Why does Poland’s European Parliament election matter?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

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.