The Polish Politics Blog

Analysis of the contemporary Polish political scene

Month: December, 2019

What are the prospects for Poland’s radical right Confederation?

Poland’s October election saw the unexpected success of a strongly pro-free market and nationalist radical right challenger to the ruling party. However, the new grouping’s youthful, anti-establishment core electorate is notoriously fickle, and its ideological eclecticism – and the presence of highly controversial personalities among its leaders – makes it an unstable political construct.

Moderating and professionalising its appeal

Formally constituted at the beginning of 2019, the radical right-wing ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping is a political conglomerate comprising an eclectic mix of economic libertarians clustered around the veteran political eccentric Janusz Korwin-Mikke and radical nationalists from the National Movement (RN) party. The Confederation’s first electoral outing was in the May European Parliament (EP) election when one of its leaders summed up the grouping’s policy platform as: ‘we don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the EU’. But the Confederation’s signature issue was its criticism of the alleged failure of the government, led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, to stand up to the USA and Israel over the question of Jewish wartime reparations as emblematic of its inability to defend Poland’s international interests effectively (a charge the ruling party denies vehemently).

The Confederation narrowly failed to cross the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for parties, winning 4.6% of the votes, and most commentators expected it to once-again fail in the October parliamentary election. Given the higher turnout, radical political groupings tend to perform less well in parliamentary elections than in ‘second order’ EP polls. However, although it had hovered just below the threshold in opinion polls, in one of the biggest surprises of parliamentary election the Confederation secured 6.8% of the votes and won 11 seats in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower legislative chamber

Some commentators argued that the Confederation was greatly helped by the decision of the pro-Law and Justice public TV channels to firstly ignore and then ferociously attack the grouping in their pre-election coverage. This, they said, (ironically) both provided the Confederation with high profile coverage during the final phase of the campaign while simultaneously evoking sympathy for it as the underdog. However, the Confederation also adopted a completely different strategy in the parliamentary campaign, playing down the most controversial elements of its programme. In an attempt to appeal to disillusioned middle class voters, the grouping focused much more on stressing its free market credentials, calling for tax cuts and shrinking the size of the welfare state. In doing so, the Confederation sought to differentiate itself from all the other main political groupings (including nominally liberal ones) as the only one that did not support large-scale fiscal transfers and increases in social welfare, arguing that excessive taxation and state regulation stifled opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society.

All of this appealed to voters who did not feel that were they were significant beneficiaries of Law and Justice’s social programmes and were wary of the taxation required to pay for them, as well as groups such as smaller business owners concerned about that the ruling party’s plans for large increases in the minimum wage. The Confederation’s success, therefore, suggested that there was a segment of the right-wing electorate who felt that Law and Justice’s large state support and social welfare programmes did not address their concerns.

At the same time, as well as avoiding confrontational rhetoric and radical themes, the Confederation professionalised its image. It profiled relatively youthful leaders able to present its radical programme in a measured and reasonable way – such as the articulate nationalist politician Krzysztof Bosak, who represented the grouping effectively in pre-election televised debates – keeping more controversial figures such as Mr Korwin-Mikke in the background.

A party for provincial young men?

In terms of the Confederation’s social base of support: around 20% of younger voters aged under-30 supported the grouping; two-thirds of its voters were male; and more than three-fifths lived in smaller towns and rural areas. These kind of younger, provincial voters feel that they have limited chances for professional and career advancement, are frustrated with the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks that they often feel stifles opportunities for them, and do not see state support as the solution to their problems. They first made their presence felt in the 2014 EP election when they supported Mr Korwin-Mikke’s then-party the Congress of the New Right (KNP) which won 7.2% of the votes (on a much lower turnout than 2019). Many of them were likely to have voted for rock star Paweł Kukiz who caused a political sensation when, standing as a right-wing ‘anti-system’ candidate, he won one-fifth of the vote in the 2015 presidential election. Later that year, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the parliamentary election securing 9% of the votes; and 24% of its 2015 supporters voted for the Confederation in 2019. The Internet rather than the traditional broadcast and print media is often these younger voters’ main source of political information, which also helped to give the Confederation a very strong on-line presence.

However, above-average levels of support among younger provincial men notwithstanding, the Confederation’s electoral base was actually fairly socially heterogeneous and included many well-educated and relatively better-off Poles. Indeed, the grouping enjoyed above-average support among entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized business owners, many of whom welcomed the Confederation’s free market economic policies as a way of unblocking what they saw as a deadweight of state bureaucracy, excessive regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism. In this sense, the Confederation’s entry into parliament was the culmination of a series of trends which have been developing in Polish society for several years.

Moreover, even though, unlike Law and Justice, the Confederation does not enjoy especially close ties with the hierarchy of Poland’s influential Catholic Church, it is a strongly socially conservative grouping. Indeed, the Confederation tended to present moral-cultural issues in even clearer and more binary terms than Law and Justice which, while also strongly socially conservative by broader European standards, also tried to portray a modernising and technocratic image and needed to secure the support of more socially liberal voters attracted by the party’s socio-economic policies. Consequently, the Confederation also won over a segment of socially conservative voters dissatisfied with Law and Justice’s perceived pivot to the technocratic centre and who felt that the ruling party had not delivered sufficiently on moral-cultural issues. For example, although Law and Justice courted ‘religious right’ voters, it had failed to pass legislation promoted by Catholic civic organisations to further tighten Poland’s (already restrictive) abortion law. Similarly, while the ruling party opposed the EU’s plan for member states to admit compulsory quotas of mainly Muslim migrants from North Africa and the Middle East as representing enforced multi-culturalism and a potential threat to Polish national security, the Law and Justice government also accepted hundreds-of-thousands of economic migrants, mainly from Ukraine but also some from Muslim-majority countries.

Ideological eclecticism and controversial leaders

Although the Confederation’s influence will be limited by the fact that it only has 11 deputies (four short of the number required to form a parliamentary caucus and, therefore, table draft legislation) its presence in the new legislature means that Law and Justice faces a challenger on its radical right flank that it will spare no opportunity to criticise the ruling party from free market, nationalist and socially conservative perspectives. In doing so it will put pressure on, and try and outbid, Law and Justice on various issues that are important to sections of the ruling party’s electorate but that it has preferred to avoid up until now, such as abortion, and thereby put the government’s efforts to strike a balance between its traditionalist and technocratic wings under increasing strain. For its part, Law and Justice faces a strategic dilemma as to whether to try and compete with the Confederation on the radical right or use the latter’s presence in parliament to further triangulate and present itself as a more moderate, centrist political formation.

However, the Confederation faces an uncertain future and its success (indeed, its very survival) may prove very brittle and short-lived. Although it remains a political conglomerate, unlike Kukiz’15 the Confederation formally registered as a political party which allows it to secure 27 million złoties of ongoing state funding in the course of the forthcoming parliament. The fact that it is well-resourced will provide the grouping with a source of short-term unity and cohesion. Moreover, its ideological eclecticism actually gave the Confederation a certain synergy effect during the election campaign.

In the longer-term, however, these internal divisions, together with the presence of strong personalities in its ranks, mean that the Confederation could find it very difficult to hold together as a single political entity in the new parliament. At the same time, although there is clearly a social base for the Confederation’s brand of politics, many of its leaders, such as Mr Korwin-Mikke and the highly controversial maverick Grzegorz Braun, are political eccentrics and if these individuals set the tone for the grouping it will seriously limit its chances of broadening out its support beyond the radical right hard core. Indeed, some commentators argued that, to some extent, the fact that the Confederation was ignored by both liberal-left and conservative mainstream media outlets during most of the election campaign actually boosted its prospects by keeping these individuals out of sight!

Law and Justice may also try and persuade some Confederation deputies to defect, as it did successfully with Kukiz’15 in the previous parliament. But this may not be so easy given that the Confederation’s parliamentarians have a stronger ideological grounding than Mr Kukiz’s supporters did, although the more ambitious ones may become frustrated if the grouping fails to make any impact as the legislative term progresses.

The Confederation’s immediate challenge is to select a candidate for next May’s presidential election. This could end its programmatic ‘constructive ambiguity’ by forcing it to choose someone identified more strongly with either its nationalist or free market wings. The Confederation’s presidential candidate – who will be chosen at a US-style convention in January by regional delegates elected to support particular candidates by registered supporters – could also emerge as the grouping’s de facto leader. Mr Bosak currently appears to be emerging as the front-runner.

Another flash-in-the-pan?

Although a predominantly young electorate should bode well for the Confederation’s future, such anti-establishment protest voters are notoriously impulsive and fickle as the earlier one-term success of groupings such as Kukiz’15 shows and even if the grouping is able to retain this support for a period it could evaporate very quickly. The Kukiz’15 example also illustrates how difficult it is for ‘anti-system’ parties to function effectively, and communicate a contestatory, ideologically distinctive message in a parliamentary setting governed by formal rules and informal conventions, particularly if the political scene continues to be dominated by a bi-polar pro- versus anti-Law and Justice divide. The Confederation’s not-altogether-credible claim that there is really no difference between Law and Justice and other liberal, centrist and left-wing parties representing the post-communist status quo will limit its potential appeal beyond a certain electoral niche, as will its contempt for the ruling party’s social transfers which are so important to many less well-off right-wing conservative voters.

Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland has seen a series of ‘anti-system’ parties emerge, some winning as much as 10% of the vote, only to then fizzle out and disappear. The Confederation will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its electoral success and a charismatic and dynamic candidate such as Mr Bosak could perform well in the presidential election. But there is every chance that it could prove to be yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that have been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.


How will Poland’s Law and Justice party govern during its second term?

Poland’s newly re-elected right-wing ruling party faces a much more challenging political and economic environment in its second term of office. To govern effectively it will need to: win next May’s crucial presidential election, hope the economy remains buoyant enough to fund its social welfare programmes, and develop a credible new political appeal that transcends its slowly exhausting anti-elitist, socio-economic re-distribution narrative.

The presidential election is crucial

Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping won a decisive victory in October’s election becoming the first governing party to secure re-election with an overall majority, with the largest vote share on the highest turnout in any post-communist Polish parliamentary poll. However, there are a number of reasons why its second term is likely to be much more problematic. For the next six months, Polish politics will be dominated by the crucially important May 2020 presidential election, when Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends. The party lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to over-turn a presidential veto, so Mr Duda’s defeat would be a disaster for Law and Justice seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. Most commentators assumed Mr Duda would win easily given his high popularity ratings and he remains the clear favourite. However, the parliamentary election showed how polarised and evenly balanced support is for the government and opposition camps, with many voters determined to use any opportunity to block Law and Justice, so the election could be much closer than previously anticipated.

In order to win a presidential election, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win more than 50% of the votes. So, given that Mr Duda’s political fortunes are tied so closely to the government’s, Law and Justice will try to avoid introducing divisive and polarising measures during this period to prevent drawing the President into sharp political conflicts that could alienate moderate voters. This ‘no risks’ approach was exemplified by Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s November keynote policy speech outlining the government’s priorities for the new term. Mr Morawiecki promised repeatedly to defend ‘normality’ and (reprising one of Law and Justice’s main election slogans) build a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) which, in the Polish context, means both promoting economic modernisation and guaranteeing social welfare. Indeed, his relatively moderate, ‘modernising’ tone was also driven by a recognition that the government’s main ideological lodestar could no longer simply be its claim to be standing up for ordinary citizens against the alleged pathologies of corrupt and self-serving post-communist elites. However, if Mr Duda secures re-election, then Law and Justice faces no national polls until the autumn 2022 local elections and could return to deepening and pushing ahead with its radical state reform programme particularly in areas such as the judiciary, which it still believes is part of a nexus of interests with opposition elites committed to blocking the government’s reforms, and the privately-owned media, to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left.

A more challenging parliament

The relatively even balance of support between the government and opposition camps was illustrated by the fact that Law and Justice lost overall control of the Senate winning only 48 out of 100 seats, the first time since 1993 that a ruling party has not enjoyed a majority in the second chamber. This was the same number of seats as the three opposition parties: 43 for the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, three for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and two for the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The balance of power is held by four independents three of whom won with opposition support, which ensured the election of Civic Platform’s Tomasz Grodzki as Senate speaker, Poland’s third most senior state official. The Senate confirms the appointment of certain key public officials and can delay the approval of government legislation for up to 30 days, but its significance is more as a political platform, particularly the possibility of interrogating and holding to account ministers and Law and Justice-appointed officials. However, Law and Justice can govern effectively even without a Senate majority, as the second chamber’s amendments can be over-turned by an outright majority in the Sejm, Poland’s more powerful lower chamber. Moreover, voters could lose patience with the opposition if it simply obstructs all of the government’s policy initiatives at a matter of course, and there is even a chance that, as the parliamentary term progresses, some Senators could switch to the governing camp and deprive the opposition of its majority.

At the same time, although Law and Justice won the same number of Sejm seats as last time (235 out of 460), the new legislature will be a much more challenging one. Firstly, the ruling party’s de facto majority in the previous Sejm was actually somewhat larger because it could draw upon support from the (originally 42-strong) right-wing (but very ideologically eclectic) anti-establishment Kukiz’15 caucus. Kukiz’15 deputies frequently voted with the government and several actually defected to Law and Justice outright or to a small pro-government parliamentary grouping led by the prime minister’s late father, legendary anti-communist activist Kornel Morawiecki.

The new Sejm will also be more problematic because of the opposition’s greater ideological diversity. The fact that the Polish left has regained parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus (formally its deputies were elected on the Democratic Left Alliance ticket but they actually represent three different parties) means that Law and Justice faces a much more credible opposition on socio-economic issues, particularly in those areas where many Poles have been dissatisfied with the government’s performance such as the quality of public services. The left’s new parliamentary intake also contains articulate younger deputies – such as Adrian Zandberg, leader of the small radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, who drew praise from opposition-linked commentators for his articulate response to Mr Morawiecki’s policy speech, in sharp contrast to Civic Platform’s much less dynamic and charismatic leader Grzegorz Schetyna. However, it is unclear how the left-wing parties will work together in the new parliament, and if they focus too much on moral-cultural issues will undermine their prospects of winning over less well-off but socially conservative voters who might otherwise be receptive to the their socio-economic policies.

Law and Justice also faces a challenge on its radical right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping, a mix of free marketeers, radical nationalists and social conservatives. The ‘Confederation’ will no doubt call out the ruling party for any perceived ‘centrist’ backsliding, especially on moral-cultural issues such as abortion and sexual minorities, or if they feel that the government is being insufficiently robust in standing up for Polish interests internationally. However, given its ideological eclecticism and the presence of political eccentrics in its parliamentary caucus, the grouping faces an uncertain future.

Tensions within the governing camp

There are also likely to be greater tensions within the governing camp. Formally, Law and Justice is simply the largest component within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) coalition that also comprises the more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie) led by deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin and the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Although many commentators expected these parties to slowly fade from the political scene they actually picked up seats in the election: the ‘Agreement’ now has 18 Sejm deputies (up from 12) and Solidaristic Poland 17 (previously 7). This is enough for each of them to form a separate parliamentary caucuses (which requires 15 deputies) if they were to breakaway, and they already appear to be using this leverage to play a more pivotal role.

For sure, Solidaristic Poland overplayed its hand when Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński swiftly rejected its suggestion that he should replace Mr Morawiecki, Mr Ziobro’s bitter government rival, as prime minister. Although he does not hold any formal state positions, Mr Kaczyński exercises powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. However, the ‘Agreement’ forced Law and Justice to drop a controversial plan to increase social security contributions for higher earners as a way of generating extra revenue to fund its social spending pledges. Law and Justice’s leadership toyed (ultimately unsuccessfully) with the idea of persuading left-wing opposition deputies to vote for this measure, but trying to construct ad hoc parliamentary majorities in this way would, in the longer-term, undermine the governing camp’s coherence and stability even more. So the ruling party is likely to allow the two smaller groupings a certain amount of leeway as long as they keep within tolerable boundaries. They, in turn, will be careful not to be too assertive given how much they stand to lose if they were to leave the governing coalition.

The proposal to increase social security contributions was one of several additional government revenue raising measures to fund its social spending pledges, specifically to provide bonuses for pensioners, without the state budget going into deficit. Others included: larger than expected increases in alcohol and tobacco duties; and taking out loans from the so-called ‘Solidarity Fund’, originally intended as a special fund for the disabled financed by a tax on higher earners. Law and Justice faces a much more difficult macro-economic situation in the forthcoming parliament and is unlikely to generate significant extra revenues through measures such as clamping down on tax evasion, as it did in the previous one. Indeed, promising large social transfers has probably reached the limits of its effectiveness as a political tactic. However, given how critical delivering on these social spending and welfare promises has become to Law and Justice’s broader credibility, the government is moving quickly to implement the pledges that it made during the election, ahead of May’s presidential poll. Moreover, the short-term economic situation remains broadly favourable and the government is hoping that it can keep the economy growing by: maintaining consumer demand through continued family subsidies and pension bonuses, investment in publicly-funded infrastructure projects, and incentives for smaller businesses.

Traditionalist-revolutionaries versus modernising-technocrats

The potential sources of tension between Law and Justice and its coalition partners reflect broader divisions within the governing camp. On the one hand, traditionalist-revolutionaries like Mr Ziobro remain committed to pushing ahead with the government’s programme of radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values. Modernising-technocrats such as Mr Morawiecki also have strong conservative values, and have at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment, but believe that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in larger towns and cities where traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church hold less sway, especially among younger Poles. There appears to have been some strengthening of the ‘technocrats’ within the government, especially in the economic sphere where many of the new appointees, such as finance minister Tadeusz Kościński, are closely aligned with Mr Morawiecki. It is also striking that there is no high profile government member clearly identified with the so-called ‘religious right’ for whom moral-cultural issues are a priority.

For sure, in his policy speech Mr Morawiecki defended the traditional model of the family and opposed the liberal-left’s moral-cultural agenda on issues such as state recognition of same-sex couples and promoting sex education in schools. Law and Justice has also made gestures towards its traditionalist-revolutionary wing by, for example, nominating two controversial conservative politicians intensely disliked by the country’s legal establishment to vacancies in the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. However, this does not fundamentally alter the party’s long-term pivot to the ‘technocratic centre’. These underlying tensions could come to a head if Mr Kaczyński, who provides a crucial source of cohesion and unquestioned authority to the governing camp, were to stand down from front-line politics. But there is currently every indication that he will remain Law and Justice leader throughout the forthcoming parliament.