It is almost certain that Law and Justice will emerge from Poland’s parliamentary election this Sunday as the largest grouping, but far from clear if it will retain its overall majority, writes Aleks Szczerbiak. If the governing party secures a second term, it will entrench and push ahead with its reform programme, while any alternative coalition government is likely to be weak and unstable.
On 13 October, Poland will hold a parliamentary election which 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 44% 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.
Law and Justice remains popular in spite of the harsh criticisms that it has received because it is trusted by voters on the socio-economic issues that have dominated the election campaign. The party has delivered on most of the high-profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant of which was its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit programme.
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. At the same time, although its opponents argue that the huge expansion of social spending and tax cuts places a massive strain on public finances, the government has continued to maintain high levels of economic growth and falling unemployment, with increased tax revenues actually leading to a reduction in the state budget deficit.
In its election programme, Law and Justice augmented its array of social welfare commitments and promised to build a Polish version of a ‘prosperous state’ (państwo dobrobytu) grounded in social solidarity and state-led economic modernisation. The centre-piece was a pledge to almost double the minimum wage by the end of 2023. These social welfare programmes and pledges are aimed at raising the electoral stakes for the party’s core supporters, thereby encouraging them to turn out and vote out of fear that the liberal-centrist opposition may water them down or abandon them if it were to win office.
Credit for re-distributing prestige
Law and Justice has robustly denied the opposition’s allegations that it undermined democracy and the rule of law, and 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. But 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 state which were ignored by previous administrations.
An important element of this – that was linked to, but went beyond, the simple question of financial transfers – is what some commentators termed the ‘re-distribution of prestige’. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to regain a feeling 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.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaking at the European Parliament, Credit: © European Union 2018 – European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Although there has been negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by Law and Justice politicians, these do not appear to have damaged the governing party to any great extent. The party 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 as 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 the economic transition.
Law and Justice has also skilfully mobilised support around a number of moral-cultural issues where it enjoys widespread public support or that are important to its core electorate. In this campaign, for example, it has opposed what it calls ‘LGBT ideology’, putting itself at the head of a moral crusade 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). By focusing on these issues, and thereby strengthening its hold over conservative voters, Law and Justice has also neutralised the electoral challenge from the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping which, according to ‘Ewybory’, is averaging around 4% support (just under the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for individual parties).
An unconvincing opposition
The opposition should not be written off and retains considerable political assets. The overall levels of popular support for the government and opposition camps is actually fairly evenly balanced and the latter has substantial financial resources and the backing of most of the privately-owned media, as well as significant influence within, and widespread support from, the country’s cultural, legal and business elites. However, it has failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Polish voters care most about.
The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can rally. Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna is extremely effective as a behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is currently Poland’s least trusted politician. Recognising his lack of wider appeal, at the beginning of September Civic Platform proposed the more emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as its prime ministerial candidate. In doing so, it copied a Law and Justice manoeuvre in the 2015 campaign when its polarising leader Jarosław Kaczyński nominated one of his deputies, Beata Szydło, as the party’s nominee for prime minister. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of Civic Platform’s most significant negatives, it has not had any discernible impact on the grouping’s poll ratings, coming too late to give Kidawa-Błońska time to develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.
Civic Platform strategists also recognised that, rather than trying to outbid Law and Justice’s huge expansion of individual social transfers and welfare benefit programmes (although it promised to continue with them), they should focus instead on improving the quality of public services, especially health care. However, while many Poles feel that these services have been neglected, they are also dubious as to whether the liberal-centrist opposition – which is too associated with the previous, discredited Civic Platform administration – offers a credible alternative. Law and Justice simply has much greater credibility on these social policy issues having implemented most of the spending promises on which it was elected.
More open than it seems
Nonetheless, although, as things currently stand, there is a strong possibility that Law and Justice will secure re-election for a second term, the election is more open than it initially appears. While it seems almost certain that Law and Justice will emerge as the largest party, it is far from clear if it will retain its overall majority and continue to govern without needing the support of other parties.
Law and Justice only secured such a majority in 2015 because an alliance of left-wing parties narrowly failed to cross the higher 8% representation threshold for electoral coalitions. This time the three main left-wing parties – the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the radical left Together (Razem) grouping, and the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – are contesting the election as a united slate. However, although they are badging their formation in a broader way as the ‘Left’ (Lewica), in order to avoid the higher threshold the three parties are standing candidates on the Democratic Left Alliance’s electoral list; which is currently polling around 12% according to Ewybory.
The agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), formerly Civic Platform’s governing coalition partner, is also contesting the election independently but badging itself as a broader centrist ‘Polish Coalition’(KP) and has persuaded right-wing rock star Pawel Kukiz to join its ranks. Kukiz achieved a sensational result in the May 2015 presidential election winning one-fifth of the vote – and, on the back of this, his ‘Kukiz’15’ grouping emerged as the third largest in the new parliament – but he lost much of his appeal as an ‘anti-system’ campaigner when he teamed up with the quintessentially establishment Peasant Party; which, according to Ewybory, is currently polling around 6%.
Whether or not Law and Justice secures a parliamentary majority depends on the overall size and distribution of the ruling party and opposition groupings’ votes, particularly how many of the latter enter parliament and how many votes are cast for parties that fail to cross the representation threshold. The Polish electoral system, proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats, favours larger groupings particularly when a significant number of votes are cast for those that do not cross the electoral threshold. However, if Law and Justice loses a few percentage points and all the opposition groupings comfortably cross the threshold, then this could deprive the ruling party of its majority. The greatest threat to Law and Justice, therefore, comes from the danger of its own supporters succumbing to complacency and over-confidence that the election is a foregone conclusion.
The stakes are high
If Law and Justice wins it will entrench and continue to push ahead with its radical reform programme in areas such as the judiciary and probably broaden it out into other fields such as the privately-owned media. At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, a Law and Justice second term will further shake-up the more informal hierarchies of power, influence and prestige that currently exist in the public sphere. With a fresh electoral mandate, the party will also be emboldened in its dealings with the EU political establishment and major European powers. As a consequence, a number of the party’s more pragmatic domestic and international opponents are likely to seek some kind of accommodation if it appears that Law and Justice will be in office for another four years
Even if the opposition is able to deprive Law and Justice of an overall majority, and the latter is not able to peel off enough individual opposition deputies to compensate for this, any alternative coalition government will be weak and unstable. For sure, it is likely to try and roll back many of Law and Justice’s controversial reforms and engage in wholesale replacement of the party’s nominees to key posts in public administration and broadcasting, the diplomatic service and state-controlled companies and agencies. But it will have to rely on an eclectic coalition of political forces for its parliamentary majority and its legislative programme will be undermined by the fact that it will also almost certainly lack the three-fifths majority required to overturn vetoes by Law and Justice President Andrzej Duda, whose term of office lasts until summer 2020.
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/