Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has a lead in the polls ahead of the country’s parliamentary election on 13 October. Aleks Szczerbiak writes that despite intense domestic and international criticism, the party remains popular because it is trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters care most about.
Poland’s parliamentary election on 13 October 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 45% 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.
The Polish election is more open that it initially appears. Even if, as seems almost certain, Law and Justice wins the largest share of the vote, it is far-from-clear whether or not it will retain its overall parliamentary majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties. This depends on the precise share and final distribution of votes between the governing party and opposition groupings, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and the votes cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. A relatively small number of votes could determine the outcome either way. Nonetheless, as things currently stand there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term.
So why is Law and Justice still so popular? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the party is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that they care most about because it has delivered on many of the high-profile social spending pledges which were the key to Law and Justice’s 2015 election success. The most significant of these was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme which was extended this year to cover all families with any number of children.
The ‘500 plus’ programme 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. Many Poles feel that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice is the first governing party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale. At the same time, although the government’s opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, economic growth is strong, unemployment at its lowest for years, and increased tax revenues have actually led to a reduction in the state budget deficit.
At a September election rally launching the party’s plans to build a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments by announcing plans to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023, and introduce regular annual cash bonus payments for pensioners and retirees. Together with earlier social welfare spending pledges, these programmes are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for key groups of Law and Justice core voters, thereby encouraging them to vote in October out of fear that the opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.
Defending national identity and traditional values
Secondly, Law and Justice has put itself at the head of a moral crusade projecting the party 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). Initially, this could be seen in the party’s strong opposition to the EU’s extremely unpopular compulsory migrant relocation scheme in the run-up to the 2015 election, when Law and Justice argued that Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa would be difficult to assimilate and threatened Poland’s national security. More recently, the party has opposed what it terms ‘LGBT ideology’: an allegedly aggressive movement and policy agenda based on foreign ideas promoted by left-wing enemies of western civilisation.
These are certainly polarising issues that strike an emotional chord with many Poles because they involve a clash of basic moral-cultural values and map on to some of the deepest divisions in Polish society. A defence of traditional moral codes and pushing back against western cultural liberalism has always been a key element of Law and Justice’s appeal to more socially conservative voters. Consequently, raising the issue’s salience (according to the opposition, cynically as a pretext to create an atmosphere of moral panic) certainly helps to mobilise the party’s core supporters in smaller towns and rural areas where such values still hold considerable sway.
Credit: Prachatai (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
But Law and Justice has framed its arguments so that they do not simply mobilise its core electorate but also win broader public support for the party. The vast majority of Poles supported the Law and Justice government’s strong opposition to the EU’s mandatory relocation scheme, keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that they felt western European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants. The fact that, unlike in many western European cities, there have been no Islamist terrorist attacks in Poland increased Poles’ sense that they lived in a relatively safe country and that this was threatened by alleged EU-imposed multi-culturalism.
Similarly, while Poles appear to be increasingly tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, popular acceptance starts to decline when the agenda moves beyond how individuals choose to live their private lives into areas which they feel belong to the realm of family life, such as proposals that appear to diminish the role of parents as the primary educators of their children in matters of sexual relations and morality. While Poles are fairly evenly divided on the question of legal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, a substantial majority oppose same-sex marriage (set out in the Polish Constitution as the union of a man and woman) and are overwhelmingly against granting adoption rights to same-sex couples. Many, including those who are not especially religious, are also extremely hostile to the profanation of Catholic symbols by LGBT activists, as in Poland many of these are also regarded as broader national symbols.
Thirdly, the negative publicity surrounding various allegations of government scandals, and the abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians for partisan or private ends, does not appear to have damaged the ruling party to any great extent. Law and Justice 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 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 economic transformation.
Similarly, Law and Justice has been tactically adroit in knowing when to defuse, and not expend too much political capital on, contentious issues, and retreat when the party does not consider these to be priorities or core elements of its governing programme. A good example of this was the abortion issue when, although they personally supported tightening Poland’s already-restrictive law, in autumn 2016, facing an unexpectedly large groundswell of public opposition, Law and Justice parliamentarians voted down legislation sponsored by Catholic civic organisations representing the party’s core ‘religious right’ electorate to make the practice illegal in all cases except when the mother’s life was at risk.
Fourthly, Poles have been prepared to cut Law and Justice a lot of slack. For sure, the party has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it has undermined democracy and the rule of law. 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. Moreover, even if they have misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many others still feel that, for all its faults, Law and Justice was at least attempting to tackle some of the apparently intractable problems with, and shortcomings of, the Polish state which have been ignored by previous administrations.
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’: whereby many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a sense 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.
A weak and unconvincing opposition
Finally, Law and Justice has benefited from the fact that the liberal-centrist opposition has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on key socio-economic issues. 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, Mr Schetyna has taken a back-seat in the election campaign with Civic Platform promoting the more emollient but low-key former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate.
Opposition strategists 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), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health and education. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected, they are also dubious as to whether the opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative and would actually deliver any improvements. Law and Justice’s election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change, and the ruling party simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.
Complacency is the greatest threat
The opposition 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. Election campaigns can also, of course, develop their own specific dynamics, and a change in the political context or the emergence of a particular issue could still turn things around, given that government and opposition camps actually remain fairly evenly matched in terms of their combined overall levels of support. Nonetheless, as things stand, the greatest threat to Law and Justice probably comes not from the opposition, but the danger of its own leaders and supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
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/
As always, a well-researched overview of current Polish politics, but I want to point out that “substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media” is not as effective as it may seem, because a large part, if not most, of the private media is already aligned with the governing Law and Justice party (PiS). I described in my comments to Aleks’s previous article that PiS have now got Solorz’s media empire on side (Polsat and Superstation), replacing the news staff at Polsat with PiS supporters and banning politics altogether at Superstacja, firing some well known journalists and hosts. This leaves only the Discovery Channel-owned TVN network of stations independent on the TV scene, and Kaczyński has been very explicit for a long time that he intends to force its sale to “Polish interests”, presumably some consortium of state owned enterprises. In the meantime, the state-owned TVP channels rival Moscow and Budapest in slavish one-sidedness. Outside the cities, often TVP is the only available television, so news of PiS scandals and opposition to PiS just does not reach the countryside, and the press there is mainly tabloids, of which only one (“Fakt”) shows independence, if any.
In the weekly print media, there are a whole lot of PiS-supporting propaganda publications, whose financing to me is murky to say the least, which on newstands crowd out the independent or anti-PiS publications such as “Newsweek”, “Polityka” and “Przegląd”, also the right-leaning but reasonably independent “Wprost”. Although the largest daily newspaper remains “Gazeta Wyborca”, headed by legendary Solidarność dissident Adam Michnik and by Jarosław Kurski, all independent publications face an advertising boycott by the government, and in the case of “Newsweek”, the same fate as TVN when Kaczyński “Polonises” the media.
In my opinion, what is happening in Poland shares many of the characteristics and causes of the right-populist politics of the UK, US and many other countries. As shown by Piketty, the centre and left parties in the developed democratic world have since WWII gradually come to represent the educated professional classes rather than the working or lower classes, who, after neo-liberalism knocked economics and broad class interests out of the Left’s purview, have been co-opted by the Right populists. Jan Śpiewak’s recent article in “Wprost”, blaming the liberals for causing the rise of populism, echoes similar analyses in the US, most notably by writers such as Thomas Frank and Mark Blyth, who predicted the rise of Trumpism. Of course, in Poland, these forces are amplified by the roles of national memory, deeply ingrained anti-semitism and a reactionary Church, while weakly rooted democracy allowed Kaczyński to become the National Leader or “Naczelnik”, in the mould of Piłsudski and Śmigły-Rydz between the World Wars, and Bierut, Gomułka, Gierek and Jaruzelski after WWII.
Kaczyński has a vision, one close to Franco’s Catholic-Fascist one, while the Left has no compelling vision to grab emotions … the repair of disintegrating public services (health, education, defence etc.) just doesn’t mobilise voters in the way Kaczyński’s illiberal, anti-Western cultural and egalitarian vision does.
Why is it so difficult to believe in democracy gentlemen?
because there’s no democracy in Poland anymore
What is often ignored about Trump is that he won a larger share of the + $50,000 vote than Clinton, and that reactionary right wing politics is a lower middle class (or petite bourgeois) affairs not something generally attractive to the working classes.
This is forgotten as class is represented in these models by education, though education is more indicative of age. The fact that homeowning middle age whites made up the bulk of the Trump movement is lost on a lot of people.
Well, they oppress people, but the things they say about the left-wing camps are very true.
They run the country well, and they won’t let the minority or economic migrants (only 30% are even migrants before they reach the first country of safe refuge, Turkey, after which they aren’t at all, unless they arrive at other countries first, and Poland has taken over 1 million Ukrainians iirc, because they are actually refugees arriving at the first country of safe refuge), oppress the majority, so they have my foreign support.
Glad to see corruption has gone slightly down too in the corruption transparency index, if they keep up with this they can gradually transform more and more into the Singaporean style of arch-conservative democracy that values welfare, integration (Singapore even has racial quotas for neighborhoods (and also highly subsidized housing) that avoids ghettos and supports assimilation) that has everything but media freedom, except on the internet.
It’s tricky, getting that media freedom down and maintaining your values, but I’m willing to take a bit of imperfection there, God knows the far left hates science as much as the far right, just on different topics.