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman and one-time Civic Platform parliamentarian, and came from nowhere to finish third in the 2011 election with just over 10% of the vote. However, Mr Palikot’s party failed to capitalise on its success and, while he clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest, Poles grew tired of his erratic behaviour and political zig-zags. Catastrophic results for both parties in May’s presidential election, together with polls suggesting that neither of them would cross the 5% threshold, convinced many of their younger leaders that the only hope was to contest the parliamentary election on a united ticket.

Although formed as a ‘marriage of convenience’ the United Left’s campaign was moderately successful in containing programmatic and personal divisions as it pushed younger activists to the fore, such as Your Movement’s media-friendly joint leader Barbara Nowacka who emerged as the coalition’s main spokesman. However, while its leaders were hoping for a sizeable ‘unity premium’, United Left lacked its component parties’ name recognition and struggled to develop a distinctive appeal. Ms Nowacka also failed to live up to her initial promise and, in a televised leaders’ debate, was overshadowed by Adrian Zandberg, a charismatic leader of the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party which refused to join the United Left coalition arguing that the parties it comprised had discredited the Polish left. In the event, ‘Together’ secured 3.6% of vote, not enough to secure parliamentary representation but peeling away sufficient support to prevent the United Left from crossing the 8% threshold.

The Polish left now faces a period of marginalisation and soul searching. Its biggest electoral-strategic challenge is that while various surveys have put the number of Poles who identify themselves as left-wing at around 25-30% the left has struggled to develop an appeal that can bring together its two main potential bases of support: socially liberal and economically leftist voters. In Poland, the kind of socially liberal voters who tend to be younger and better-off, prioritise moral-cultural issues, and, in Western Europe, would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, are often quite economically liberal as well. The economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older and more culturally conservative.

Competing power centres?

Law and Justice appears well placed to form a strong government supported by party-backed President Andrzej Duda and buttressed by a majority in the Senate, Poland’s second chamber. However, some commentators have raised concerns that competing power centres could emerge in the prime minister and Mr Kaczyński’s offices with the party leader trying to steer Mrs Szydło from behind-the-scenes. Analogies have been drawn with the situation after the party’s 2005 election victory when Mr Kaczyński, whose brother Lech was elected President at the same time, appointed a second-rank politician, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, as prime minister to avoid the controversy of twins filling Poland’s two highest state offices, only to replace him a few months later. Mrs Szydło is in a stronger position, having her own direct electoral mandate. However, these kinds of tensions could come to the fore quickly if the new government starts to encounter difficulties, which is almost certain given that its political agenda will bring it into conflict with the Polish (and European) establishment.

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What does a Law and Justice election victory mean for Europe?

Although the outcome of Poland’s parliamentary election was determined by domestic issues, the right-wing opposition’s apparent victory could herald a substantial shift in the country’s foreign policy, with major implications for its relations with the rest of Europe. However, divisions between Polish parties on international affairs are often an extension of domestic politics by other means and experience suggests that the new government may be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Mainstream versus ‘own stream’

The strategy of the outgoing government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main European powers, especially Germany. By positioning Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core it claimed that – in contrast to its predecessor, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – it was effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment in September 2014 of the then Polish prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the previous government’s strategy of projecting Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project.

Law and Justice, the main opposition grouping in the previous parliament and which (although the official results have not yet been announced) looks set to head up the new government, also supports Polish EU membership. However, it is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) grouping committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty. This is especially the case 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. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests. Rather than simply following European mainstream politics, which it sees as being driven by Germany, it says that the country needs to re-calibrate its relationships with the major EU powers and form its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of closer European integration, suggesting that the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states should be re-visited to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy where it claims EU policies are damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro

Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration can be seen in the party’s attitude towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the outgoing Civic Platform-led government toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remained committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as was realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

On the other hand, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until the Polish economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, with the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency. In this respect the new government will be in tune with Polish public opinion: while there is still overwhelming support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country joining the eurozone. During the election campaign, Law and Justice deputy leader and prime ministerial nominee Beata Szydło tried to tap into this by pledging that one of her first acts if elected will be to disband the office of government plenipotentiary responsible for Poland’s euro entry.

A more active Eastern policy?

The difference between Law and Justice and Civic Platform’s foreign policies can also be seen in their approaches to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally the two parties appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government was, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which, it argues, are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this was, it argues, a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Law and Justice, therefore, wants to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. It is likely to try and use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. A Law and Justice-led government will also try and achieve a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and be more open to providing military aid to Kiev within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the Civic Platform-led government’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, the party has identified itself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and who was the party-backed President between 2005-10 – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. The new government is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia.

Resisting EU migration quotas

More recently, Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration could be seen in its attitudes towards the migration crisis. The outgoing Civic Platform-led government tried to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, it 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.

At the same time, the outgoing government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU states – to play a greater role in helping to alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. As a consequence, having initially opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states, following the wave of migration during the summer the Civic Platform administration changed its approach. Calling for what it termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, it said that Poland was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. The Civic Platform government was concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media by coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight. At the September EU summit, therefore, Warsaw went against its Central European allies from the ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) on this issue and voted for the EU distribution plan, agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (increasing to around 7,000 in total next year).

Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish interests. The party has warned that there is 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 has cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claims that such a scenario is already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the Middle East and North African regions. Not surprisingly, therefore, it accused the Civic Platform 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. It argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals and that it was naïve to believe that this quota would not be used as a precedent to force Poland to take in additional migrants in the future. A Law and Justice-led government would, therefore, oppose Poland taking in additional migrants under the EU scheme and may even try to unpick the existing deal agreed to by its predecessor.

More Eurosceptic in rhetoric than practice?

However, although the issue of Polish-EU relations has been highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such. Rather, they were simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with Law and Justice and Civic Platform treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal; in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. In fact, although a Law and Justice-led administration would be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone than its predecessor, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was last in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. Experience, therefore, suggests that a Law and Justice government would probably be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Why do the minor parties matter in the Polish election?

Poland’s right-wing opposition looks increasingly likely to emerge as the largest party in this month’s parliamentary election. However, if it falls short of an overall majority then the minor parties will determine whether it can form a government or if the current ruling party can cobble together a weak and unstable coalition.

The left’s marriage of convenience

On October 25th Poland will hold a parliamentary election whose outcome could determine the future shape of the political scene for years to come. Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, has a clear lead of around 10% over the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO) and is almost certain to emerge as the largest in the new parliament. However, it is unclear if Law and Justice will secure an overall majority; no party has yet achieved such a result in post-communist Poland. If it does not, then the party will need to find coalition partners, which means that the performance of the minor political groupings, particularly which ones cross the minimum vote threshold required to secure parliamentary representation (5% for individual parties and 8% for electoral coalitions), will be crucial in determining the shape of the next government.

None of the current parliamentary groupings appear willing to join a Law and Justice-led coalition. These include the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and liberal-left ‘Your Movement’ (TR), which have joined forces with a number of smaller left-wing groupings to form the United Left (ZL) electoral coalition. The once-powerful Alliance governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5 but has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed in the 2005 election. In 2011 the party suffered its worst ever parliamentary election defeat slumping to fifth place with only 8% of the vote. It appeared to recover somewhat when Leszek Miller – a wily political operator who, in his heyday, served as prime minister from 2001-2004 overseeing Poland’s accession to the EU – took over the party leadership. Nonetheless, in spite of emerging once again as the main standard bearer of the left, the Alliance continued to lag well behind the two main parties in the polls and a series of disappointing mid-term election results culminated in a disastrous showing in May’s presidential poll when its candidate finished fifth with a humiliating 2.4% of the vote.

Your Movement emerged from the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP) which was formed by Janusz Palikot, a controversial and flamboyant businessman and one-time Civic Platform parliamentarian, and came from nowhere to finish third in the 2011 election with just over 10% of the vote. However, Mr Palikot’s party failed to capitalise on its success and while he clearly had a talent for attracting substantial media interest Poles grew tired of his erratic behaviour and political zig-zags. An attempt to re-invent his party as Your Movement, promising to tone down the strong anti-clericalism and social liberalism on which his earlier electoral success was based while placing greater emphasis on free-market economics, failed to turn Mr Palikot’s fortunes around and, following a series of defections, he finished seventh in the presidential election with a derisory 1.4% of the vote.

The United Left is, therefore, a marriage of convenience driven by its two main components’ fear that they would not cross the 5% threshold. Its campaign has been moderately successful in the sense that programmatic and personal divisions – notably between Mr Miller and Mr Palikot, who are known for their strong personal antipathy – have been contained. The main impetus has come from the parties’ younger activists, such as Your Movement’s media-friendly joint leader Barbara Nowacka who has emerged as the United Left’s main spokesman. However, while its leaders were hoping for a sizeable ‘unity premium’, United Left has struggled to develop a distinctive appeal and is still hovering around the 8% threshold for electoral coalitions. If it can secure parliamentary representation, the coalition’s long-term future depends on whether the younger generation of left-wing activists can persuade their colleagues that the time has come for a new force to emerge on the Polish left that can transcend old rivalries.

The Peasant Party struggles

The other minor party represented in the outgoing parliament is the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition since 2007. The party has been an unusually loyal governing partner and the outgoing coalition has been much more cohesive and stable than any of its predecessors. It has tried to make a virtue of its predictability and self-consciously projected an image as a constructive and moderating force in Polish politics. In November 2014 the party achieved its best result in any post-1989 poll when it finished third in the regional elections with 23.7% of the vote; although this success was marred by accusations of electoral irregularities. However, it had a disastrous presidential election when the party’s candidate, deputy leader Adam Jarubas, finished sixth with only 1.6% of the vote. The party has also struggled in this election, with a low national media profile and bad publicity surrounding a corruption scandal linked to parliamentary caucus leader Jan Bury, and its support is hovering around 5%. Nonetheless, the party’s greatest asset remains its extensive local grassroots organisation and much of its campaigning takes place below the national media radar, so polls often under-estimate its true levels of support.

In terms of future coalition partners, the fact that it is primarily an office-seeking party with a clearly defined rural-agricultural electoral constituency makes it a pragmatic and flexible negotiating partner able, in theory, to link up with whoever can meet its fairly narrow policy agenda and ensure it retains control of government posts and agencies. However, unlike Civic Platform – which is primarily an urban grouping, and therefore has a complementary base of support – Law and Justice is a direct electoral threat to the Peasant Party competing for the same rural voters. Relations between the two also reached a low ebb when Law and Justice accused the Peasant Party of electoral malpractice in last year’s regional polls. Another, complicating factor is the uncertainty hanging over Peasant Party leader Janusz Piechociński who has never really established unquestioned authority within the party and faces opposition from activists loyal to former leader Waldemar Pawlak, whom he ousted in a closely-fought contest three years ago.

A new liberal challenger

One political newcomer that is even less likely to form a coalition with Law and Justice is the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru. Advocating policies such as a ‘flat tax’ of 16%, Mr Petru’s party is appealing to the younger, well-educated and better-off urban voters and entrepreneurs who, attracted by the economically liberal policies once associated with Civic Platform, at one time formed the ruling party’s core electorate. Civic Platform has alienated many of these voters who feel that it has drifted away from its free market roots.

Although it got off to a slow start, Mr Petru’s party appears to have steadily consolidated its support, with polls suggesting that it has a reasonable chance of crossing the 5% threshold. Having been received critically by the pro-government media, which saw it as having the capacity to damage Civic Platform but too narrow a support base to get into parliament, some commentators now see Mr Petru as a ‘safe’ repository for anti-government protest votes that could deprive Law and Justice of a parliamentary majority. However, Mr Petru will also be keen to keep his reformist credentials intact – and, therefore, wary of propping up a government led by Civic Platform, a party which he has criticised harshly during the campaign and that, in all likelihood, will emerge as the main election ‘loser’.

Law and Justice’s potential partners

Law and Justice’s most likely potential coalition partner appears to be the ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee, a right-wing ‘anti-system’ grouping led by the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz. Standing as an independent, Mr Kukiz came from nowhere to finish third and pick up more than one-fifth of the vote in the May presidential election. His signature issue, and main focus of his earlier social activism, was strong support for the replacement of Poland’s current list-based proportional electoral system with UK-style single-member constituencies (known by the Polish acronym ‘JOW’), which he sees as the key to renewing Polish politics. Opinion polls conducted immediately after the presidential election showed Mr Kukiz to be Poland’s most trusted politician and his (then as-yet-unnamed) grouping running in second place, behind Law and Justice but ahead of Civic Platform.

However, Mr Kukiz squandered his political capital with a series of bitter rows and splits within his movement which caused his electoral support to plummet. These political blunders overshadowed attempts to mobilise support for the September electoral reform referendum which was supposed to provide Mr Kukiz with a major boost but ended in fiasco with a derisory turnout of only 7.8%. Moreover, having fallen out with and publicly attacked many of the local government and civic activists who formed the backbone of his presidential campaign, Mr Kukiz came to rely increasingly upon the grassroots organisational support of small radical right-wing parties. However, the slump in support appears to have bottomed out and Kukiz ’15 is currently just over the 5% threshold in most polls, suggesting that he has a hard core of potential voters immune to the kind of gaffes that would be fatal for more mainstream politicians, and willing to support him as long as he remains a credible fighter against ‘the system’.

Mr Kukiz would be a potentially difficult partner for Law and Justice, and has indicated that he does not wish to join any formal coalition. However, his eclectic candidates list is likely to produce an unstable parliamentary caucus that could fragment rapidly as it is forced to confront issues that bring its ideological incoherence to the fore. There is, therefore, every chance that Law and Justice could peel away enough individual Kukiz ’15 deputies to provide it with a working majority.

Another possible (and equally unpredictable) Law and Justice ally is the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic Freedom and Hope (KORWiN), the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene. The core of Mr Koriwn-Mikke’s political ideology has always been radical economic liberalism, social conservatism and Euroscepticism, but in this year’s election his party’s main campaign theme is opposition to the Islamisation of Poland. At the moment, polls suggest that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party’s support is just under the 5% mark, although the European migration crisis could pull it over the threshold. 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; although Law and Justice’s tough anti-immigration stance has limited Mr Korwin-Mikke’s scope to mobilise around this issue.

Law and Justice or chaos?

If Law and Justice falls short of an outright majority and the ‘anti-system’ right-wing parties fail to win enough seats to help it secure one, then Civic Platform could still cobble together an ‘everyone against Law and Justice’ coalition government. However, as well as containing several partners with very different policy agendas, such a construct would also have to co-habit with hostile Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda and almost certainly lack the three-fifths majority required to over-turn his veto. It is likely to be weak, unstable and probably very short-lived.

Who will win the Polish election?

Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing opposition will emerge as the largest party following October’s parliamentary election. However, given that no political grouping in post-communist Poland has ever secured an overall parliamentary majority, and the party’s shortage of potential coalition partners, there is still a chance that the current ruling party could remain in office.

Law and Justice has a clear lead

On October 25th Poland will hold a parliamentary election whose outcome could determine the future shape of the political scene for years to come. Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping, will emerge as the largest formation in the new parliament. In May’s presidential election Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda unexpectedly defeated incumbent Bronisław Komorowski who was backed by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party since 2007. Since then Law and Justice has maintained a clear lead of around 10% over the ruling party in opinion polls.

Its strategy has been to focus on ‘bread-and-butter’ socio-economic questions rather than its previous signature issues of corruption and reform of the Polish state, part of the so-called ‘Fourth Republic’ project of moral and political renewal associated with the controversial 2005-7 period when it was in government. Law and Justice has set out a series of attractive (if potentially very costly) pledges to: reverse the Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular decision to increase the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men); introduce additional child benefits for poorer and larger families; and raise tax-free income thresholds. In doing so, the party has tapped into the fact that many Poles living beyond the large urban centres, especially younger voters, are frustrated not to have seen a more substantial increase in their living standards, even as the country’s economy has grown in recent years.

Law and Justice has also given a higher profile to less well-known, second-rank politicians likely to appeal to centrist voters and moved its more controversial leaders into the background. A good example of this was the decision to make the party’s emollient deputy leader Beata Szydło its prime ministerial nominee rather than its more combative leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Mr Kaczyński has an extremely dedicated following among Law and Justice’s core supporters but is a polarising figure and one of the country’s least trusted politicians among more moderate voters. Civic Platform strategists were banking on the fact that, with Mr Kaczyński as the focus, its negative campaigning would be more effective than it was during the presidential campaign when the Law and Justice leader kept a low profile.

The Duda factor

Another key element of Law and Justice’s strategy has been to capitalise on Mr Duda’s popularity and high public profile. Although he has been very careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, the new President has used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to advance the party’s policy agenda. In his first major initiative after being sworn in, Mr Duda proposed holding a referendum on the government’s unpopular pension reforms to coincide with the election. When the Civic Platform-dominated Senate – Poland’s second chamber, which approves referendum initiatives – voted down Mr Duda’s proposal, he used his right to initiate legislation to submit a draft law returning the retirement age to its previous levels.

Civic Platform has found Mr Duda a difficult opponent: knowing that it cannot mount a head-on attack upon a newly elected head of state with a large popular mandate but sensing the danger that he represents to the party’s electoral prospects. It has tried to undermine Mr Duda by criticising him as a ‘partisan President’ for failing to respond to the government’s requests for him to convene meetings of the Cabinet Council (a cabinet meeting chaired by the head of state) and National Security Council. Mr Duda dismissed these as electoral stunts and instead met with individual ministers to discuss specific policy areas. In fact, Mr Duda does not enjoy especially high popularity ratings compared with other Presidents at the beginning of their term of office; perhaps not surprisingly, having been plunged into an election campaign he is bound to be perceived as partisan by many supporters of the ruling party. Nonetheless, for the moment at least most Poles appear to be willing to give Mr Duda the benefit of the doubt and, as Poland’s most trusted politician, he remains a valuable electoral asset for Law and Justice.

Civic Platform’s counter-offensive

Civic Platform’s election strategy has involved trying to draw lessons from Mr Komorowski’s passive and complacent campaign. Party leader and prime minister Ewa Kopacz has been extremely active in trying to convince voters that she is in touch with their concerns, with a government roadshow involving cabinet meetings being held in Poland’s provincial cities. Moreover, conscious of the need to avoid coming across as simply resting upon its laurels, the ruling party has argued that it is now time for ordinary Poles to benefit more directly from the country’s economic success and see a visible improvement in their living standards. The centrepiece of this was an apparently radical overhaul of the income tax and social security system which would come into effect in 2017 or 2018, and involve scrapping separate social security and health premiums and introducing new unified personal taxes, ranging from 10% for the poorest families to 39.5% for the wealthiest.

Another important element of Civic Platform’s counter-offensive was attempting to generate fear of an opposition victory. Although the presidential election suggested that this tactic was not as effective as it had once been, the argument that the ruling party is a better guarantor of stability than the confrontational and allegedly authoritarian style of politics that many voters (rightly or wrongly) associate with Law and Justice and its leader has been a staple of all Civic Platform’s successful election campaigns. This portrayal of itself as the most effective bulwark against Law and Justice could be seen in its attempts to repeat its previous manoeuvre of inviting prominent politicians from rival political groupings to join Civic Platform’s candidate lists. This time prominent political ‘transfers’ included Ludwik Dorn, interior minister and deputy prime minister in the 2005-7 Law and Justice-led governments, and Grzegorz Napieralski, former leader of the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the smaller left-wing opposition party. Civic Platform also claimed that Mrs Szydło would be steered by Mr Kaczyński from behind-the-scenes, and possibly replaced if Law and Justice won the election. It drew analogies with the situation after the party’s election victory in 2005 when Mr Kaczyński, whose brother Lech was elected President at the same time, appointed a second-rank politician, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, as prime minister to avoid the controversy of twins filling Poland’s two highest state offices, only to replace him a few months later.

Law and Justice stays on top

However, for various reasons these initiatives have only had a limited impact: keeping the ruling party in the electoral game but failing to really dent Law and Justice’s lead. For sure, while Mrs Kopacz’s mobile cabinet meetings appeared unconventional (sometimes even comical) they did at least give the impression of an active government and prime minister trying to engage with the public. Surveys also suggest that Mrs Kopacz is personally quite popular, with Poles admiring her determination and resilience, and even slightly ahead of Mrs Szydło when asked who would make the better prime minister. However, the Civic Platform leader lacks gravitas and charisma and has found it difficult to translate her personal popularity into electoral support for her party. Moreover, the party’s flagship tax reform plan was complicated and presented in a rather vague and incoherent way, with voters struggling to grasp its full implications. Civic Platform also has a major credibility problem with such reforms as many voters see its record in office as being characterised by programmatic timidity, often referred to dismissively as ‘the politics of warm water in the taps’.

Law and Justice also benefited from the fact that disillusionment with the political establishment and a strong prevailing mood that it is time for change have been the main drivers of Polish politics in recent months. Much of this anti-establishment feeling has been directed towards Civic Platform, whom many voters, especially younger ones, see as representing an out-of-touch elite disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and tainted by scandals. The most notorious of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’ which drew popular anger at the cynicism when discussing state matters and crude language revealed in secret recordings of senior government ministers and public figures dining in high-end Warsaw restaurants at the taxpayers’ expense.

Moreover, Civic Platform’s previously highly successful strategy of mobilising passive anti-Law and Justice voters through invoking the ‘politics of fear’ is no longer as effective as it once was, particularly among a younger generation who have no (positive or negative) memories of the 2005-7 Law and Justice-led governments. Notwithstanding, the fact that Mr Kaczyński’s party has made a conscious effort to ‘de-toxify’ its image, Civic Platform has also undermined its own narrative by recruiting individuals who are closely associated with the ‘Fourth Republic’ project, such as Mr Dorn, on to its candidate lists. Indeed, many voters see this as further evidence that Civic Platform is a cynical ‘party of power’, with its anti-Law and Justice rhetoric simply a rhetorical device to frighten voters for electoral gain.

Everyone against Law and Justice?

While Mr Komorowski’s unexpected presidential election defeat leads one to be cautious about making firm predictions based on opinion polls, the momentum in this campaign is clearly with Law and Justice. However, even if, as appears increasingly likely, Mr Kacyzński’s party emerges as the largest in the new parliament it may also fail to secure an overall majority, something no political grouping has achieved in post-communist Poland. Law and Justice’s current poll ratings suggest that this is possible, and a ‘wild card’ – such as the European migration crisis, where its hard line stance opposing the government’s decision to accept the EU’s relocation scheme is in line with public sentiments – could provide the party with enough of a boost to secure such a result.

However, if Law and Justice does needs to find coalition partners the performance of the minor parties – particularly which ones cross the minimum vote threshold required to secure parliamentary representation (5% for parties and 8% for electoral alliances) – will be crucial. None of the current parliamentary groupings – the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner since 2007, and the Democratic Left Alliance and liberal-left ‘Your Movement’ (TR) grouping, which have formed the United Left (ZL) electoral alliance – appear likely to want to form a coalition with Law and Justice. Neither does the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping led by liberal economist Ryszard Petru which is also hovering around the 5% mark. Law and Justice’s most likely potential coalition partner appears to be the ‘Kukiz ‘15’ electoral committee, a right-wing grouping led by the charismatic rock star and social activist Paweł Kukiz whose support has slumped in recent months but is still holding up at just over 5%. Another potential ally might the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic Freedom and Hope (KORWiN), the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke: a veteran eccentric of the political scene whose main campaign theme is opposition to the Islamisation of Poland and which might cross the threshold if the migration issue flares up again before polling day.

If Mr Kaczyński’s party falls short of a parliamentary majority and only the smaller left-wing, agrarian and liberal parties secure representation, then Civic Platform could still cobble together an ‘everyone against Law and Justice’ coalition government. However, such an administration would be a recipe for (possibly severe) political instability: a very weak, and probably short-lived, construct containing several partners with different policy agendas and having to ‘co-habit’ with a hostile Law and Justice-backed President.