PiS and Parliament: Poland’s 2019 Parliamentary Elections
On 6 August, Polish President Andrzej Duda confirmed that the country would hold its parliamentary election on 13 October. The decision came just three months after the ruling party’s sweeping victory in May’s European Parliament elections, an election that was broadly viewed by Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS) as a test for the autumn elections. With 45% of votes secured in May, 26 of Poland’s 51 EP seats filled by PiS loyalists, and with a projected 41.7% support rate from votes for October, PiS is predicted to maintain its hold on Polish government.
“We have to remember that the decisive battle for the future of our country will take place this autumn,” Kaczynski said, addressing his party after its victory in May. “And we also have to win - and win by even more than now.”
The EP elections of May proved to be unprecedented for Poland this year. Not only did an election with traditionally low voter turnout attract 46% of voters (a rate akin to domestic Parliamentary elections), but virtually all opposing parties united in a single “European Coalition” (KO) bloc. Led by the Civic Platform (PO) party, the grouping brought together political parties with views from both ends of the political spectrum; the formerly communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and liberal ‘Modern’ party (Nowoczesna) joined up with the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL).
The opposition itself retains considerable political assets within Poland: it maintains a sizeable base of popular support, has substantial financial resources, as well as the backing of most of the privately-owned media.
Despite these assets, the fierce neck-and-neck competition between KO and PiS amounted to a major defeat for the opposition, which received only 38% of votes compared to PiS’s 45%. The rallying point of unity, as well as strong anti-PiS sentiment, was not enough to defeat the incumbent party. The last shred of hope–a united opposition coalition–proved to be insufficient to depose the powerhouse of PiS.
Based on the results of the May elections, it is easy to interpret that Polish society has gone into a general right-wing shift. Though there are pockets of Poland that subscribe to right-wing ideology, Polish society is more generally split in the middle: the electorate as a whole is divided roughly in half between right-leaning and left-leaning. The interface between the left and right is often a fierce political battleground; Poland is split into two camps, with two different worldviews.
If Polish society is so polarized, why does PiS keep winning?
A Recipe for Political Success
PiS took the Western media by storm after its election in 2015, when it entered into a fierce battle with the European Commission over the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and migration policy. Since then, when PiS features in the Western media, it is most closely associated with words like “xenophobic,” “far-right,” “nationalist” and “conservative.” The label itself is unsurprising, given the ruling party’s anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, historically revisionist rhetoric, as well as its attempts to undermine the institutions of liberal democracy[PW1] . By adopting laws that give the government more control over state-run media and forcing a third of the supreme court’s judges into early retirement, PiS has signaled its willingness to meddle with democratic institutions. No part of the government is sacred if it is viewed as unfavorable by the ruling party.
Despite a socially conservative party platform, PiS defies easy political classification. Even if the party positions itself as a defender of “traditional Polish values” in the face of “liberals” and “leftists,” its economics paradoxically draw on ideas from the left. Its flagship programme “500 Plus” –one that has become so popular that it is virtually untouchable– guarantees families 500 zloty (roughly £100) per child. Ahead of the elections, PiS has additionally promised a doubling of the minimum wage, cash bonuses for pensioners, additional pensions for retirees, and a tax reduction for young people.
These social spending programs have allowed PiS to position itself as the only administration that cares for the disadvantaged (ie rural, low-income, and less-educated voters). Rather than looking down on the common man (as it claims that the opposition does), the ruling party champions him as an inseparable and imperative part of Polish politics and society. Combined with generous social spending and a nationalistic rhetoric that creates “A Poland that does not apologise for itself,” PiS becomes inherently attractive to those citizens that have felt neglected by previous administrations.
Although the new welfare state model seems generous, the program comes with a series of caveats. In order to benefit from the “Polish dream” that PiS has created, one has to be a “good Pole.” According to party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, such a Polish citizen is heterosexual, Catholic, and fervently patriotic. Anyone that diverges from this definition–the LGBT lobby, non-believers, citizens in favor of a more cosmopolitan Poland–are deviants, “invasive foreign influences” that undermine the strength of Polish values.
PiS’s success, then, comes from their ability to masterfully combine populist and nationalistic sentiment with a promise of newly-formed welfare state for the “good Pole.”
The Lack of An Alternative
The ruling party’s accomplishments in Polish politics are only elevated by the lack of cohesiveness in the opposition coalition. Despite unity, the anti-PiS movement suffers from three major issues.
First, during the May elections specifically, the European Coalition lacked a coherent and attractive programmatic alternative to PiS’s social spending promises. Because PiS has gained credibility as the only administration to effectively deliver on its fiscal commitments and has dramatically expanded welfare benefits, there are not many more areas that the opposition could promise to improve. Rather than trying to outbid PiS’s programs, the opposition has instead focused on raising the quality of public services like health care and education, but the Poles are sceptical of the opposition’s ability to actually deliver on any social spending front. The ability to form a coherent and strong program is even further undermined by the timing of the election campaign; in scheduling the election for 13 October, Duda has aimed to keep the campaign short, giving the opposition less time to mount an offensive.
Second, the opposition lacks a figurehead around which to rally. Despite Grzegorz Schetyna’s masterful behind-the-scenes skills, he lacks the dynamism to appear publicly, and is also one of Poland’s least trusted politicians. Additionally, the hope that Donald Tusk (former leader of the moderate Civic Platform) will return as a rallying point, overshadows the fact that he is not the political driving force he once was. A lack of a strong leader creates a political vacuum that PiS will undoubtedly fill.
Lastly, the opposition has undermined its own credibility by associating itself with the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance. Even though anti-communist fervor has diminished since the fall of the USSR, Poles would rather former apparatchiks answer for their crimes than take seats in the European Parliament. It was paradoxical that the Civic Platform party–a party initially formed by anti-communist activists–so easily aligned itself with the formerly communist Democratic Left Alliance. For some Poles, this move was an overstep as well as an affront to the those who suffered through the severity of communism.
The Outstanding Nature of October
Three decades after Poland’s transition to democracy, this year’s Parliamentary elections are especially important to the Polish nation, as well as for the future of Europe.
Domestically, another victory for the ruling party may mean that it will be emboldened to take drastic measures to undermine domestic institutions. Already, PiS has promised to remove much of the immunity from prosecution of MPs that currently exists, proposing that an MP could be arrested or detained at the request of the Attorney General. Given that the AG is also the Minister of Justice in the ruling party’s cabinet, critics are pointing to the proposal as an attempt to eliminate certain checks and balances. Additionally, PiS suspended the debates in the lower house of Parliament on September 11, a move that is unprecedented in Polish parliamentary practice. Even if this move was supposedly done to allow MPs to go back to their constituencies before the election, there is considerable unease around the move. The seemingly innocuous and small changes that PiS has implemented (and promised to implement) ahead of the election are only a small indicator of what may come next.
In a larger sense, PiS’s re-election would signal a more entrenched political rhetoric in Polish society, and would force political scientists, IR scholars, and policymakers to accept that PiS’s success is more than just a blip in Poland’s recent history. The use of Poland as a model of peaceful democratic transition for post-communist societies would be falsified by PiS’s accepted rhetoric of nationalism. The cosmopolitan fabric that binds Poland to the European Union may slowly unravel, and Poles, as well as their allies will have to ask themselves: Co teraz? What now?