Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has a significant polling lead ahead of the country’s elections on Sunday. Ben Stanley previews the contest, writing that the polls indicate the party is currently on course to secure a comfortable majority. Should they fall short of a majority, however, there would be substantial uncertainty about what would come next.
To the long-term observer of Polish politics, it feels as if every election is routinely described as “the most important since 1989”. But this time, that cliche fits the occasion. Since 2015, the incumbent populist-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has pursued a path of reform that has taken Poland away from the model of liberal democracy that provided the normative point of orientation for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, and whose principles appeared to have been enshrined in the 1997 Constitution and entrenched by Polish accession to the European Union in 2004.
There is a fashion for seeing recent events in Poland as a post-Trump phenomenon. However, the democratic backsliding Poland has experienced since 2015 was years in the making. Since the early 1990s, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS and de facto prime minister, has harboured a very different conception of political order that clearly subordinates the legislative and judicial branches to the decisionist will of a strong executive. After an abortive attempt to make a start at rolling back the frontiers of Poland’s nascent liberal democracy during the short 2005-2007 parliamentary term, PiS spent the subsequent eight years in opposition working out a more viable strategy. Conceding defeat in the 2011 election, Jarosław Kaczyński asserted that in years to come there would be “Budapest on the Vistula”, a direct reference to the government of Viktor Orbán which, having come to power in 2010, set about reshaping the Hungarian political system in its own image.
In 2015, PiS returned to power, the vagaries of the Polish electoral system converting 37% of the vote into a majority of seats. Despite having presented a more moderate face to the electorate during the campaign, they immediately set about using their dominance of the executive (former PiS MP Andrzej Duda having been elected to the presidency earlier in the year) and the legislature to establish power over the third branch of government, first paralysing and then taking over the Constitutional Tribunal through the appointment of loyalists, then extending political control over the bodies responsible for appointing and disciplining judges.
Public media, always prone to politicisation, has been turned into a mouthpiece of government, pumping out puerile but effective propaganda. Parliament, never a model of efficiency, has been turned into a machine for legislative sausage-making, with opposition scrutiny of bills important to the government’s policy agenda and broader political strategy strictly circumscribed, in contravention of all norms of political pluralism. These actions have brought Poland into conflict with international opinion and the European Commission in particular, with Poland becoming the first member state to be investigated under the EU’s rule-of-law mechanism.
If PiS did not come to power on the back of promises to undermine the rule of law and squeeze out the last drops of pluralism from the pores of the body politic, it did promise to ensure that the fruits of Poland’s buoyant economy were consumed more evenly. While the flagship “500+” child benefit policy failed in its stated aim of raising the fertility rate, it had the effect of putting more disposable income in the pockets of people who previously had struggled to make ends meet, fuelling consumer spending and disrupting hierarchies of prestige.
The retirement age, which had been raised by the previous government, was lowered again. A phased-in Sunday trading ban made it possible for more working people to spend time with their families, bolstering PiS’s fondly-curated ideal of home-and-hearth Catholicism, even if ever fewer Poles were taking the opportunity afforded by a free Sunday to go to church. While the image of Poland abroad was driven by protests against judicial purges, perceived toleration for marches by radical right activists, attempts to criminalise certain forms of discussion about Poland and the Holocaust, and the generally less obliging face the Polish government presented to the outside world, the domestic picture was often very different.
This contrast helps explain why PiS remains on course to win the election on Sunday. Indeed, the sources of PiS’s continued support are not difficult to fathom. Ideologically, it is the party closest to the average Polish voter, who combines a moderate preference for economic redistribution with socially conservative views. While PiS’s policy of “nothing to the right of us except the wall” means that it must at times articulate rather more conservative views than the average Pole espouses, this is a balancing act it has so far performed with consummate skill.
By comparison, the opposition parties face two problems that PiS is not exposed to: either their appeal is too tightly circumscribed by their ideological commitments, or key aspects of their appeal lie orthogonally to the interests of voters who remain up for grabs. The conservative-liberal Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main party of opposition, has moderated its pro-market economic stance considerably since its early days as an advocate of flat taxes and the barely-visible hand, but is still more liberal than the average voter. While in socio-cultural matters it is rather more conservative than popular opinion gives it credit for, this misconception is part of its problem.
There is an easy discursive slippage between the defence of liberal democracy and the defence of a liberal policy platform. One of the reasons PiS has so doggedly pursued the culture war issue in recent months is that it knows PO must choose between defending causes many of its members and voters are uncomfortable with, or failing to stand up for the broader principles of minority rights and pluralism. The swift decline of the more orthodox liberal Nowoczesna, meanwhile, can partly be attributed to the incompetence of its leadership, but also to the limited market for a policy stance that combines both economic and socio-cultural liberalism.
Having failed to carve out distinct positions of their own, the remaining parties are condemned to fight PiS on their own territory. The Polish People’s Party (PSL) has seen PiS eat away at its agrarian electorate by offering the policies PSL can offer these voters but the access to power they cannot. The Kukiz’15 social movement’s appeals to nativism resonate with the interests of PiS supporters, but the appeal of the movement is negated by an undercurrent of distrust in the state that sits ill with those for whom the state is the guarantor of the national narrative. The left has looked on helplessly during its four years out of parliament as PiS has arrogated to itself the mantle of social sensitivity and redistributive justice, knowing that it cannot win back many of those lost supporters with anti-clericalism and Žižek discussion groups.
Yet ideology is not all. Fundamentally, what undergirds PiS’s continued dominance can be summarised in two words: delivery and competence. While theorists of democracy may focus on the integrity of liberal-democratic institutions and the quality of deliberation and participation in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arenas, democracy is also about keeping your word. To those sections of the electorate who treat concerns about the legitimate composition of the Constitutional Tribunal and the de-pluralisation of parliament as irrelevant or at best of secondary importance, PiS commends itself by virtue of having made good on several of its key election promises.
Furthermore, its successful delivery of those promises and the strict control it has exercised over the political process in implementing them has conveyed the impression of a party that knows, at any given moment and in any given circumstance, what it is doing and what it intends to do next. This is an impression strengthened by the compliant propagandists of state media, who pass up no opportunity to portray Jarosław Kaczyński as a uniquely enlightened helmsman running the tightest of ships. In short, PiS continues to look like the natural party of government.
By contrast, the opposition has appeared indecisive and reactive. To a substantial extent, this is its own doing. While the pro-democracy rallies that followed PiS’s initial moves against the Constitutional Tribunal and judiciary initially seemed to have formed the basis for a coordinated and coherent opposition, the momentum was squandered amid mistrust between leaders of the extra-parliamentary Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and representatives of opposition parties on the one hand, and between KOD organisers and other extra-parliamentary formations on the other. In 2019, the umbrella anti-PiS movement is a set of arguments without an organising principle.
At the party level, this was reflected in the torpid process of coalition formation over the summer. While PiS busied itself getting its message across, the opposition parties spent the key pre-campaign months shaking the kaleidoscope into new patterns. By the time the campaign got started, PO, Nowoczesna and other minor groups had formed the Civic Coalition (KO), PSL and Kukiz’15 had patched up a shaky but ideologically plausible common electoral list, and the formation of the Lewica coalition under the auspices of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) marked a belated realisation that after three and a half years of infighting and backbiting the left was only likely to return to parliament if it learned to treat compromise as a virtue rather than a vice. The slate of opposition parties was completed by Konfederacja, a vehicle of erstwhile MEP and perennial – if largely ineffectual – gadfly Janusz Korwin-Mikke that has also brought on board the radical right National Movement (RN).
While each of these opposition formations (only one of which is in a formal sense a coalition) offers the Polish electorate a more or less coherent ideological choice, the somewhat subdued character of the campaign reflects the rather reluctant character of this cooperation, an excess of self-defeating retrospection on the part of liberal and left commentators in response to PiS’s rapid hegemonisation of the political scene, the numbing effect of state TV’s blatant political interventions into the pre-campaign and campaign period (scandals which would have seriously dented the re-election prospects of previous governments have been brushed over or excused), and the perception that PiS controls the narrative amid a lack of convincing alternative ideas and counter-proposals. The opposition does not commend itself to the Polish electorate as a particularly convincing argument for the pluralism it purports to be defending.
A likely Law and Justice majority
As a result, PiS looks on course to secure a comfortable majority. A pooling of recent polls gives them 46% of the vote, against 29% for KO, 13% for Lewica, 6% for PSL-Kukiz and 5% for Konfederacja. Assuming that constituency-level support is roughly similar to that observed in previous elections, these national-level figures would translate to a legislative majority for PiS of 249 seats. This would be a handsome improvement on their result in 2015, but would still leave them well short of a constitutional majority and also short of the ability to overturn a presidential veto should an opposition candidate defeat current president Andrzej Duda in 2020. As with all polling figures, these should be treated with a degree of caution, particularly given the over-reporting of turnout relative to what is likely to transpire on Sunday. However, with trends showing very little change in levels of support for the five main formations contesting this election, the question to be resolved is not whether PiS will win, but by how much.
With the race for the lower house of parliament (Sejm) attracting the most interest, concurrent elections to the Senate have gone rather unnoticed. However, there is an outside chance that the opposition – which has opted to run common candidates in many constituencies to avoid vote-splitting in the majoritarian system used for Senate elections – could deprive PiS of its current majority. In the unlikely event of this happening, a new PiS government would not ultimately face an insuperable barrier to realising its policy priorities but would have to contend with an upper house of parliament making full use of its instruments of scrutiny and amendment, rather than merely facilitating the production of more legislative sausages.
If, as expected, PiS wins on Sunday, it can be expected to press ahead with its plans for further reform. Jarosław Kaczyński has already indicated that “finishing the job” of judicial reform will be a particular priority. The post of First President of the Supreme Court becomes vacant in 2020, and with PiS in control of the appointment process, one of the last remaining bulwarks to political control of the judiciary will fall. It is also likely that a new PiS government will turn its attentions again to the goal of “re-polonising” private media through the de-concentration of ownership.
Even if the unthinkable happens and PiS fails to get a majority, there is still substantial uncertainty about what follows. In a move that is formally legal but democratically dubious, PiS has arranged for a suspended session of parliament to reconvene on the 15th and 16th of October. Were PiS to lose the election, they may exploit this opportunity to rush through legislation extending their control of non-legislative institutions. Even in the event that they do not, any opposition coalition to whom it falls to form the next government will have to deal with the legacy of Poland’s illiberal turn, while PiS-appointed redoubts of power in the Constitutional Tribunal, judicial system and public media scrutinise and disrupt their every move. This will not be the easiest of tasks.
Ben Stanley – SWPS
Ben Stanley is an Associate Professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex.