Poland will hold its next parliamentary election in autumn. Aleks Szczerbiak writes that although polarisation of the political scene has led to an increase in support for the main liberal-centrist opposition party, this has been largely at the expense of other, smaller anti-government parties. Opposition parties have also yet to find an effective response to the rise of a radical-right grouping that looks likely to hold the balance of power in the new parliament.
Last month, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, saw a sharp increase in its opinion poll support. The party – led by Donald Tusk, who was prime minister from 2007-14 and returned to Polish politics in 2021 following a stint as European Council President – was the beneficiary of the further polarisation of an already bitterly-divided political scene. This followed the passage of legislation paving the way for the establishment of a powerful new state commission tasked with investigating whether important economic and political decisions taken under Russian influence undermined the country’s national security.
Supporters of the government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – framed the commission as an urgent and necessary means of defending democracy by investigating and rooting out all potential Russian influences in Polish public life. They argued that Poles had a right to know, and make up their own minds about, how elected representatives and other officials had fulfilled their functions.
However, given that the commission’s members would be appointed by the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament where Law and Justice has a majority, and its chair nominated by the prime minister, the opposition said that its real purpose was to target and undermine the ruling party’s opponents ahead of the autumn parliamentary election.
Indeed, many commentators argued that the probe was aimed primarily at Tusk, whom Law and Justice has often accused of having been too friendly towards, and allowing Poland to be unduly influenced by, Russia during his tenure as prime minister. Moreover, given that the commission’s powers included a provision to exclude public officials from office for up to ten years – without, government critics argued, the involvement of an independent court (a claim contested by Law and Justice) – the opposition portrayed its formation as one of the most dramatic moments in Poland’s post-1989 democracy.
In fact, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda proposed amendments that would remove the law’s most controversial provisions, including the commission’s ability to exclude officials from public office. Nonetheless, the opposition argued that, even with the presidential amendments, the commission was still an unconstitutional hybrid combining administrative and judicial functions, and the manner of its appointment empowered Law and Justice to use it to slander its political opponents.
Polarisation boosts Tusk
The main political effect of the debate surrounding the commission was to raise the stakes in the upcoming election even further which, in turn, led to a strengthening of the emotional polarisation between the pro- and anti-government camps, and specifically between Law and Justice and Civic Platform as the two leading protagonists. This further polarisation benefited Civic Platform because it increased the imperative for the government’s opponents to consolidate and rally around the largest opposition party to defeat Law and Justice as the top priority. It also focused public attention upon, and forced the other anti-government parties to rally around, Tusk as the commission’s apparent main target and embodiment of opposition to it.
This dynamic could be seen in the runup to the huge anti-government protest march in Warsaw on 4 June, the anniversary of the partially-free 1989 elections that paved the way for the collapse of Poland’s communist regime, organised by Civic Platform to mobilise the opposition around Tusk as its figurehead. The march became a rallying point for protest against both the Russian influence commission specifically and Law and Justice more generally, turning into one of the largest demonstrations in post-communist Poland and thereby providing a morale boost for the opposition. This is important because, given the extremely divided Polish political scene, there is very little evidence of any significant transfers of support between the governing and opposition camps, so the key to this year’s election will be the two sides’ respective levels of mobilisation.
The emergence of the commission as an issue in the week leading up to the march also forced some other opposition leaders, who had earlier been wary about offering it their full support, to participate enthusiastically – and then, on the day, to be completely marginalised by Tusk. Unlike many Polish opposition politicians, Tusk is often good at reading the public mood and used a march that had been planned many weeks earlier to successfully tap into this anti-Law and Justice backlash. According to the ‘Politico Europe’ aggregator of Polish opinion polls, although Law and Justice remained the largest party averaging 36% support, Civic Platform saw its ratings increase from 27% at the beginning of May to 31% in July.
Will Tusk mobilise Law and Justice voters?
Although Tusk is tactically adroit and often able to put Law and Justice on the defensive, most recently over the government’s apparently insufficiently restrictive immigration policy, up until now Civic Platform’s electoral strategy has been based primarily on mobilising around a radical critique of the ruling party.
This is rooted in the premise that there is a natural anti-Law and Justice majority that simply needs to be mobilised by whichever grouping is best placed to defeat the ruling party. But while many Poles are clearly exhausted with the incumbent government, it is questionable whether the underlying appetite for political change is sufficiently strong for Civic Platform to win the election without also setting out a more comprehensive programmatic alternative.
Moreover, Law and Justice also feels that it is in its interests to polarise Polish politics in this way, particularly if the opposition becomes synonymous with Tusk. Although he is a very articulate and effective critic of the ruling party, opinion polls also show that Tusk is one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians. Given that he was prime minister for seven out of the eight years that Civic Platform was in office, few politicians better embody the previous government, which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and being out-of-touch with their needs.
Tusk is also a very polarising figure, with loyal devotees but also fierce opponents among the Law and Justice core electorate, so giving him a higher profile may actually persuade some of the ruling party’s more reluctant supporters to turn out and vote. Most of the voters that Law and Justice has lost since its 2019 election victory have not switched to the opposition and currently intend to abstain, so the key to its success this time will be persuading them to return to the fold.
Squeezing the smaller opposition parties
Another problem for the opposition is that the increase in support for Civic Platform appears to have come largely at the expense of the other, smaller parties and groupings. The opposition’s combined vote and projected seat share in the new parliament appear to have stalled short of an overall majority; indeed, according to some polls they may have actually fallen.
For the moment, this appears to have had less impact on the ‘Left’ (Lewica) grouping. This is struggling to win over new voters and remains extremely vulnerable to being squeezed by tactical voting as the election campaign develops a polarising dynamic. But support for the ‘Left’ has, according to ‘Politico Europe’, plateaued at around 8%, above the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for individual parties.
Rather, Civic Platform appears to be squeezing the ‘Third Way’ (Trzecia Droga) grouping, an electoral coalition comprising the centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), that traces its roots to the nineteenth century agrarian movement, and liberal-centrist newcomer ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) set up by former TV celebrity Szymon Hołownia to capitalise on his strong showing in the 2020 presidential election when he finished third with 13.9% of the vote. The alliance was formed in April because ‘Poland 2050’ was losing support and the Peasant Party hovering dangerously close to 5%, in the hope that the two groupings combined would comfortably cross the higher 8% parliamentary threshold for electoral coalitions. Indeed, according to ‘Politico Europe’, the ‘Third Way’ initially averaged around 14% support.
However, particularly after the 4 June march, support for the ‘Third Way’ has been on a downward trend and the grouping now appears at serious risk of failing to cross the 8% threshold. The opposition will not secure a majority in the next parliament simply by shuffling around support within its own ranks, especially if this means that one of the smaller parties fails to cross the electoral threshold. All of these votes will then be wasted and there could be a repeat of the 2015 election when Law and Justice secured an outright majority with only 38% of the vote because left-wing parties and groupings failed to enter parliament.
The Confederation could be kingmaker
The opposition’s other problem is that it has not yet found an effective response to the rise in support for the radical-right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping, which, according to ‘Politico Europe’, is averaging around 12% in the polls. The same polls suggest that the Confederation is increasingly likely to hold the balance of power in the next parliament.
The party has professionalised its image by sidelining its most controversial figures and giving a higher profile to younger, more charismatic leaders who can communicate its radical programme in a more measured and reasonable way. The Confederation has developed a strong online presence and built its profile through social media, which is its younger core electorate’s main source of political information.
The small-state party has also benefited from the strong pivot to the left on socio-economic issues by Civic Platform, which was formed originally as a pro-free market party but, in an effort to outbid Law and Justice on social spending, has now almost completely abandoned its earlier liberal roots. As a political formation that has always attacked both Law and Justice and the other opposition parties with equal vigour, the increased polarisation of the political scene has, if anything, strengthened the Confederation among Poles looking for a credible ‘third force’.
Most commentators assume that the Confederation will come to some kind of post-election accommodation with Law and Justice because its nationalist wing is nominally ideologically closer to the current ruling party. However, it is difficult to envisage a grouping like the Confederation, for whom reducing state intervention is a core element of its appeal, being given a significant say on economic matters in a government led by Law and Justice, which owes much of its recent political success to large social welfare programmes. Moreover, the Confederation’s own long-term strategic goal is to replace Law and Justice as the dominant party on the Polish right.
In fact, the Confederation’s voter base is quite ideologically diverse, exemplified by the fact that supporters of its 2020 presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak divided evenly between the Law and Justice and Civic Platform candidates in the second-round run-off. Indeed, in some ways it may be easier for the current opposition parties to accommodate the Confederation’s economic policy demands.
However, it will be difficult for the Confederation to maintain its radical ‘anti-system’ image if it ends up making the kind of compromises and deals that are required to participate in a governing coalition. The most likely scenario, therefore, is for the party to prop up a minority government through an informal governing pact rather than a formal coalition agreement. So, even if the current opposition parties can come to an arrangement with the Confederation, this is likely to produce a weak and unstable government, almost certainly paving the way for another, this time earlier, parliamentary election.
Note: This article first appeared at Aleks Szczerbiak’s personal blog. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: DarSzach/Shutterstock.com