Poland will hold parliamentary elections later this year. Aleks Szczerbiak writes that the country’s liberal-centrist opposition retains considerable assets, and the overall balance of support between it and the right-wing governing camp remains evenly balanced. But the opposition has wasted too much time looking inward rather than crafting a convincing programmatic alternative, and it still does not know in what configuration it will contest the election.
Poland’s liberal-centrist opposition suffered a major defeat in May’s European Parliament (EP) election. The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the ruling party since 2015, secured 45% of the votes well 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 only 38%.
This result was a huge psychological and strategic blow for the opposition alliance, which at one point in the campaign was running neck-and-neck with Law and Justice, ahead of the autumn parliamentary poll which could be the most important and consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989. It was particularly disappointing because virtually all the main opposition parties – including the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – had united in a single bloc in an election where turnout was traditionally very low overall (ranging from 21-25%) but higher among better-off, urban voters who tend to support the liberal-left. This time, at 46%, turnout was significantly higher and closer to the levels seen in parliamentary elections.
Since then, the opposition has been debating whether it should contest the parliamentary election as a single united bloc. The d’Hondt counting method, which is used for allocating seats in electoral districts under Poland’s proportional voting system, favours larger parties, suggesting that coalescing in a single electoral alliance is the optimal solution. Nonetheless, so far only Civic Platform and ‘Modern’, which is mired in debt and has anyway effectively ceased to exist as an independent political entity, have united their parliamentary caucuses as a precursor to running as part of a broader opposition alliance. In a members’ referendum held at the end of June, the Democratic Left Alliance also voted to join an electoral coalition.
However, the Peasant Party faces the dilemma that if it contests the election independently there is a huge risk that it will not cross the 5% parliamentary representation threshold, but while standing as part of a broad opposition alliance would more-or-less guarantee it seats it could also lead to the end of the party as an independent political force. Although its leadership initially favoured remaining within a broad alliance, an influential faction questioned whether a centrist grouping with a socially conservative, rural and small-town core electorate should contest the election as part of a coalition dominated by liberal and left-wing parties.
Consequently, in June the party announced its intention to set up a new centre-right bloc dubbed the Polish Coalition (KP) and tried to attract politicians from Civic Platform’s marginalised conservative wing and smaller right-wing groupings such as the anti-establishment ‘Kukiz’15’. Then, at the beginning of July, the Peasant Party also called upon Civic Platform – which has been its governing partner at national and local levels since the mid-2000s, but continues to favour a broad opposition alliance – to join it in a centrist ‘Christian Democratic’ electoral bloc that excluded the left.
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, was the main opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition. After a promising start, ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and increasingly focused on moral-cultural issues turning itself into a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party.
The electoral base for this kind of grouping is relatively narrow in Poland and, although ‘Spring’ crossed the 5% threshold, its 6.1% EP vote share was very much at the lower end of its expectations. Then Mr Biedroń announced that he would, after all, be taking up his EP seat, having previously said that he would not do so in order to concentrate on the autumn election, leaving the ‘Spring’ leader open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project. Moreover, although immediately after the EP election Mr Biedroń said that ‘Spring’ would contest the parliamentary poll independently, he now says he is ready to discuss joining a broad opposition alliance.
Unity is not enough
The opposition’s dilemma is that it needs a clear message to mobilise its supporters but there are serious doubts whether a broad and ideologically eclectic electoral alliance that includes both conservative agrarians and urban liberals can develop such programmatic unity, especially on moral-cultural issues. The EP election results also showed that simply uniting all of the main opposition parties, however programmatically diverse, into one electoral bloc was not enough to defeat Law and Justice.
This notion was based on the premise that – as was the case in the 2007 election, when the then-Law and Justice incumbent lost in spite of increasing its share of the vote – there is a natural anti-government majority that just needs to be mobilised by whichever grouping is best placed to defeat the ruling party. However, at the moment there simply does not appear to be the kind of powerful underlying appetite for political change evident in 2007.
By delivering on most of the high profile social spending pledges that were the key to its 2015 election victory, many Poles feel that Law and Justice is the first governing party to help the less well-off on such a large scale, although many had promised to do so. 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 Polish state which had been ignored by previous administrations.
An important element of this is what some commentators have termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’, whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a feeling of dignity. So far, the negative publicity surrounding various allegations of government scandals has also not damaged Law and Justice and its supporters appear to regard them as either false or the occasional lapses of a generally honest party. Fear that the opposition may abandon, or water down, the government’s large social spending programmes if it were to win office, has also raised the electoral stakes for Law and Justice’s core voters and will no doubt help to mobilise them once again in the autumn.
Lacking leadership and a credible programme
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. However, there appears to be no obvious alternative: a May survey by the IPSOS agency for the OKO.press portal found that while only 9% of respondents (and 22% of European Coalition voters) opted for Mr Schetyna as the best prime ministerial candidate, 50% did not choose any of the current opposition leaders.
Some opposition figures hoped that Donald Tusk, Civic Platform prime minister from 2007-14 and currently European Council President, would return to act as a rallying point for the anti-government camp, possibly even setting up his own grouping based on liberal-centrist local government leaders, as a precursor to a summer 2020 Polish presidential bid. However, Mr Tusk is not the political driving force he once was and some commentators argue that his long stint in Brussels has dulled his previously-excellent domestic political antennae and ability to read the public mood.
Grzegorz Schetyna, Credit: Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (CC BY-NC 2.0)
However, the opposition’s most fundamental problem is its lack of a coherent and attractive programmatic alternative, especially on the socio-economic issues that Poles seem to care most about. Opposition strategists appear to 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), it should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health and education which many Poles feel have been neglected. However, Poles are dubious as to whether the opposition would actually deliver on any additional spending pledges because it is too associated in the public mind with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration. Law and Justice has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.
Recognising these difficulties, some opposition leaders have focused on the more modest objective of compiling a joint list of candidates to contest the 100 single-member constituencies which elect the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber. However, to date, every party that has won the election to the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber, has also secured a Senate majority; the OKO.press portal has estimated that even a united opposition list would only secure 43 seats. Indeed, even if the opposition can win a Senate majority, the second chamber only has delaying and some state appointment powers, while the Sejm can overturn its resolutions and amendments relatively easily. Moreover, by focusing on the Senate the opposition could actually de-mobilise its supporters by appearing to have given up on winning a Sejm majority.
Another idea for regaining the political initiative, sometimes linked to the joint Senate list proposal, is giving a higher profile to popular opposition-linked local government leaders, particularly the mayors of the larger Polish towns and cities. However, it is not clear how exactly these leaders would be involved in the autumn campaign and unlikely that many of them will want to de-camp to parliament, where they would be minor (probably opposition) political actors rather than leading figures with substantial budgets and influence in their localities, particularly so soon after securing re-election for a four-year term last autumn. Moreover, high levels of local support do not necessarily translate to the national level, and most of these leaders are from urban metropolitan districts where the opposition is already strong rather than the smaller towns and rural areas where it needs to boost its support.
Too little time left?
Although the opposition is experiencing something of a crisis at the moment, it 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. Opposition strategists are also convinced that there are considerable reserves of its potential voters – particularly in urban areas (hence its opening to local government leaders) – who, in spite of the record turnout, abstained during the EP election.
Election campaigns can, of course, develop their own specific dynamics, and a change in the political context or emergence of a particular issue could turn things around, given that the government and opposition camps actually remain fairly evenly matched in terms of their overall levels of support. In fact, the greatest threat to the ruling party probably comes from the danger of its own activists succumbing to complacency and over-confidence.
Moreover, even if it emerges as the largest single party it is far from certain that Law and Justice will retain its overall parliamentary majority and be able to govern without coalition partners. Nonetheless, the opposition has wasted too much time looking inwards and, at the time of writing, still does not even know in what configuration it will be contesting the election. Even if it can eventually develop a more effective political strategy and convincing programmatic alternative, it may have left itself too little time to implement and promote these.
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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/
I think that Aleks misses the media transformation ongoing in Poland. PiS, of course, quickly turned the state broadcasting system, which includes several TV channels as well as radio channels, into pure propaganda mouthpieces which outdo even Putin’s system (as reported by Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder, who follow both). In the countryside and small towns, that is pretty much all that people receive. But until a few months ago, in the larger cities, there were still three private networks independent of PiS available: TVN (including TVN24 an TVN24bis), the Polsat network, and Superstacja, which all had many political shows giving full access to critics of the government and doing investigative reporting. Unfortunately, two of them, Polsat and Superstacja, are owned by the multi-billionaire Zygmunt Solorz-Żak, on whom PiS finally found hooks concerning his business interests, and he promptly changed his Polsat network to one moderately supporting PiS, and later completely banished politics from Superstacja, leaving only the TVN channels giving full access to the opposition (PiS spokespeople are also, of course, featured for balance in most programmes). Kaczyński has long promised to reduce foreign ownership of Polish media, and since the TVN Group is currently owned by the American Discovery Networks International, and the US State Department has quite strongly defended its interests in Poland. However, the increasingly close ties between PiS and Donald Trump may well lead to a change of policy, allowing PiS to pass legislation forcing the sale of at least TVN24 and TVN24bis to Polish owners, which could well be the giant state owned enterprises (SOEs) controlled by PiS. In this case, PiS will have simply followed the prescription established by Putin and Orban, with less reliance on oligarchs, since the Polish economy was less privatised than the others.
The same future “re-Polonisation” legislation would be used to take over the “Newsweek Polska” magazine, one of the very few national weeklies opposed to PiS, owned by the German/Swiss Ringier Springer Media AG. The other major opposition-supporting weekly, “Polityka”, is Polish-owned and probably untouchable, as are the minor players “Tygodnik Powszechny”, run by the tiny progressive intellectual wing of the Polish Catholic Church, and “Przegląd”, rooted in the post-communist left. However, as with the publicly-traded Agora corporation which owns “Gazeta Wyborcza”, all opposition-supporting media in Poland are under great pressure due to advertising boycotts by the government and its SOEs, and all such media are now establishing private foundations to support their work. Even there, the government has mechanisms in place, or projected, to severely restrict NGOs in Poland.
Other political influences which are largely invisible to those outside Poland or in Poland’s big cities include the Church and the social media. Because parish sermons and Facebook targetting are highly local and almost entirely unobserved by others, it means that PiS can reach and mobilise its base in a way the opposition cannot, even in the big cities where TVN, Newsweek, Polityka and “Gazeta Wyborcza” are influential. Furthermore, political parties such as PO have relatively small memberships composed largely of people seeking jobs, so that mass personal canvassing in the style of UK, US and Canadian political parties is not practical or even welcomed by voters (and even in those countries, privacy concerns may cripple the practice in future). Instead, deep marketing research and access to social media data are the keys to power, and only PiS have the vast resources, contacts and influence to do that.
At this stage, it is extremely unlikely that the disunited opposition can disrupt the propaganda tsunami PiS have built up over the years, and a constitutional majority for PiS is clearly on the horizon. The situation is in several ways similar to that in the US, where Trump and his Republican Party are favoured to win in 2020.
One day later, and the disunity of the opposition is now confirmed. The Polish Peasant Party (PSL) will stand alone, while the Democratic Left Alliance will form a coalition with the other small left wing parties (Razem, Wiosna etc.), talks under way. Civic Platform (PO) will have only the remnants of Modern (Nowoczesna) and the small but influential Polish Initiative of Barbara Nowacka (who led the United Left in 2015 when it fell just under the 8% threshold and thereby gave Law and Solidarity its outright majority in the Sejm with only 37.6% of votes cast), plus an unkown number (20% ?) of individual allies from local governments and movements. At this stage, a constitutional majority for PiS is all but certain, especially if more Falenta tapes, secretly recorded in the “Sowa i Przyjaciele” restaurant five or six years ago, are leaked in order to compromise the opposition, unless the unknown leakers choose to now undermine people in PiS such as Premier Mateusz Morawiecki in order to sow chaos.
The lack of opposition leadership is as evident in Poland as it is in the UK and the US. Are we really condemned to five more years of Kaczyński, Johnson and Trump?