An unexpectedly decisive European Parliament election victory gave Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party a major boost ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, although doubts remain over whether it will retain its majority. Aleks Szczerbiak explains that simply uniting the main anti-government parties in an ideologically diverse electoral alliance was clearly not enough for the opposition, which still lacks a dynamic leader and a convincing programmatic alternative.
The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since 2015, won the May European Parliament (EP) election securing 45% of the votes and 27 seats, 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 38% and 22 seats respectively. This provides Law and Justice with a major psychological and strategic boost ahead of the country’s autumn parliamentary poll, which could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. It was a particularly impressive result because virtually all of the main opposition parties were united in a single electoral bloc, and turnout in EP elections is traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher among better-off, urban voters who tend to support the liberal-centrist opposition.
However, this time overall turnout was significantly higher at 46%, closer to the level in parliamentary elections. Indeed, Law and Justice’s campaign was focused primarily on mobilising its core electorate in smaller towns and rural areas. In order to signal to its supporters just how important this election was, Law and Justice stood some of its best-known ministers as leading candidates and its campaign was fronted by party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. While Mr Kaczyński is a polarising figure and traditionally one of Poland’s least trusted politicians among more centrist voters, he has an extremely dedicated following among the party’s core supporters.
The election was fast-moving, with the dominant issue appearing to change almost every week, but in a bid to rally its supporters Law and Justice made the centre-piece of its campaign a substantial package of new social welfare spending pledges and tax cuts. These were carefully targeted at key groups of core Law and Justice voters and included: extending the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme (previously available for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families) to cover all children; a 1,100 złoty bonus payment for retirees; exempting workers under 26 from income tax; cutting the lower income tax rate from 18% to 17%; and re-instating rural bus services. Law and Justice hoped that such a huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts would burnish its self-image as the first governing party that has tried to ensure all Poles share fully in the country’s post-communist economic transformation. The party’s aim was to raise the electoral stakes for its core voters who would not normally vote in an EP election but may have feared that the liberal-centrist opposition would abandon these programmes if they were to win office.
Uniting the opposition was not enough
Nonetheless, Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna’s success in persuading virtually all the other main opposition parties – including the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – to join the European Coalition cemented his position as undisputed opposition leader and provided Law and Justice with a formidable opponent in this election. Although its ideological eclecticism made it difficult for the Coalition to develop a clear and distinctive programmatic message, the grouping’s strategy was to rally government opponents by framing the election as a ‘great choice’ (wielki wybór) between returning Poland to European mainstream politics and a Law and Justice government which, it said, has found itself continually at loggerheads with the EU political establishment. The Coalition thus hoped that opposition to Law and Justice was, on its own, a powerful enough mobilising appeal to win this particular ‘second order’ election where voters were not choosing a government.
However, the Coalition’s attempt to turn the EP election into a de facto referendum on continued Polish EU membership, by claiming that Law and Justice’s frequent clashes with the EU institutions could lead to Poland leaving the Union (so-called ‘Polexit’), did not work. Although Law and Justice leaders remain wary of extending EU competencies at the expense of member states, they tried to tone down the government’s conflict with the Union’s political establishment and went overboard to stress the party’s strong commitment to continued EU membership as a core element of Polish foreign policy. The Coalition, therefore, attempted to shift the focus of its campaign on to domestic issues and counter Law and Justice’s social benefit expansion by, for example, arguing that it could secure more EU funds to improve Poland’s dysfunctional health service. But while the quality of health care is a high priority issue for many Polish voters, the Coalition’s efforts failed to develop any traction, partly because Law and Justice has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the social spending promises on which it was elected in 2015.
Credit: Arkadiusz Sikorski (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The government’s opponents hoped that the dynamics of the campaign would change following the release on YouTube of ‘Just Don’t Tell Anyone’ (‘Tylko nie mów nikomu’), a harrowing film documenting several alleged instances of child sex abuse by Polish Catholic priests and accusations of subsequent cover-ups and neglect of victims by the Church hierarchy, which gained massive popularity online. The documentary’s release in the final days of the campaign posed a significant challenge for Law and Justice by turning the role of the Church in Polish politics and society into a major issue.
The Church remains an important civil society actor in Poland, particularly in Law and Justice’s electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are still high. While the ruling party has not always enjoyed the closest of relationships with the Church hierarchy in recent years, in public consciousness the two organisations are still very closely aligned. A few days before the scandal broke Mr Kaczyński told a crowd of party supporters that, ‘he who raises a hand against the church…raises his hand against Poland’. At the same time, the European Coalition was very quick off-the-mark in calling for an independent inquiry to investigate how the Church had handled clerical sexual abuse. However, Law and Justice manged to get ahead of the issue by arguing that any inquiry should not single out the clergy but investigate sexual abuse against children more widely, and by introducing new legislation to increase penalties for sex offenders.
The minor parties were squeezed
The most significant opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition was 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. However, after a promising start, ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself as the sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs strengthened the argument that the opposition needed to unite behind the Coalition as the only way to defeat Law and Justice. Moreover, ‘Spring’ increasingly focused its campaign on moral-cultural issues turning itself into a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party, the electoral base for which is relatively narrow in Poland. Moreover, in spite of the fact that calls for a stricter separation of Church and state was one of the key elements of its programme, Mr Biedroń’s party did not receive any electoral boost from the emergence of clerical sexual abuse as a campaign issue. Although it crossed the 5% parliamentary representation threshold, the party’s 6.1% vote share and 3 MEPs was a disappointing result very much at the lower end of its expectations.
At the same time, Law and Justice saw off a challenge on its right flank from the ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping, an electoral alliance comprising an eclectic mix of radical nationalists, free marketeers, Eurosceptics and social conservatives. As one of its leaders put it, ‘we don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the EU’. The Confederation’s signature issue was its criticism of Law and Justice’s alleged failure to stand up to the United States and Israel over the issue of Jewish wartime reparations as emblematic of its inability to defend Polish interests effectively.
The Confederation’s main focus was the so-called ‘JUST Act’, an American law (known by its legislative number 447) that requires the US State Department to assess steps taken by selected countries (including Poland) to provide compensation for the Holocaust, including for the property of Jews who died without heirs. However, Law and Justice successfully de-fanged the issue by taking an equally hard line on heirless Jewish property restitution, and accusing the Confederation of having pro-Russian sympathies and paving the way for the liberal-centrist opposition (an allegedly less robust defender of national interests) to steal election victory by dividing the right-wing vote.
However, although the Confederation failed to cross the representation threshold, securing 4.6% of votes, it replaced the anti-establishment Kukiz’15 grouping, which only scored 3.7%, as the main repository for right-wing ‘anti-system’ votes. Kukiz’15 was formed after its leader, rock star Paweł Kukiz, caused a political sensation in the 2015 presidential election when he picked up more than one-fifth of the vote, and his new grouping went on to become the third largest in parliament. However, since then Mr Kukiz has not come up with any new ideas or initiatives, and the Confederation appeared to undercut his main appeal, especially among younger voters, as the most credible opponent of the political establishment.
Problems for the opposition (but also the ruling party)
The European Coalition’s disappointing result has raised major doubts about the future of an electoral alliance built largely on the premise that, whatever its programmatic diversity, only a united opposition can defeat Law and Justice. Such doubts are particularly evident within the Peasant Party where there is an influential faction questioning whether a centrist grouping with a socially conservative, rural and small-town core electorate should contest the parliamentary election as part of a coalition dominated by liberal and left-wing parties.
Mr Scheytna and his allies argue that there is little alternative to the current formula which has at least started to develop some momentum and, with tactical and strategic adjustments, can still mount a serious electoral challenge in the autumn if only the opposition parties continue to stick together. ‘Spring’ is also under pressure to join a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance, although it has pledged to contest the parliamentary election independently and the accession of such an openly social liberal grouping would make the Peasant Party’s position in such a coalition even more problematic. However, there remain serious concerns about the leadership of Mr Schetyna – who, his critics argue, lacks dynamism and charisma – and whether such an ideologically eclectic grouping can really develop a coherent and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles appear to care most about.
Finally, although the EP election result provided Law and Justice with a tremendous (and largely unexpected) boost, the party knows that, even if it wins the largest share of the vote in the parliamentary poll, there are serious doubts as to whether it will retain an outright majority, while its favoured post-election ally, Kukiz’15, now appears to be in a downward spiral. Moreover, not only would the Confederation – which itself faces an uncertain future, but is currently the only realistic alternative – be a much more problematic governing partner, even the prospect of a Law and Justice coalition with this grouping would be used by the liberal-centrist opposition to frighten off moderate voters from supporting Mr Kaczyński’s party.
Note: This article originally appeared at Aleks Szczerbiak’s personal blog. The article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Aleks Szczerbiak – University of Sussex
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?(Routledge, 2012) and ‘Politicising the Communist Past: The Politics of Truth Revelation in Post-Communist Poland‘ (Routledge 2018). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/