Why is Poland’s Law and Justice party still so popular?
by Aleks Szczerbiak
In spite of intense domestic and international criticisms Poland’s right-wing ruling party remains popular because it is trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters care most about. It has portrayed itself as the defender of national identity and traditional values, and many Poles feel that, for all its faults, the party is at least trying to tackle problems ignored by previous governments.
Delivering on its social spending promises
On October 13th Poland holds a parliamentary election which is likely to be one of the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. During the last four years the current government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has come under heavy fire from its political opponents for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. It has also been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment and subject to intense criticism from much of the Western opinion-forming media. However, Law and Justice remains very popular and enjoys a clear lead in the opinion polls. The ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys shows the party averaging 45% compared with 26% for the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the country’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping.
In fact, the Polish election is more open that it initially appears. Even if, as seems almost certain, Law and Justice wins the largest share of the vote it is far-from-clear whether or not it will retain its overall parliamentary majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties. This depends on the precise share and final distribution of votes between the governing party and opposition groupings, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and the votes cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. A relatively small number of votes could determine the outcome either way. Nonetheless, as things currently stand there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term.
So why is Law and Justice still so popular? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the party is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that they care most about because it has delivered on many of the high-profile social spending pledges which were the key to Law and Justice’s 2015 election success. The most significant of these was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which was extended this year to cover all families with any number of children. ‘500 plus’ has had an important symbolic effect providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. Many Poles feel that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice is the first governing party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale. At the same time, although the government’s opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, economic growth is strong, unemployment at its lowest for years, and increased tax revenues have actually led to a reduction in the state budget deficit.
At a September election rally launching the party’s plans to build a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments by announcing plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023, and introduce regular annual cash bonus payments for pensioners and retirees. Together with earlier social welfare spending pledges, these programmes are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for key groups of Law and Justice core voters, thereby encouraging them to vote in October out of fear that the opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.
Defending national identity and traditional values
Secondly, Law and Justice has put itself at the head of a moral crusade projecting the party as the defender of the traditional family, Polish national identity, and Christian values and culture. These, it argues, stabilise the social order and promote the common good but are threatened by ‘a great offensive of evil’ (wielka ofensywa zła). Initially, this could be seen in the party’s strong opposition to the EU’s extremely unpopular compulsory migrant relocation scheme in the run-up to the 2015 election, when Law and Justice argued that Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa would be difficult to assimilate and threatened Poland’s national security. More recently, the party has opposed what it terms ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’: an allegedly aggressive movement and policy agenda based on foreign ideas promoted by left-wing enemies of Western civilisation.
These are certainly polarising issues that strike an emotional chord with many Poles because they involve a clash of basic moral-cultural values and map on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. A defence of traditional moral codes and pushing back against Western cultural liberalism has always been a key element of Law and Justice’s appeal to more socially conservative voters. Consequently, raising the issue’s salience (according to the opposition, cynically as a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic) certainly helps to mobilise the party’s core supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where such values still hold considerable sway.
But Law and Justice has framed its arguments so that they do not simply mobilise its core electorate but also win broader public support for the party. The vast majority of Poles supported the Law and Justice government’s strong opposition to the EU’s mandatory re- relocation scheme, keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that they felt West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants. The fact that, unlike in many West European cities, there have been no Islamist terrorist attacks in Poland increased Poles’ sense that they lived in a relatively safe country and that this was threatened by alleged EU-imposed multi-culturalism.
Similarly, while Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, popular acceptance starts to decline when the agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives into areas which they feel belong to the realm of family life, such as proposals that appear to diminish the role of parents as the primary educators of their children in matters of sexual relations and morality. While Poles are fairly evenly divided on the question of legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, a substantial majority oppose same-sex marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and are overwhelmingly against granting adoption rights to same-sex couples. Many, including those who are not especially religious, are also extremely hostile to the profanation of Catholic symbols by LGBT activists, as in Poland many of these are also regarded as broader national symbols.
Thirdly, the negative publicity surrounding various allegations of government scandals, and the abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians for partisan or private ends, does not appear to have damaged the ruling party to any great extent. Law and Justice has generally been quick off-the-mark in acting decisively to neutralise these scandals, if necessary by dismissing the implicated officials. For example, in July Marek Kuchciński was forced to resign as Law and Justice parliamentary speaker following allegations that he had used an official aeroplane for private flights. The party’s supporters appear to regard such allegations as either false, the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, or endemic to Polish politics with Law and Justice at least attempting to ensure that it was not only the governing elites that shared in the fruits of economic transformation.
Similarly, Law and Justice has been tactically adroit in knowing when to defuse, and not expend too political capital on, contentious issues, and retreat when the party does not consider these to be priorities or core elements of its governing programme. A good example of this was the abortion issue when, although they personally supported tightening Poland’s already-restrictive law, in autumn 2016, facing an unexpectedly large groundswell of public opposition, Law and Justice parliamentarians voted down legislation sponsored by Catholic civic organisations representing the party’s core ‘religious right’ electorate to make the practice illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life was at risk.
Fourthly, Poles have been prepared to cut Law and Justice a lot of slack. For sure, the party has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it has undermined democracy and the rule of law. Many Poles accept the government’s argument that its actions were necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they said, had been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. Moreover, even if they have misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many others still feel that, for all its faults, Law and Justice was at least attempting to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the Polish state which have been ignored by previous administrations. An important element of this – that was linked to but went beyond the simple question of financial transfers – was what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’: whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense of dignity and that, as they saw it, their government finally cared about the less well-off and was trying to restore an elementary sense of justice and moral order.
A weak and unconvincing opposition
Finally, Law and Justice has benefited from the fact that the liberal-centrist opposition has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that voters care most about. 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. Recognising his lack of wider appeal, Mr Schetyna has taken a back-seat in the election campaign with Civic Platform promoting the more emollient but low-key former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate.
Opposition strategists 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), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health and education. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected they are also dubious whether the opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative and would actually deliver any improvements. Law and Justice’s election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, and the ruling party simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.
Complacency is the greatest threat
For sure, the opposition 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. Election campaigns can also, of course, develop their own specific dynamics, and a change in the political context or the emergence of a particular issue could still turn things around, given that government and opposition camps actually remain fairly evenly matched in terms of their combined overall levels of support. Nonetheless, as things stand, the greatest threat to Law and Justice probably comes not from the opposition but the danger of its own leaders and supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence.