LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Aleks Szczerbiak

May 30th, 2024

Poland: the 2024 European Parliament elections – a polarised campaign

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Aleks Szczerbiak

May 30th, 2024

Poland: the 2024 European Parliament elections – a polarised campaign

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Poland will hold its European Parliament election on 9 June. Aleks Szczerbiak writes the liberal-centrist ruling party is desperate to establish itself as Poland’s leading political force after failing to knock the right-wing opposition off the top spot in April’s local elections.

LSE European Parliament Elections banner

This article is part of a series on the 2024 European Parliament elections. The EUROPP blog will also be co-hosting a panel discussion on the elections at LSE on 6 June.

On 9 June, Poles will vote in the European Parliament election, the latest instalment in the country’s electoral marathon that began with last October’s parliamentary poll, continued through April’s local elections and will culminate in next summer’s crucial presidential poll.

Last December, a new coalition government led by Donald Tusk, who had served as Polish Prime Minister between 2007-14 and then as European Council President from 2014-19, was sworn in, ending the eight-year rule of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Tusk is leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) which once again became the country’s main governing party.

The new coalition also includes the eclectic “Third Way” (Trzecia Droga) alliance – which comprises the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and the liberal-centrist “Poland 2050” (Polska 2050) grouping formed to capitalise on TV personality-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia’s strong third place in the 2020 presidential election – and the smaller “New Left” (Nowa Lewica) party, the main component of a broader “Left” (Lewica) electoral alliance.

The European Parliament election is a so-called “second order” election and when these are held shortly after a parliamentary poll one would expect newly elected governing parties to do well because they are still enjoying a post-election honeymoon while the losing parties’ de-moralised supporters are much less likely to vote. In fact, although the governing camp had hoped to use the April local elections to weaken an already-battered Law and Justice, the right-wing opposition party defied predictions and secured the largest share of the vote in the regional assembly polls, the key barometer of national support.

However, the fact that Law and Justice did so surprisingly well in the local elections has shifted the balance of expectations, putting it under pressure to repeat its success in the European election. Moreover, European Parliament elections have often been very difficult ones for Law and Justice. While turnout has generally been very low overall (between 2004-14 it ranged from 21-25%) – which should favour a party with a large, loyal core electorate such as Law and Justice – it has often tended to be higher among better-off, urban voters who support liberal-centrist and left-wing parties.

In the previous 2019 European Parliament election, Law and Justice actually secured its best ever election result with 45% of the vote. It mobilised its supporters by treating the election as a prelude to the parliamentary poll held later that year, reflected in the 46% turnout. However, it will be very difficult to repeat this in June because most Poles are tired of politics, so the European Parliament election is much more likely to play out as a classic “second order” poll with turnout closer to the 20-30% mark.

Civic Platform focuses on Russian influence

The conclusion that Civic Platform drew from the local elections was that it performed worse because of low turnout among its core supporters and, knowing that this could fall dramatically in the European Parliament election, the party needed to concentrate on mobilising its electoral base.

As a consequence, Civic Platform has adopted a much more combative approach and tried to polarise the election around a clear and simple message that taps into voters’ emotions and fears. To achieve this goal, it has focused on the need to protect Polish national security against the aggressive actions of the Russian and Belarussian security services. It has tried to present Law and Justice as a party that only pretends to be anti-Russian but has in practice operated in accordance with Moscow’s interests for many years.

Pitching the election as a straight choice between East and West, Civic Platform has stressed the importance of EU self-defence and the threat that Law and Justice is said to represent to this. It argues that Law and Justice has developed dangerous links with other European, Kremlin-sympathetic right-wing parties that undermine the EU and therefore the whole of the continent’s security architecture.

It has also used the case of Tomasz Szmydt, a Polish judge who in May defected to Belarus, as a pretext to re-activate the so-called “Russian influence” commission. This body was originally established by Law and Justice in the run-up to last year’s parliamentary election, when Civic Platform and the other then-opposition parties boycotted it as a crude attempt to discredit Tusk for his alleged pro-Moscow sympathies.

Its members were dismissed by the incoming parliament, although it was never formally disbanded. Szmydt was appointed in 2018 as director of the legal department of the national judicial council (KRS), a body overseeing the Polish judiciary that was re-structured by Law and Justice, although the opposition denies any connections to him.

Civic Platform has also pledged to further strengthen fortifications along the Polish-Belarussian border, arguing that hundreds of attempts at illegal crossings are being recorded every day as part of efforts to de-stabilise Poland and the region. This has led to charges of hypocrisy from Law and Justice who argue that Civic Platform was lukewarm about the border wall when the previous government began its construction.

Law and Justice targets the Green Deal

All of this marks a significant change of narrative compared to previous Civic Platform European Parliament election campaigns, which stressed themes such as the importance of EU funds for Poland’s development. Civic Platform’s emphasis on countering Russian threats to Polish security was also a good way of avoiding issues upon which Law and Justice had been focusing that strike a popular chord but are difficult for the governing party to adopt the unambiguously pro-EU stance that probably aligns more closely with its real preferences.

These include opposing EU treaty changes to shift the Union’s decision-making processes away from unanimity towards qualified majority voting; the EU migration pact, which proposes a so-called “solidarity mechanism” requiring member states to accept relocated migrants or pay a sum for each one not accepted; and Polish adoption of the euro as its currency.

Law and Justice has also made one of its main policy goals stopping the so-called EU “Green Deal”, a package of policy initiatives to help the Union reduce carbon emissions. The Green Deal, it argues, threatens to raise the cost of living for Poles through higher energy and transport prices and greater costs for businesses and housing construction, as well as ruining agriculture and the traditional Polish lifestyle freedoms, all to serve German interests.

Civic Platform and other opposition parties have responded by pointing out that Law and Justice accepted the terms of the Green Deal when it was in office, as did the party-nominated EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojchiechowski. Law and Justice, in turn, argues that rejecting the project at the time would have simply marginalised Poland, and that the current terms of the Green Deal were not what they agreed to.

Controversial, high-profile candidates

Both of the two main parties are also hoping to mobilise support by standing well-known high-profile candidates. The Civic Platform list, for example, includes three key former government members: Culture Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, Interior Minister Marcin Kierwiński and State Assets Minister Borys Budka. These are politicians from the very core of the governing party’s power nexus who were responsible for removing Law and Justice appointees and influence from the security services and state-owned companies, including the state-owned media.

The Civic Platform candidate list also includes two of the three chairs of the high-profile special parliamentary investigative commissions set up to achieve a “reckoning” (in Polish: rozliczenie) with the previous administration’s alleged abuses of power: Dariusz Joński and Michał Szczerba. All of these candidacies are certainly eye-catching, but resigning from these posts so soon in order to seek well-paid work in Brussels leaves them open to accusations of opportunism.

Law and Justice is also running controversial high profile candidates. These include former Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński and his Deputy Maciej Wąsik, who in December were convicted of abusing their powers while heading up Poland’s anti-corruption agency in the mid-2000s and banned from holding public office, but were later pardoned by party-backed President Andrzej Duda.

Law and Justice insists that Kamiński and Wąsik’s convictions were invalid because Duda had already pardoned them in 2015. The pair do not enjoy widespread support within the party, and even less among the wider electorate, but Law and Justice feels obliged to support them as political martyrs.

Other controversial Law and Justice candidates include Jacek Kurski, who is accused of turning Polish state TV into a Law and Justice propaganda tool during his tenure as its President; and Daniel Obajtek, into whom the public prosecutor’s office has launched three ongoing investigations relating to his time as head of the Orlen energy giant (which Law and Justice argues are politically motivated).

Polarisation squeezes the smaller groupings

This intense polarisation should theoretically provide an opening for the “Third Way”, whose main message seems to be the need for Poland’s political elite to unite in order to protect national security and advance the country’s interests within the EU more effectively. However, beyond that, the grouping lacks a coherent over-arching campaign theme.

The Peasant Party has adopted a mildly Eurosceptic tone, especially on issues such as the Green Deal which hits its rural-agricultural base. “Poland 2050”, which is allied in the pro-federalist Renew Europe liberal grouping in the European Parliament, on the other hand, has come across as much more EU-enthusiastic. It has, for example, called for more rapid Polish adoption of the euro. Low turnout in small towns and rural areas will hit the Peasant Party, while “Poland 2050” has one of the “softest” and least-motivated electorates.

For its part, the “Left” has tried to carve out a niche as the most pro-EU integration grouping, coming out in favour of replacing national vetoes with qualified majority voting in more policy areas. However, its candidate list is not particularly inspiring, and in a polarised election remains vulnerable to being squeezed by Civic Platform as the most popular anti-Law and Justice grouping.

As radical parties generally perform better in second order elections, particularly European Parliament polls where “entry costs” are fairly low, the June poll should provide a good opportunity for the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping. It has a clear and unambiguous radical Eurosceptic programme, and without a government record to defend it can outflank Law and Justice on issues like the Green Deal. However, the polarised nature of the campaign has also made it very difficult for the Confederation to cut through with its distinctive message.

Will Civic Platform’s Russian influence gambit work?

Given the likely extremely low turnout, the two main parties’ European Parliament election campaigns appear to be aimed almost exclusively at mobilising their core electorates. Law and Justice is fighting to finish ahead of Civic Platform in a tenth consecutive Polish election, while Tusk’s party is desperate to finally end this run and establish itself as Poland’s dominant political force. Even the most minimal of victories over Law and Justice will be claimed as a renewed mandate.

The big question for Civic Platform is whether voters will be mobilised by its tough anti-Law and Justice rhetoric and claims that the opposition party is serving Russian interests, or whether Tusk’s government needs to offer voters a more positive policy agenda to maintain their support.

At the same time, while Law and Justice has kept itself in the political game, and much of its Eurosceptic rhetoric on issues such as the Green Deal taps into real public concerns, the party is still grappling with a series of unresolved internal crises and conflicts and lacks a clear strategy for how to broaden its appeal.

Note: This article first appeared at Aleks Szczerbiak’s personal blog. It the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union

About the author

Aleks Szczerbiak

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.

Posted In: 2024 EP Elections | Elections | Politics

Leave a Reply