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.