The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: October, 2019

What do the parliamentary election results mean for Polish politics?

Although the right-wing ruling party won a decisive victory, the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps remains evenly divided. Next May’s presidential election now assumes critical importance and could be closer than originally anticipated, creating a dilemma for the ruling party as to how quickly to push ahead with reforms.

A decisive victory

The October 13th election saw a record 61.7% turnout, the highest in any post-communist Polish parliamentary poll. It reflected the polarisation of, and deep divisions within, Polish society in recent years. The government – led, since 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – has come under heavy fire from its political opponents and the Western opinion-forming media, and been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment, for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights. The party’s supporters have robustly denied these allegations, arguing that the government’s 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. Both supporters and opponents of the government were highly mobilised, sensing that this was one of the most important and consequential elections since the collapse of communism in 1989.

In the event, Law and Justice won a decisive victory in the election securing 43.6% of the votes (up from 37.6% in 2015) and taking 235 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. This was the highest vote share won by any political grouping in a post-1989 election, and Law and Justice became the first governing party grouping to secure re-election with an overall majority for a second term. This achievement was all the more impressive given that less than 1% of the votes were cast for groupings that failed to cross the parliamentary representation threshold (5% for individual parties) compared with nearly 17% in 2015. The Polish electoral system, proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats, favours larger groupings but less so when there are fewer such ‘wasted’ votes.

Law and Justice increased its popularity in spite of such intense criticisms because it was trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters cared most about. The party delivered on most of the high profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant being its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit programme. ‘500 plus’ 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. 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’. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to sense that their government finally cared about and respected the less well-off, helping them to regain a sense of dignity and moral worth.

Although there was negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians, this did not damage the governing party to any great extent. Its supporters appeared 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 the economic transition. At the same time, even if they had misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many still felt that, for all its faults, Law and Justice deserved credit for at least trying to tackle some of the shortcomings of the Polish state which were ignored by previous administrations.

Opposition success in the Senate

At the same time, the main opposition grouping, the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2005-7, but also including the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) and tiny left-wing groupings – failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on socio-economic issues because it was too associated Law and Justice’s discredited predecessor. Although Civic Platform remains the largest opposition grouping, the Coalition only won 27.4% of the votes, down from the combined vote of 31.7% for its component parties in 2015, and 134 seats. It ran a poor campaign and its only really successful initiative was to propose the emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as the grouping’s prime ministerial candidate instead of Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna, who is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is one of Poland’s least trusted politicians. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of the Coalition’s most significant negatives, it came too late to allow Ms Kidawa-Błońska to develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.

Nonetheless, the Coalition retained a clear lead over the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) which spearheaded a united ‘Left’ (Lewica) slate – including the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party and the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) grouping led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – and finished third with 12.6% of the votes and 49 seats. Although delighted to have regained parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus, the left’s result was broadly in line with both poll predictions and the 11.2% combined vote share secured by the Alliance and ‘Together’ in 2015 (albeit on a much lower turnout). Left-wing activists and commentators hope that the new parliamentary intake, which includes several dynamic and articulate younger deputies, will use this platform to shift the terms of the Polish political debate decisively to the left, especially on moral-cultural issues. However, it is unclear how these parties will work together in the future, and if they focus too much on moral-cultural questions it will undermine their prospects of winning over less well-off but socially conservative voters who might otherwise be receptive to the left’s socio-economic policies.

Moreover, although Law and Justice won a clear election victory, there was a sense among some commentators, and even party leaders, that it had performed below expectations and failed to deliver the ‘knock-out blow’ to the opposition that many expected. In fact, the election only really confirmed what opinion polls had always shown: that the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps is fairly evenly balanced. This reflects the fact that the opposition retains considerable political assets, including substantial financial resources and the backing of the country’s business and cultural elites, including much of the privately-owned media.

This sense of under-performance was exemplified by the fact that Law and Justice lost overall control of the Senate, winning only 48 out of 100 seats, the same number as the three opposition parties (who concluded a pre-election non-aggression pact in most constituencies) – 43 for Civic Platform, three for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and two for the Democratic Left Alliance – with the balance of power held by four independents, three of whom were elected with opposition support. (In one of the big surprises of the election, the Peasant Party also performed strongly in the Sejm securing 8.6% of the votes and 30 seats). This is the first time since 1989 that a ruling party has not enjoyed a majority in Poland’s second chamber. The Senate confirms the appointment of certain key public officials and can slow down the approval of government legislation for up to 30 days. However, its amendments can be over-turned by an outright majority in the Sejm, and the Senate’s significance is more as a political platform, particularly in interrogating ministers and Law and Justice-appointed officials and holding them to account.

The presidential election is crucial

Perhaps above all, Law and Justice’s failure to secure a Senate majority provided the opposition with a much-need confidence boost ahead of the presidential election, scheduled for next May when the ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends. Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high popularity ratings. However, although he remains the clear favourite, the parliamentary election showed how polarised the political scene is and that there are many opposition voters who are determined to use any opportunity to block Law and Justice. The presidential election could, therefore, be a much greater challenge for Mr Duda than many government supporters previously anticipated, particularly if the opposition can field a popular and credible challenger (Ms Kidawa-Błońska is being touted as one of the front-runners for this). Indeed, as Law and Justice lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, a defeat for Mr Duda would be a disaster for the ruling party seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. So the presidential election now assumes crucial importance and will dominate Polish politics over the next few months.

Given how critical delivering on its social spending promises has become to Law and Justice’s credibility, the government will need to move quickly to honour its key election pledges. At a minimum, it will have to pass, or at least begin to implement, the five measures promised for its first 100 days in office: reducing social security premiums for small firms, pension bonuses, healthcare checks, new road construction programmes, and increasing direct farm subsidies to the EU average. As making social spending and welfare pledges has developed into the party’s chosen tactic for raising the electoral stakes to encourage the beneficiaries of these programmes to turn out to vote, Law and Justice may also consider introducing some new promises in the run-up to the presidential poll, although this could place a strain on the state budget.

Law and Justice’s dilemma

More broadly, the presidential election confronts Law and Justice with a major strategic dilemma. The party remains committed to deepening and pushing forward with its radical state reform programme in areas such as the judiciary (where it believes that the legal establishment is part of a nexus of interests with opposition elites committed to blocking the party’s reforms) and the privately-owned media (to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left). It will be reluctant to put these issues on the back-burner as the beginning of a new term of office, when an incoming new government still enjoys considerable political capital, is generally the best time to introduce controversial measures. Indeed, delay risks the government having to cohabit with an opposition-backed President who could start to veto the most controversial elements of Law and Justice’s programme as soon as they are sworn into office next summer. Law and Justice also faces a challenge on its radical right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping which, in the other major election upset, secured 6.8% of the votes and 11 seats and will no doubt call out the ruling party for any perceived ‘centrist’ backsliding.

However, pushing ahead with radical reforms will also generate widespread domestic and international opposition. While the prospects of Mr Duda losing the presidential election remain slim, Law and Justice knows that the contest is likely to be evenly matched, and that it needs to avoid drawing the incumbent into sharp political conflicts that could damage his chances. In the parliamentary election, one of Law and Justice’s main tasks was to mobilise its core electoral base, hence its focus on the emotive moral-cultural issue of opposing what it called ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’ as an important secondary campaign theme. In the presidential election, on the other hand, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win over more than 50% of the voters. So the over-arching strategic logic here will to be to avoid potentially divisive and polarising issues over the next few months.

Who will win the Polish election?

It is almost certain that the right-wing ruling party will emerge from Poland’s parliamentary election as the largest grouping, but far-from-clear if it will retain its overall majority. If the governing party secures a second term it will entrench and push ahead with its reform programme, while any alternative coalition government is likely to be weak and unstable.

Raising the electoral stakes

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 44% 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.

Law and Justice remains popular in spite of the harsh criticisms that it has received because it is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that have dominated the election campaign. The party has delivered on most of the high profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant of which was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit programme. ‘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. At the same time, although its opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, the government has continued to maintain high levels of economic growth and falling unemployment, with increased tax revenues actually leading to a reduction in the state budget deficit.

In its election programme, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments and promised to build a Polish version of a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity and state-led economic modernisation. The centre-piece was a pledge to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023. These social welfare programmes and pledges are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for the party’s core supporters, thereby encouraging them to turn out and vote out of fear that the liberal-centrist opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.

Credit for re-distributing prestige

Law and Justice has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it undermined democracy and the rule of law and 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. But 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 state which were ignored by previous administrations. An important element of this – that was linked to, but went beyond, the simple question of financial transfers – is what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a feeling 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.

Although there has been negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians these do not appear to have damaged the governing party to any great extent. The party 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 as 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 the economic transition.

Law and Justice has also skilfully mobilised support around a number of moral-cultural issues where it enjoys widespread public support or that are important to its core electorate. In this campaign, for example, it has opposed what it calls ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology’, putting itself at the head of a moral crusade 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). By focusing on these issues, and thereby strengthening its hold over conservative voters, Law and Justice has also neutralised the electoral challenge from the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping which, according to ‘Ewybory’, is averaging around 4% support (just under the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for individual parties).

An unconvincing opposition

For sure, the opposition should not be written off and retains considerable political assets. The overall levels of popular support for the government and opposition camps is actually fairly evenly balanced and that latter has substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites. However, it has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Polish 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, at the beginning of September Civic Platform proposed the more emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate. In doing so, it copied a Law and Justice manoeuvre in the 2015 campaign when its polarising leader Jarosław Kaczyński nominated one of his deputies, Beata Szydło, as the party’s nominee for prime minister. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of Civic Platform’s most significant negatives, it has not had any discernible impact on the grouping’s poll ratings, coming too late to give Ms Kidawa-Błońska time develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.

Civic Platform strategists also recognised that, rather than trying to outbid Law and Justice’s huge expansion of individual social transfers and welfare benefit programmes (although it promised to continue with them), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health care. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected they are also dubious whether the liberal-centrist opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative. Law and Justice simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.

More open than it seems

Nonetheless, although, as things currently stand, there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term, the election is more open than it initially appears. While it seems almost certain that Law and Justice will emerge as the largest party it is far-from-clear if it will retain its overall majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties. Law and Justice only secured such a majority in 2015 because an alliance of left-wing parties narrowly failed to cross the higher 8% representation threshold for electoral coalitions. This time the three main left-wing parties – the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the radical left Together (Razem) grouping, and the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – are contesting the election as a united slate. However, although they are badging their formation in a broader way as the ‘Left’ (Lewica), in order to avoid the higher threshold the three parties are standing candidates on the Democratic Left Alliance’s electoral list; which is currently polling around 12% according to E-wybory.

The agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), formerly Civic Platform’s governing coalition partner, is also contesting the election independently but badging itself as a broader centrist ‘Polish Coalition’(KP) and has persuaded right-wing rock star Pawel Kukiz to join its ranks. Mr Kukiz achieved a sensational result in the May 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote – and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the new parliament – but he lost much of his appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner when he teamed up with the quintessentially establishment Peasant Party; which, according to E-wybory, is currently polling around 6%.

Whether or not Law and Justice secures a parliamentary majority depends on the overall size and distribution of the ruling party and opposition groupings’ votes, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and how many votes are cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. The Polish electoral system, proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats, favours larger groupings particularly when a significant number of votes are cast for those that do not cross the electoral threshold. However, if Law and Justice loses a few percentage points and all the opposition groupings comfortably cross the threshold, then this could deprive the ruling party of its majority. The greatest threat to Law and Justice, therefore, comes from the danger of its own supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence that the election is a foregone conclusion.

The stakes are high

If Law and Justice wins it will entrench and continue to push ahead with its radical reform programme in areas such as the judiciary and probably broaden it out into other fields such as the privately-owned media. At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, a Law and Justice second term will further shake-up the more informal hierarchies of power, influence and prestige that currently exist in the public sphere. With a fresh electoral mandate, the party will also be emboldened in its dealings with the EU political establishment and major European powers. As a consequence, a number of the party’s more pragmatic domestic and international opponents are likely to seek some kind of accommodation if it appears that Law and Justice will be in office for another four years

Even if the opposition is able to deprive Law and Justice of an overall majority, and the latter is not able to peel off enough individual opposition deputies to compensate for this, any alternative coalition government will be weak and unstable. For sure, it is likely to try and roll back many of Law and Justice’s controversial reforms and engage in wholesale replacement of the party’s nominees to key posts in public administration and broadcasting, the diplomatic service and state-controlled companies and agencies. But it will have to rely on an eclectic coalition of political forces for its parliamentary majority and its legislative programme will be undermined by the fact that it will also almost certainly lack the three-fifths majority required to overturn vetoes by Law and Justice President Andrzej Duda, whose term of office lasts until summer 2020.