How the Polish-German relationship turned sour

Poland’s PiS may try to build not only an illiberal but also anti-German coalition in Europe — making it a tough partner for Germany’s new government

After the end of the Merkel era, Germany’s newly formed progressive coalition heralds a wind of change in German politics. But the new government will have to face old challenges, unsolved by the departing cabinet. One of them remains the bumpy relationship with Germany’s eastern neighbour, Poland.

The Polish-German relationship has not been easy. The reconciliation process initiated by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr in the 1970s was slow and arduous, finally resulting in a historic Treaty of Good Neighbourship. Germany was a strong proponent of Poland’s accession to NATO and the EU, which brought Polish-German relations to yet another level. The German labour market completely opened for Poles in 2011; economic exchange blossomed. The project of bringing the two nations closer together also steadily advanced. Within the last two decades, both neighbours developed positive mutual perceptions and the majority is convinced that bilateral relations are rather good.

It seemed that, once and for all, historical animosities were overcome. The reconciliation was so successful, that some were even reflecting if Warsaw could replace Paris in German European policy, or at least if the Franco-German tandem should not be expanded into a leadership trio. But not only the Weimar Triangle of France, Germany, and Poland seems to be a withering format of a bygone era. A lot has changed in Poland since 2016, when the Law and Justice party (PiS) took over.

The weaponisation of collective memory

The history of Polish-German relations is turbulent, and reaches further back than World War II. Prussia played a significant role in the downfall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century. The medieval Great War with Teutonic Knights became a vivid symbol in modern Polish culture, metaphorically depicting the everlasting threat coming from the German neighbour. This topos, even if latent, is deeply embedded in Polish collective memory. Recognising this is crucial to understanding how easy it is to activate it, without any rational premises or legitimate reasons.

This anti-German sentiment has been weaponised several times by the spin doctors of PiS. In 2005, then-presidential candidate Donald Tusk was faced with an accusation that his grandfather had been a Wehrmacht soldier. It weighted heavily on his campaign, in favour of Tusk’s rival, Lech Kaczyński. Back then, the architect of this allegation was fired from Kaczyński’s campaign in disgrace.

A decade later, under the twin brother Jarosław, he was appointed chairman of the Polish public broadcaster TVP. Today, not a day passes without the public media scolding Germany. ‘Germany envious of Polish economic success’; ‘Brussels, Berlin, and the opposition plotting against Poland’; ‘The opposition and Germany want to punish Poland’ – these are just a few examples of headlines demonising the government in Berlin.

Crude as it might seem, this witch-hunt illustrates the current government’s need for enemies to consolidate support as well as to justify potential failures, especially in the international arena. This strategy seems to work well with some segments of voters.

An anti-German coalition in Europe?

Simultaneously, Jarosław Kaczyński is developing a different rhetoric for a more sophisticated audience. At the Warsaw Summit, a meeting of the European far right early in December, he presented his geopolitical framework, a grand narrative for the future of the European Union. He warned not only against a Europe weakened by ‘political correctness’ and European institutions founded on the illusion of a European demos and therefore lacking democratic legitimacy.

He also cautioned against contemporary Germany ‘cancelling the historical memory of the 20th century’ that once forced it to restrict its ambitions, and opening space for allegedly hegemonic aspirations of Berlin to subjugate the European Union by institutional means, namely by federalisation. Kaczyński even went as far as using the metaphor of the Fourth German Reich. Symptomatically, the AfD was not invited to this meeting. Is Kaczynski plotting to build not only an illiberal but also anti-German coalition in Europe? In any case, reserve and distrust are the conditions Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the newly-appointed foreign minister Annalena Baerbock will have to deal with.

At the same time, official visits to Poland took place in a superficially courteous atmosphere. During her first trip on 10 December, Annalena Baerbock was greeted by President Andrzej Duda and later hosted by her Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau. Even if polite, the latter’s attitude was described by some commentators as ‘condescending’. As a young woman representing a party almost exotic to the Polish political scene, it will always be twice as hard for Baerbock to be heard and taken seriously in conservative circles.

Yet, she put on a brave face and appeased her host by highlighting passages about the deep Polish-German friendship in the coalition agreement and stressing her scepticism towards Putin’s Russia. Two days later, Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. This time, it was a conversation on equal terms, without patronising. Yet this exchange echoed, or pronounced even more, the rifts between Berlin and Warsaw.

Contentious issues between Berlin and Warsaw

Both meetings showed there are a few points of contention weighting heavily on bilateral relations. First is the future of Nord Stream 2. Poland has long viewed it as not only a strategic threat to European energy security, but it also brought historical flashbacks of Germany and Russia making deals above the heads of states sandwiched in-between.

Today, the pipeline is even more controversial as the pressure exercised by Vladimir Putin on Ukraine increases. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy openly called it ‘a dangerous geopolitical weapon’. The new German government will have to work quickly to find a sustainable long-term consensus regarding this project within the coalition and reassure its eastern neighbours.

Second is the management of expectations regarding the EU. For the current Polish government, there is neither understanding nor will to answer the calls for restoring the rule of law. Moreover, further federalisation of the EU is exactly the opposite of what the current Polish government wants.

At the same time, Poland has recently emerged in a new role, protecting the external border of the EU against the ruthless weaponisation of migration flows by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Even if there is an opportunity for constructive cooperation in this field, it is evident that Berlin and Warsaw will be pulling Brussels in opposite directions.

Third is the playing of the history card by the Polish government. 76 years after World War II ended, it wants to create a War Losses Institute to pursue ‘the [financial] balance of the German and Soviet occupation’. Such an institution is not only a tool of instrumentalising history for political goals but also a manifestation of the geopolitical imagination of the Polish national-conservatives. ‘Lifting the country from its knees’ is the guiding principle in the making of their foreign policy. Theatrical as this might sound, these claims will long taint Polish-German relations.

There are certainly further issues in the background that show the rising level of estrangement between Warsaw and Berlin, like the row over the status of Poles and the teaching of Polish language in Germany. Or diverging views on climate and energy policy, with the coal phase-out and plans for new nuclear power plants at their heart. It is to be expected that at the diplomatic level, Polish-German dialogue will remain cool and reserved. Neither trivial stories about personal ties with Poland nor new monuments will ever soften the hard line of PiS on Germany.

But in spite of all that, trade and economic exchange between two countries remains unharmed. Let’s hope that the current impasse similarly won’t affect people’s hearts and that the work invested in reconciliation over decades will persist. It will be needed to rekindle this relationship with positive energy when the tables turn again someday in the future.

This text was originally published by IPS, on January 10, 2022: https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/european-integration/how-the-polish-german-relationship-turned-sour-5634/

A tale of loss and hope: what can we learn from Poland?


by Maria Skóra on 21st December 2021

Poland’s ruling nationalists aren’t having it all their own way. The opposition needs more external recognition.

Early this month, leading figures on the European populist right met in Warsaw. They had been invited by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).

The summit was attended—to name only the most prominent—by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the leader of Spain’s Vox, Santiago Abascal, and Marine Le Pen, once more French presidential contender. The main objective was to strengthen co-operation among the fragmented right-wing groups in the European Parliament.

Kaczynski’s speech echoed this alternative vision of European collaboration. He vocally opposed a European Union based on liberal values and ‘political correctness’, as opposed to ‘traditional culture’. He suggested EU institutions infringed on the prerogatives of national sovereignty. For him, the EU should embody intergovernmental co-operation, without ‘interfering’ in domestic affairs—a limited arrangement recognising taken-for-granted national interests rather than a union cemented by universal norms.

Kaczynski’s summit had a clear strategic goal. He wants his legacy to be a Poland that leads a conservative European counter-revolution. ‘Lifting the country from its knees’ is a dramatic phrase often used to depict this claim to restore ‘Poland’s sovereignty’—drawing deeply on the constructed, national-popular, longue-durée narrative of victimhood and dismemberment at the hands of great European powers.

Model child

Before the election in October 2015, which saw the PiS oust the centre-right Civic Platform, Poland was seen in western Europe as a model child—a winner of the socio-economic transformation after the fall of the ‘iron curtain’, excelling in European integration. How much of the mooted success actually trickled down, in a neoliberal policy context, remains a topic of heated debate.

The disappointments, frustrations and fears of those who felt their social position rendered insecure were skillfully instrumentalised by the PiS to reach for power. It’s a pattern seen elsewhere, as with the Alternative für Deutschland in the old east-German Länder, or the Donald Trump phenomenon in post-industrial America.

The reconstruction of the state promised by the PiS took a dramatic turn. EU flags disappeared from the parliament, while revisionist rhetoric dominated foreign policy. The far right marched through Warsaw with official protection. The checks and balances of a democratic society—the judiciary and public-service media—fell prey to the governing party.

The opposition remains fragmented and, even if capable of uniting for elections, is so far too weak to prevail. Yet Polish democracy has not died.

Scapegoats and bogeymen

In recent years, many groups have been allocated the roles of scapegoats and bogeymen in the narrative of the PiS and its allies: doctors, for criticising an underfinanced healthcare system; teachers, for opposing the overhaul of education; judges, for resisting reconstruction of the judiciary.

Hostile rhetoric has been coupled with actions targeting women, minorities and foreigners: a ‘pro-life’ near-total ban on abortion, localities declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ and, latterly, migrants pushed back at the Belarusian border in the name of Islamophobic populism.

Mobilising voters using the politics of fear has had tangible consequences. Polish society has become deeply polarised: growing acceptance of the far right among young men is countered by young women identifying with left and liberal values.

The language used in public debate is brutal: amid deeply embedded nationalism, allegations fly as to who is a ‘traitor’. Smear campaigns are aimed at political opponents. One would have hoped that the assassination of the liberal mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, in January 2019 would have put a halt to this madness—sadly, not so.

Citizen engagement

Paradoxically, however, these grim developments have kindled citizen engagement. The attack on women’s rights, focused on abortion, has brought record numbers on to the streets. The dehumanising language around LBGT+ rights has sparked growing tolerance for same-sex relationships.

In solidarity with their persecuted colleagues, judges in courts across the country regularly hold pickets, disregarding the risk of reprisal. The disastrous mismanagement of the situation at the eastern border has resulted in many donations to voluntary organisations helping refugees in Poland. Finally, last weekend, protests broke out across the country, defending media freedom as a US-owned broadcaster had been repeatedly targeted by the government.

Even if politically the situation has not yet reached a critical mass for change, bitter remarks about Poles ‘not understanding democracy’ are unfair. Reports of the death of democracy in central and eastern Europe are greatly exaggerated.

Lessons to learn

Poland shows how easy it is to fall down the rabbit-hole of populism and nationalist demagogy. The trick is to learn from past failures to prepare for future battles—it was not the first and will not be the last country to face democratic backsliding.

The first lesson is for the EU the populists malign. Repeatedly raising awareness in the European Parliament is critical and must be matched by action by the European Commission to address these worrisome developments. We need more effective mechanisms to exert pressure on member states disrespecting fundamental values—before they finally violate them. Otherwise, the EU will implode under its own weight.

Secondly, the attempts by Eurosceptics and the far right to regroup and build capacity to sabotage Europe as we know it should ring alarm bells. There are enough success stories in Europe—as in PortugalSweden and now Germany—to challenge the pessimism and stagnation that feed populism. Transferring this know-how and making connections is all the more important for countries where the progressive, liberal forces are in retreat.

Thirdly, there is no case for resignation. Even if in some places the swing to the right is significant and long-lasting, it won’t be forever. Resistance should not go unnoticed. Keeping the morale of opposition high, sending signals of solidarity, is critical. Even if the 2019 election marathon in Poland was in the end won by the governing coalition, there will always be the next ballot—for example in 2022 in Hungary.

In Warsaw, Budapest or any other problematic capital in the future, defeat must never be accepted in the defence of our democracies. Through small victories, big wars are eventually won.

This text was originally published by Social Europe, on December 21, 2021: https://socialeurope.eu/a-tale-of-loss-and-hope-what-can-we-learn-from-poland

100 days of Andrzej Duda: a test of character

The Polish president owes his re-election to PiS. But he will have to counter Kaczynski’s attempts to subordinate him.

The 13 November marked one hundred days of Polish president Andrzej Duda’s second term in office. Being the incumbent always comes with a sort of advantage but Andrzej Duda did not have it easy – and not only because of Covid-19.

There is a discrepancy between how he imagines his presidency and the expectations of the Polish government under the informal leadership of Jarosław Kaczyński, the chair of the Law and Justice (PiS) party. Duda’s presidency is therefore largely inconsistent – and the presidential palace has seldom been as vulnerable as today.

Although supported by the United Right, Duda has been trying to come across as politically independent and build a legacy of his own. Back in 2015, he launched his campaign around the promise of being an active president, as opposed to the sort of passive and at times clumsy style of his predecessor, Bronisław Komorowski (PO). Duda also vowed not to blindly follow his political family. Has he remained true to his promise?

One leader in the room

In the Polish political system, the role of a president is quite significant: he heads the executive branch and therefore can block certain government actions, e.g. through a presidential veto. Andrzej Duda has so far used this right nine times.

Two of these decisions were particularly significant. In 2017, Duda rejected the reforms of the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, amidst a dramatic conflict with the European Commission over the independence of Polish judiciary that additionally had ignited mass protests in the country. This brought him into a disagreement with Zbigniew Ziobro, the Minister of Justice and leader of the junior coalition partner of PiS.

Before that, Duda had also been in conflict with another PiS persona, Antoni Macierewicz, a former Minister of Defence and a vocal proponent of the controversial assassination theory around the 2010 Smoleńsk catastrophe. Duda had not accepted staffing recommendations for the National Security Office by the Presidential Palace, which led to some retaliatory actions fuelled by Macierewicz’ bruised ego.

Nevertheless, these attempts were bound to clash with how Kaczynski envisaged the role of a president. To many observers, Duda seemed too independent and that demanded a corrective conversation in October 2017. It was clear that no inner pluralism was acceptable within the PiS party and that the United Right coalition only had one leader. In Duda’s case, it’s not possible to dismiss him from office. But he can still be ostracised by his political family. 

Maneuvering around an iceberg

It’s clear that Duda’s re-election was neither a result of charisma nor powerful political leverage but an outcome of sheer determination to petrify PiS’ hegemony in Poland. The United Right coalition, and in particular the leading PiS, went great lengths to mobilize their electorate and this comes at a certain price for Duda.

After his last rebellious decisions two years ago, Duda has meanwhile accepted a highly controversial act on public media, streaming the outrageous sum of 2 billion to public TV, minutes before COVID-19 broke out in Poland. He also fully internalised the militant and scapegoating rhetoric of the United Right in his campaign. Some experts also suggest his former vetoes were a mere game with PiS voters and tactically blocked only the acts that Kaczynski did not want to proceed in the Parliament.

However, the official statements of Kaczynski confirmed his disappointment with Duda’s past conduct. In fact, till today Kaczynski is not fully fond of Duda and he lets him feel it. In July, he arrived late to the inauguration of the second term, interrupting the celebration and then left immediately after. Early in October, he did not stay for a ‘family photo’ after the President had appointed a new cabinet, featuring Kaczynski as vice-Prime Minister.

Finally, during the recent outbreak of the so-called Back Protests contesting further restrictions in access to abortion, Kaczyński addressed the nation in a video message. To be fair: Andrzej Duda tested positively for coronavirus and remained in isolation which coincided with the mass protests. Nevertheless, both he and the First Lady remained silent in those turbulent days. Only more than a week after the protests had broken out, the President spoke, announcing his will to initiate a legislative process on a new act on abortion.

Perhaps he was trying to become a consoling voice, especially when protests continued despite the second wave of Covid-19 approaching. But one cannot help the feeling that he was just acting as a patch to fix the unappealable ruling of the Constitutional Court, controlled by the Law and Justice loyalists. In the end, his proposal has neither won the recognition of protesters nor met the expectations of the pro-life movement, whose leader called the president a  ‘political traitor’. Duda’s dream to be a ‘President of all Poles’ failed again.

A statesman or ‘the pen’?

One hundred days of Andrzej Duda’s second term have passed. No-one questions that assuming the presidential office in times of both coronavirus, as well as an unprecedented turmoil in the country, isn’t easy. Nevertheless, Andrzej Duda’s challenge reaches beyond these immediate circumstances: he will have to counter Kaczynski’s attempts to subordinate him, also in his very own personal interest: to be remembered as a statesman, not a mere puppet.

While launching his first presidential campaign in 2015, Andrzej Duda was sarcastically calling his predecessor, Bronisław Komorowski, ‘a guard of chandeliers in the Presidential Palace’. Meanwhile, not long into his first term, he earned a particular nickname among his opponents, ‘the pen’, hinting at his loyalty towards the United Right coalition, best manifested by more than 1000 bills signed into law, including the blatantly unconstitutional ones. His ambitions to be a great statesman clash with a reality check of his power base.

Today, Duda has to make a calculation: remain a loyal team player of the United Right and let Jarosław Kaczyński effectively lead the country, or dare to build his own base within the United Right? If he chooses to liberate himself, he will surely lose the support of the biggest political party in Poland, but also won’t sink together with the government – if worse comes to worst. He is facing a choice between a golden cage and a great unknown, an optimist would say. A pessimist would perhaps put it as a choice between pest and cholera, because no-one wants to wage a war with Jarosław Kaczyński. But regardless of which perspective one takes, one thing is for sure: Duda’s second term will be a character test he cannot fail. History is always written by the winners.

This text was originally published by IPG, on November 17, 2020: https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/european-union/100-days-of-andrzej-duda-a-test-of-character-4801/

Poland’s abortion protests—democratic standards at stake

The passion behind the demonstrations signifies a battle for basic democratic standards in a world of creeping authoritarian temptations.

On October 22nd, the Constitutional Court in Poland made an unprecedented decision, declaring abortion due to foetal defects unconstitutional. Because around 90 per cent of all legal abortions in the country are performed on this criterion, upon entering into force this ruling will in practice drastically limit access to safe termination of pregnancy. It stands in opposition to medical science and to the will of the majority of the population, which—according to the polls—supports the existing abortion regime, already one of the strictest in Europe. 

This battle started as early as 2016, with ‘pro-life’ associations lobbying the parliament for an amendment to the law. They failed then but the change has now effectively been introduced by the Constitutional Court. The new status quo is not only controversial on its merits but also because the court’s judicial neutrality, vis-à-visthe governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), has long been questioned. 

As a result, massive protests broke out, bringing thousands on to the streets, in Poland and among the diaspora around the world. Left and liberal female MPs occupied the podium in parliament. The protesters disrupted services of the Catholic Church, in protest at its political influence. Far-right paramilitary groups trying to set up a ‘national guard’ to protect churches were outnumbered by protesters and needed police protection themselves. 

The unrest continues, with more rallies planned home and abroad, including strikes, demonstrations and high activity on ‘social media’. Step by step, the demands are turning from securing access to abortion to the resignation of the government.

Accumulating anger

The public outcry in reaction to the ruling indicates there is more to this story than a fight for reproductive rights. In fact, this huge outbreak of anger has been accumulating for a while.

The PiS has been in power for five years now. From the outset, these have been turbulent times, marked by diverse protests—by doctors, teachers, farmers, miners and parents of disabled children. The pandemic has only aggravated the public mood, adding to the frustration of the most affected groups, such as micro- and small entrepreneurs, as well as coronavirus-deniers, a movement also germinating in Poland. 

Nevertheless, it’s the ideological war which seems to have agitated the society and petrified the political polarisation. The presidential election during the summer was won by Andrzej Duda, candidate of the United Right, by the skin of his teeth. The PiS retains a majority in the Sejm, the lower chamber, thanks only to its two junior coalition partners, while the Senat was lost to the opposition after the parliamentary elections in October 2019. Local governments and cities remain independent and very often in opposition to the central government.

Defamation campaign

The leader of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczynski, thus desperately need to cement the populist party’s domination. Meanwhile, one of the junior coalition partners—the leader of which holds the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Public Prosecutor in his hand—has been testing how far it can go in building an electoral base with a radical-right agenda. 

It was in this context that over the summer the LGBT community in Poland became the target of a defamation campaign, which sadly mobilised many and mainstreamed homophobic narratives. It seems the PiS wanted to deliver a pointed response, to prove its ideological ‘purity’—and completely overdid it, putting its own government at existential risk. In so doing, it again tested the boundaries of what remains a young Polish democracy.

The government led by the PiS had already made public media an instrument of political campaigning and bent the judiciary to its political will, and now it compromises basic civil rights. The abortion ban was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

The latest protests have engaged men and women, of all ages, in big cities and smaller towns. They have to be seen in a broader context of defending democratic standards against an authoritarian mindset that wishes to strip individuals of their civil liberties, one by one, in pursue of absolute power.

Dramatic scenes

Nor is Poland the only example of citizen resistance. Hungarians and Bulgarians have also taken to the streets, in defence of academic freedom and against widespread corruption respectively. The most dramatic scenes are of course to be seen in Belarus (outside the European Union), where massive protests against the 26-year rule of Alexander Lukashenka have persisted since a highly contested presidential election in August. 

There is a lot of upheaval in Europe these days, seeking to save democratic institutions while proving the desire for democracy in citizens’ hearts and minds. Yet, these struggles do not seem to resonate much beyond national bubbles and public opinion in Europe sees them rather as country-specific—hence not as issues which might be tackled within the EU framework. 

The EU’s ineffectual clash with Poland and Hungary over ‘article 7’—the treaty clause allowing rights enjoyed by a member state to be suspended, by unanimity, for ‘serious and persistent breach’ of European values—has proved there are not yet the tools and procedures in place to safeguard democratic standards in Europe. Nevertheless, we have to start looking at local democratic deficits as our common cause, beyond the east-west divide and without distancing the European core from its peripheries. 

Democracy is a process and it comes in different shapes and forms. But without a common safeguarding mechanism and agreement on its basic values, European integration not only will not succeed—it will be permanently threatened by local outbursts of illiberal, authoritarian desires.

This text was originally published by Social Europe o October 30, 2020: https://www.socialeurope.eu/polands-abortion-protests-democratic-standards-at-stake/

Divided society, divided diaspora

Presidential elections in Poland: preferences of the Polish diaspora

On July 12, the second round of presidential election took place in Poland. This was a special race, not only due to unprecedented pandemic circumstances. The competition between Andrzej Duda (supported by the United Right coalition led by the Law and Justice party, PiS) and his final opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski (Civic Platform, PO), was fierce and the language of the campaign aggressive, especially from the side of the incumbent president who embarked on homophobic rhetoric and xenophobic sentiments.

This militant atmosphere and general anxiety proved to have a great mobilisation potential as voter turnout reached 68 per cent. Usually, presidential elections enjoy the highest participation of all ballots, however such an interest was last seen in Poland in mid-1990s. At the same time, this determination to cast a vote was a result of a deepening polarisation of the society and the “divide and conquer” strategy, persistently exercised by the currently governing coalition. These phenomena also seem to be reflected in voter preferences of Polish citizens abroad.

Voting beyond borders

As a rule, Polish citizens living abroad can take part in national elections as long as they are formally eligible to vote. There is no limit regarding the tenure of stay abroad and so the only action necessary to exercise political franchise is to register as a voter in a chosen country. This makes the diaspora not only an active participant of political life at home but, due to its size, also a worthwhile electorate. Estimated 2.2 million Polish citizens live in other EU countries today. Most of them are first generation migrants, benefitting from the freedom of movement after Poland joined the EU. Germany and the UK alone are currently home to ca. 1.5 million Polish citizens, with countries such as The Netherlands, Norway, Spain following.

Other major populations of Polish origin can be found in North America as well as in the countries of former Soviet Union. Some of their representatives are holders of Polish passports, which makes them eligible to vote, and therefore potential target groups in the eyes of competing candidates and their campaigners.

Voter preferences at home and abroad

The election results among Poles abroad diverged significantly from the outcome in Poland. Not only was the voter turnout on average 20 per cent higher outside Poland but also the preferences proved to be very different. Whereas after the first round it was impossible to determine a clear winner, with Andrzej Duda getting 43.5 per cent of all votes, followed by Rafał Trzaskowski with ca. 30.5, abroad this proportion was reversed, with Rafał Trzaskowski winning almost half of all cast ballots (48.13 per cent). The incumbent Andrzej Duda showed a poor performance outside the country (20.86 per cent). The results of other candidates varied, too. The left-wing candidate Robert Biedroń, the representative of the far-right Krzysztof Bosak, as well as the beyond-establishment TV celebrity Szymon Hołownia proved to be more successful abroad than in the country.

The second round, with only two candidates competing, showed an even bigger discrepancy between voter preferences of Poles abroad and those in Poland. While the election was narrowly won by Andrzej Duda with 51.03 per cent, voters abroad massively supported Rafał Trzaskowski (74.12 per cent). There is a clear divergence of electoral behaviours of citizens in Poland and Poles abroad. Perhaps the generous social policy and aggressive political communication of the current government has a limited outreach. It might also be a more fundamental matter of a different, more liberal and progressive worldview in Poles living abroad. The final explanation definitely demands a deeper inquiry.

A nuanced look

Meanwhile, a nuanced look at the election results abroad proves that there were also significant differences among voter preferences in individual countries. Whereas in both rounds Rafał Trzaskowski was the leading candidate among Polish citizens living in the EU, Andrzej Duda enjoyed a strong support in the United States, Canada as well as in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Polish diasporas in these distant areas have long been in the focus of attention of PiS, in particular through community building around such media outlets like the right-wing Gazeta Polska.

Otherwise, it might also be a direct effect of the recent reorientation of Polish foreign policy. On the one hand, tightening relations with the Trump administration appeals to conservative voters in North America; on the other hand, it’s the particular interest in Polish diasporas in the former Soviet Union, which, as “guardians of tradition”, fit well into the rhetoric of national unity based on ethnicity and solving Poland’s demographic problem without importing “foreign elements”. This increased interest in certain communities abroad resembles the strategy of Viktor Orbán for carving out influence and support among ethnic Hungarians in Serbia, Romania or Ukraine. And indeed, extra support from abroad can be of strategic importance: last Sunday, only 500.000 votes decided upon the winner in Poland.

Polarised society, polarised diaspora

The final outcome of Polish presidential election differed significantly from voter preferences abroad expressed directly at the ballot boxes in numerous consulates or by postal vote. A more nuanced look however reveals the polarisation within the Polish diaspora as well as itv exposes the attempt to exercise a “divide and conquer” strategy in chosen communities, particularly inclined to support the national-conservative agenda of the governing coalition.

Regarding the organisation of this year’s election, many difficulties with registering and receiving postal vote sets were reported abroad, most probably as a result of hectic organisation and logistic difficulties in times of Coronavirus. Nevertheless, should the weight of related complaints be enough to question the outcome of the election, the entire process would have to be repeated. Should this happen, paradoxically the diaspora could have a final say on this ballot.

This text was originally published by FEPS/The Progressive Post in the Election Observatory Series o July 27, 2020: https://feps.activehosted.com/index.php?action=social&c=441&m=492https://progressivepost.eu/elections-analysis/divided-society-divided-diaspora

Poles apart—the presidential election in Poland

The presidential election in Poland was an intolerant affair—and the argument isn’t over yet.

On July 12th, the second round of the presidential election took place in Poland. Not only the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic but also its significance for the country’s future made this a special race. In the end, supported by the United Right coalition, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, won by the skin of his teeth over Rafał Trzaskowski of Civic Platform (PO).

At first sight, nothing has changed: the Law and Justice party (PiS) has retained control over the executive branch. But a more nuanced look reveals deep division in Polish society and resistance to national-conservative rule. Can that however be effectively channelled?

Conservative domination

The presidential campaign started early in 2020, with the final election date announced on February 5th. More than ten candidates managed to register their committees officially. But from the beginning it was clear this election would be less about competing visions and ideas and more about whether Duda could be challenged and the domination of national-conservatives broken at the state level.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the campaign was conventional: media appearances, meetings with voters, interviews and press conferences. In mid-March, however, everything changed due to the pandemic. Yet while all other candidates suspended activities involving face-to-face meetings and large gatherings, Duda was still travelling around the country, assisted by the public broadcaster.

Incumbency always brings advantage. But these non-essential journeys at the peak of the epidemic—together with the active support of high-ranking members of government, such as the PiS prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and, most importantly, the involvement of the public broadcaster as a campaign tool—brought a lot of criticism. 

Uncertainty about the final result made Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, attempt to run the vote on May 10th, despite public-safety recommendations and the will of voters. The election was finally postponed but Kaczynski’s desperation to hold it before the aggravating post-pandemic crisis, given Duda’s middling popularity, remained.

Especially before the second and final round in July, the competition became very aggressive, particularly in the campaign of the incumbent, embracing homophobic rhetoric and xenophobic sentiments. This all threw into question whether the election was free, fair and honest. 

Polarised society

Anxiety about this election proved a great mobiliser: turnout reached 68 per cent, unseen in Poland since the mid-1990s. The result revealed the extent of the polarisation of Polish society, most manifest in the distribution of support for the two candidates who met in the second round. Both received more than 10 million votes and the outcome was determined by a mere 420,000 ballots.

The most important factors distinguishing these two groups of voters were age, education and place of residence. In a nutshell, younger and better-educated voters, living in the metropoles and other cities, chose Trzaskowski. Older citizens from rural areas, pensioners and farmers, as also the unemployed, chose Duda.

These socio-economic divisions also partly corresponded with the geographical distribution of support. Essentially, apart from big cities in the eastern part, western Poland voted differently than eastern Poland—the latter more dedicated to ‘traditional values’, with the role of the Catholic Church more significant. Such multi-faceted cultural, socio-economic and territorial concentration of voter preferences can be also observed in other countries (such as the United States, Italy or Germany). 

Poles abroad also played a significant role in this election. Not only did their voter turnout vary around 80 per cent but Trzaskowski won a vast majority of their votes (74 per cent). There was however a big difference in voter preferences between the Polish communities in the EU and in north America and post-Soviet countries, where Duda was an unquestionable leader, most probably thanks to a new course in the foreign policy of the national-conservative government.

Power grab

The political landscape in Poland has not yet solidified. Although the national-conservative coalition, led by PiS, has strengthened its power grab, it might be concerned with strong resistance within the society, particularly visible at the local level in charismatic mayors—and indeed with the steadily growing support for the far right, which in the first round appealed to almost 7 per cent of voters.

The opposition has proved once again it can mobilise but still cannot offer a convincing alternative to the decade-long, entrenched conflict between a national-conservative but social vision of Poland (PiS) and a pro-European but market-liberal economic model (PO). The need for change was highlighted by an out-of-the-box candidate who finished third in the first round: Szymon Hołownia, a Catholic TV celebrity, convinced almost 14 per cent of voters with his message of reconciliation beyond the political establishment. 

As for the Polish left, its once-promising candidate Robert Biedroń squandered his support. Starting with double-digit backing in February, in June he received only 2.2 per cent of votes. This sudden decline might have resulted from the PO replacing its unappealing initial candidate, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, with the charismatic Trzaskowski, the only realistic competitor to Duda. Nevertheless, the Polish left is in a weak condition and the very progressive topics Biedroń was trying to bring into public debate did not seem to resonate with voters. A shift of the political mainstream to the right is visible in Poland.

State capture

Having secured its power till at least 2023—the next parliamentary election—there are fears the governing coalition will launch a final strike on the Polish judiciary and independent media, to finish the project of state capture. In the eyes of many, there will be no reconciliation but rather a further turning of the screw, not only on the political opposition but also on impartial critics of government actions. The opposition, in turn, has still not learnt the lesson from a fifth lost election in a row—blaming and shaming PiS voters for their ‘ignorant and venal’ electoral choices, instead of developing strategies to regain their trust. 

Meanwhile, due to the dubious campaign by Duda, and numerous irregularities in organising the election abroad, around 6,000 protests about the election have been submitted to the Supreme Court by citizens and watchdog organisations. Should these complaints prove admissible and, if so, well-founded, the final result of the election could still be questioned. The dust does not yet seem to have settled in Poland and the fight over the presidential office continues.

This article was originally published by Social Europe on July 22, 2020: https://www.socialeurope.eu/poles-apart-the-presidential-election-in-poland

The corona campaign

The Polish Law and Justice party sees an opportunity in the wave of coronavirus infections to further consolidate power.

The recent outbreak of Covid-19 has until now cost more than 50,000 lives and brought uncertainty and fear – emotions that can strongly affect political attitudes and decisions. Apart from the fact that this pandemic has a serious political impact, it is also politically instrumentalised. Recent developments in Poland are a striking example of how the coronavirus leads to unpredictable political dynamics, challenging the integrity of political leadership.

Poland is facing a presidential election in May this year. All eyes are on the country because of the open confrontation with the European Union over a rapid democratic backsliding: compromising the rule-of-law and bending the judiciary to the political will by the current national-conservative government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. But undemocratic – or ‘illiberal’ – as they might be, the authorities acted immediately when the health risk emerged: schools, public institutions, restaurants were closed and borders monitored.

Still, the public healthcare system remains vulnerable after years of neglect and financial collapse. Doctors and other medical staff work without enough safety equipment and no sufficient access to testing. As a result, some hospitals were contaminated and closed, more than 500 healthcare staff got infected, 4,500 remain in quarantine. Simultaneously, the government-controlled public TV channels broadcasts the speeches of governing lawmakers, slamming the EU response to coronavirus and taking credit for successfully containing the epidemic. 

The newly introduced ‘state of epidemic’ means even more restrictions in public life and practically the end of active campaigning. While other presidential candidates observe the social distancing rule and have put their campaigns on hold, the incumbent president Andrzej Duda travels across the country and makes numerous public appearances. The opposition accuses him of running an unfair campaign and labels him the ‘corona candidate’. Duda responds that he simply does his duty as the head of state.

In February, his reelection was not at all obvious. Today, according to polls, Duda gets closer to a victory in the first round. Despite the aggravating situation, the election is still scheduled for 10 May. Legal experts express skepticism toward holding the ballot under a practical lockdown, medical authorities ring alarm bells facing the already dire situation. Regardless, the government sticks to the date.

Political calculation first

In Poland, more than 30 million people are eligible to vote. On top of that, Poles abroad can also cast a ballot. For the 2019 parliamentary election, 23 extraterritorial polling stations were created in Germany alone. People’s determination to vote was so strong that, at some polling stations, they queued for hours. In the current circumstances, the idea to hold a public event, let alone a popular election, seems ludicrous.

This, however, does not discourage the governing party and leads to absurd situations and contradicting signals sent by the authorities. Further restrictions as well as severe penalties for violating the conditions of mandatory quarantine are being introduced. But while the health minister warns against the increasing risk of infection, both the prime minister and the incumbent president claim that as long as it’s possible to shop one can also go vote.

According to the polls, a vast majority of citizens want the vote postponed.

There is a good reason why PiS is so determined to hold the presidential election now. The prognosis for the future months is either bad or worse than bad. Europe is most certainly facing a severe recession – and Poland is no exception. Early forecasts estimate negative GDP growth and unemployment exceeding 10 per cent by the end of the year. But it’s not only the deteriorating economic situation that haunts PiS.

Since the party has made generous social policy programmes its signature reforms, the question emerges which of these measures – child allowance, extra pensions, increased minimum wage – will survive the recession. Therefore, the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak might be a double shock for Polish households: first coming from the labour market, secondly from the social transfers they relied on. No candidate wants to compete for re-election in such circumstances.

Election to be or not to be?

It’s fair to say that PiS is desperately racing with time. Their lawmakers anxiously follow how the epidemic develops while fiddling with safety measures not too restrictive, in order to legally hold the election. In a radio interview, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the last independent institution in Polish public administration, criticised the government for not having yet introduced the state of emergency, which would effectively halt the ballot.

According to the polls, a vast majority of citizens want the vote postponed. More and more mayors and local authorities rebel against the government and refuse to organise the necessary infrastructure: polling stations and their staffing, in fear for putting public health at risk. There even is a serious rift within the governing coalition, as the leader of one of the junior coalition partners and deputy prime minister, refused to support further preparations for elections and stepped down in protest. The situation is on razor’s edge.

According to projections, Covid-19 will peak in Poland in late April. The health minister seems to be under enormous political pressure and will announce his recommendation only after the Easter break. Meanwhile, against both truth and logic, PiS tirelessly wades towards the presidential vote on 10 May, now endorsing the idea of a postal vote for all (on Monday before the Easter break, the Sejm quickly initiated a legislative process for a relevant bill proposal, passing it on to the Senate) or considering the use of the military to organise and carry out the election. Clearly, their political calculation sees an opportunity in the wave of coronavirus infections and related extraordinary measures, allowing to crush the competition and further consolidate power for the coming years.

This text was originally published by IPG/International Politics and Society: https://www.ips-journal.eu/regions/europe/article/show/the-corona-campaign-4242/

Germany, Poland and the EU

With growing distrust on both sides of the German-Polish border, a new rapprochement seems urgently neededst balance of power, it will have a significant impact on Polish political culture.

Throughout history, the Polish-German relation has been traumatic. The drama of partitions and the atrocities of WW2 had only slowly been overcome, first by the ‘change through rapprochement’ approach of Willy Brandt’s new Eastern Policy, then by the symbolic embrace in Krzyżowa, a ‘Polish-German community of interests’ resulting in the normalisation of Polish-German relations.

Germany and Poland have grown even closer together after the latter joined the EU in 2004, with economic ties becoming a significant element of mutual relations. For example, in 2018, trade in goods between Germany in Poland was worth €118bn, with Germany being the main export country for Poland, and Poland – on par with the UK – the sixth biggest trading partner for Germany. This intense geo-economic relation is complemented by a close interpersonal one: Polish migrants and citizens with Polish background are the second biggest diaspora in Germany contributing to the multicultural landscape of the country.

Still, in spite of an unprecedented reconciliation success, Polish-German relations seem ambivalent, especially if compared with the Franco-German tandem. Around half of Germans and French declare appreciation of their neighbour and around two-thirds feel this relationship is stable. On the other hand, there’s a visible discrepancy in the perception of Polish-German relations: 56 per cent of Poles and only 29 per cent of Germans feel sympathy towards the neighbouring country. Moreover, 64 per cent of Poles perceive German-Polish relations as good, compared with only 31 per cent of Germans.

Of course, these popular attitudes are also susceptible to political dynamics. There were big hopes in Emmanuel Macron to rejuvenate the Franco-German engine, before he clashed with Chancellor Angela Merkel over NATO or did not find support for his vision of further EU economic integration, especially within the Eurozone. But even if the chemistry between German and French leaders is not particularly good at the moment, it cannot beat the ice age in Polish-German relations.

Recalibrating Poland’s national interest

Since 1989, Poland has often been presented as a showpiece for the Eastern Europe’s transition: its economic miracle, successful political transformation and handling relations with its neighbours often tainted by difficult history were said to stand out. This success culminated in the country joining the EU in 2004, striking a new development path and establishing its new role in Europe.

Under the 7-year long leadership of Prime Minister Donald Tusk (today the President of the European People’s Party), Poland became a meaningful player in Brussels, sitting at one table with other eurostars, like Germany, France and Italy. Therefore, the victory of the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) in October 2015 came as a shock for the European community.

The new government embarked on a clear collision course with the EU, mostly on the issue of rule of law and judicial independence, also launching harsh euro-sceptic rhetoric and transforming the sovereignty discourse – from a space of freedom and democracy to preserving national identity. However, the ruling party also presents a strong anti-German sentiment, in particular through its lawmakers’ political communication and government-controlled public media, for instance the recurring demands for WW2 reparations.

The current impasse in the governmental dialogue between Poland and Germany doesn’t escalate in theatrical twitter brawls, but rather manifests in cool courtesy and ritualised gestures.

This rhetoric resonates well with its electorate and is instrumentalised mostly for domestic political gains. But nevertheless, it also reflects a broader agenda. The current authorities in Warsaw not only see the Polish interest different than their predecessors but also apply a fundamentally different approach (and style) to realise it. Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS leader, is vocal about his distrust in its western neighbour, seeing German interests as contradicting Poland’s goals and ambitions.

The efforts to be a counterweight to the alleged German hegemony in the EU have led Poland under the PiS leadership to build closer relations with the US, in particular in the realm of security policy. Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s administration, viewed by many European partners as an obscurity if not a threat, seems to present an opportunity for the Polish leadership to strengthen the country’s security by granting American military presence in Poland.

The intensification of US-Poland bilateral relation – parallel to NATO structures and beyond the ‘European sovereignty’ concept – is a clear manifestation of the current government’s view on (united) Europe and EU’s defence autonomy. For them, the German and French idea of building European defence autonomy independently of the US triggers the immanent anxiety of imagined German dominance in Europe – and leaves it vulnerable to Russia. Poland’s direct neighbourhood with Putin’s Russia, mixed with the general Russia-scepticism of the Polish right, prompts even more concerns about the country’s security. As a result, there’s little space for manoeuvre to find a win-win solution, especially when accompanied by the US President’s anti-German and anti-EU rants.

Which future for Poland – and Europe?

The current impasse in the governmental dialogue between Poland and Germany doesn’t escalate in theatrical twitter brawls, but rather manifests in cool courtesy and ritualised gestures. At the same time, the economic bond blossoms unharmed – and so does citizen diplomacy through tourism or cultural exchange.

Nevertheless, Germany’s deep distrust of the current political elites in Poland – combined with its new geopolitical orientation – will not only harm the Polish-German relations long-term but also affect European policies. The current Polish government leans towards an alternative vision of the EU, opting for a union of economic benefits for nation states and a less federalised model.

At the same time, Poland has become marginalised within the EU. While searching for alternative allies like the US, the Polish government creates competition within NATO, contributing to its crisis mood. From the German perspective, recent developments in Poland not only seem bizarre; they must be a disappointment too. After all, it was Germany’s effort to help the eastern neighbour pave its way into the EU. Today’s frosty vibe between Warsaw and Berlin only deepens the gap and isolation of Poland in Europe. With the PiS party and its junior coalition partners again in majority government, it’s not likely to change any time soon.

However, Poland will face a presidential election in May 2020. In October 2019, the surprising victory of the opposition in the Senate, the upper chamber of the Polish parliament, gives many a glimmer of hope. As a supreme representative of the Polish state, the President plays a special role in the international arena. Should the re-election of the incumbent president Andrzej Duda, supported by the PiS party, not succeed, it could mean a fresh start for Polish foreign policy and an opportunity for a relaunch in Polish-German relations.

The candidate of the United Left, Robert Biedroń, has already announced in his campaign inauguration speech that he will use his best efforts to end the feud with Germany and revitalise the Weimar Triangle of three European leaders. He also recognised the EU as a cornerstone of Poland’s economic and geopolitical security. A conciliatory approach and continuing a proactive European policy can also be expected from the candidate of the Civic Platform, the party of Donald Tusk. But only time will tell whether and when a more optimistic scenario for Polish-German relations and the EU will materialise.

This text was originally published by IPG/International Politics and Society: https://www.ips-journal.eu/regions/europe/article/show/germany-poland-and-the-eu-4064/

The Intriguing Outcome of the 2019 Polish Parliamentary Election

On October 13, parliamentary election in Poland was held. After the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) defeated the liberal Civic Platform (PO) in 2015, the country was faced with extensive reforms. Not only the socio-economic paradigm changed, from the liberal course to a generous welfare state embodied in newly introduced child allowance, a steady increase of the minimum wage, or lowering retirement age. Radical changes to the judiciary as well as taking control of the public media caused a massive outcry at home and abroad, raising concerns about the state of democracy in Poland. Therefore, this year’s election was labelled the most important ballot since the fall of communism 30 years ago.

A Brief Look at the General Outcomes

At a first glimpse, the outcome of the election did not diverge much from the polls. The electoral alliance of the governing PiS party and its two small satellites, United Poland (Solidarna Polska) and Poland Together (Polska Razem), won 43,5 per cent of all votes. The liberal opposition under the leadership of PO suffered losses if compared to 2015, however remains the second political force in Poland with voter support of 27,4 per cent. The left will reappear in the Parliament after a four-year pause; the alt-right Konfederacja made it for the first time, overcoming the 5 per cent electoral threshold. The agrarian party PSL, allied with the left-overs of the populist Kukiz’15 movement led by a former rock star, barely saved themselves from extinction. To sum up, candidates running from six lists registered countrywide made it to the Parliament, including one representative of the German minority. The majority government of the united right will most probably continue, determined to complete the mission of “rebuilding Poland”, the core message of the PiS.

A More Nuanced Look

Some comments on the outcomes of Polish election referred to the victory of PiS as a popular confirmation of support for the government, legitimization of its agenda, or even made bold statements that Poles prefer social transfers to democracy. However, a more nuanced look reveals that not all that is necessarily true.

  • A victory under expectations

The support for the PiS party is significant and has even increased comparing with 2015. Nevertheless, confronted with some opinion polls predicting a victory at 48-49 per cent, the actual outcome might have been disappointing. Moreover, if taking Viktor Orban and Fidesz as a point of reference, the final result of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party was far below the electoral success of the Hungarian prime minister, who in 2010 won the majority of votes and last year enjoyed the support of 49 per cent in general election. The overall result of the PiS and its junior coalition partners did not give them more seats in the Parliament. However, the inner dynamics within the coalition has changed: whereas the PiS lost 15 seats, both junior partners gained more representation. This puts the PiS party under pressure while forming the government and gives their allies a new leverage, which they won’t hesitate to use.

  • The Upper House lost to the opposition

With the supermajority of the right-wing coalition led by the PiS, the power balance in Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, remained unchanged. Since 2015 the PiS party had also enjoyed absolute majority in the upper house, the Senate, but now the tables have turned with opposition candidates winning a slight majority (51 of 100 seats). That came as a surprise, with only 320 votes in one constituency turning the tide. The upper house is one of elements of the checks and balances in the Polish political system and is able to, for example, amend or reject the bills passed by Sejm. Nevertheless, with such a fragile majority, only time will tell how sustainable and resilient this newly established balance is.

  • A moderate government mandate

Securing supermajority in Sejm by the governing coalition was possible thanks to allocating seats according to the D’Hondt method. It favors bigger parties, however, does not reflect the raw number of votes. Whereas around 8 million Poles supported the PiS party and its coalition partners, the liberal alliance collected 5 million votes; the united left – 2,3 million; the agrarian PSL together with Kukiz’15 – 1,5 million. Simple arithmetic proves that all opposition (excluding the fringe Konfederacja) gathered more votes. All of them built their campaigns on anti-government rhetoric, criticizing both its policies as well as the conduct of its members. Therefore, taking into consideration a record-high voter turnout of almost 62%, the opposition proved its ability to effectively mobilize against the governing coalition. At the same time, it’s the fragmentation that limits this ambition in the competition for power.

  • The most diverse parliament yet

As a result of many parties choosing to run in electoral alliances instead of independently, the next Polish parliament will be very fragmented. Altogether, representatives of seventeen political parties will meet in Sejm, representing a wide variety of views: from bottom-up social left to alt-right. Moreover, with quite a few young candidates being successful, a generational change in Polish politics will be visible, too. On the one hand, this diversity makes the new Sejm a true representation of the Polish society and is a sign of political awareness developing among citizens. On the other hand, it might be a hurdle for the opposition to consolidate and find a common ground. Surely, parliamentary sessions will be livelier and debates fiercer, but the future will show, if with a constructive outcome for Poland.

Next Stop: 2020 Presidential Election

A more nuanced look at the outcome of the 2019 parliamentary election in Poland proves not only that the situation in the country is far more complex than the newspaper headlines would suggest, but also that there are signs of a change coming. The atmosphere is electric: Polish political scene is diverse and fragmented, the society polarized but determined in their choices. Next to a very clear concept of Poland offered by PiS, other alternative scenarios emerge. There is potential in the opposition to unite and a determination of the governing party to endure. These tensions and excitement will be of particular significance in the presidential election as this office is relevant to the checks and balances system. In Poland, this ballot is scheduled as soon as in spring 2020. Therefore, political competition and mobilization won’t wear off for now but are bound to intensify.

The parliamentary election in Poland—the future at stake

Whether the coming election in Poland will consolidate the monopoly of the national-conservative PiS or favour a more pluralist balance of power, it will have a significant impact on Polish political culture.

On October 13th, a parliamentary election will take place in Poland. After four years of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in government, this is a much-awaited ballot. Most probably, however, the result will not determine whether the current political course will continue—but rather how radical it will be. As of today, there is no serious competition to the PiS in sight.

In 2015, after eight years of the liberal Civic Platform (PO) in government, the tables were turned. Having won the presidential run in May 2015, the national-conservative PiS triumphed also in the parliamentary election, winning massively.

Truly revolutionary

The first cabinet of Beata Szydło was truly revolutionary, not only carrying out election promises, such as introducing family allowances, but also frantically rebuilding the Polish state: the judiciary and public media. These bold steps and a confrontational tone towards the European Union left the government internationally ostracised. The second PiS cabinet, led by Mateusz Morawiecki, softened the rhetoric.

Nevertheless, rebuilding Poland remains the core message of the PiS—in its own terms, making up for the injustice of the 1989 transformation, eliminating ‘disloyal elites’ and defending the country against disastrous western liberalism, with the associated internationalism, cultural Marxism and gender ideology. This narrative of retaliation and self-defence seems very effective. Even though the PiS has recently been haunted by numerous scandals, such as abusing public funds or having close ties with organised crime, its popularity remains intact.

Delivering election promises and improving the living conditions of many Polish families has paid off. Compared with 2015, support for the PiS has grown from 37 to 45 per cent. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczynski, is not just fighting for another victory. Winning an absolute majority in the parliament is again what is at stake.

Elitist image

The PO cannot seem to recover from the defeat of 2015. Not only is there a problem with finding charismatic leadership after the departure of Donald Tusk to Brussels, but also the party cannot fix its elitist image. A secret recording scandal and unfortunate statements by top figures have left it with the tag of being out of touch with reality.

But it was the neoliberal course the PO had taken to cushion potential effects of the eurozone crisis—precarisation of employment, austerity, freezing wages in the public sector—which put society off for good. The combination of a narrowed, upper-class vision of Poland and reputational damage left the once successful PO in shambles.

Still, as the biggest opposition force against the PiS government, the PO has endeavoured to bounce back. Forming a broad block with other liberals, the post-communist left, and the Greens boosted its support to 38 per cent in the European Parliament election. However, this was not enough for the united opposition to last. The overarching ‘anti-PiS’ motto failed in the face of ideological disputes.

This time the PO will challenge the PiS in a smaller and more coherent coalition. For the party this election is not only about preventing the PiS from winning an absolute majority. It’s about keeping the faith among its members and supporters.

Crucial moment

As a result of the 2015 election, the Polish left has lost its parliamentary representation. Not only did the more radical, grassroots, Syriza-like RAZEM party not manage to achieve sufficient mobilisation and brand recognition, but also the established post-communist, social-democratic SLD miscalculated its potential and missed the threshold by the skin of its teeth (0.45 per cent).

In 2019, the lesson has been learned. Three left-wing parties—SLD, RAZEM and Wiosna, the newly-launched social-liberal project of the renowned LGBT activist Robert Biedroń—have joined forces. Their selling point is to be an alternative on the stagnant and polarised Polish political scene, a choice beyond the militant national conservatism of the PiS and the embittered, vengeful tone of the liberal opposition.

It is a crucial moment for the left, which to everyone’s amazement managed to come together, rising above personal animosities and political differences. The better its result, the less the chance the PiS can secure absolute power in an election which is also a historic opportunity to revive the Polish left—it’s difficult to say which argument has a bigger mobilisation potential.

Worrisome tendencies

The conservatives, the liberals, and the left will be the main contestants. This election, however, will also see other candidates. Worrisome tendencies have been hatching on the right fringe of the political scene.

The short-lived success of the eclectic, populist Kukiz’15 movement back in 2015 left a void, recently filled by Konfederacja (Confederation), a motley crew of nationalists, anti-vaxxers, pro-life activists, conspiracy theorists and right-libertarians. Not by accident the name recalls the US ‘alt-right’ agenda: Konfederacja is sceptical of migration and what it calls mixing of races, as well as supranational and intergovernmental bodies, such as the EU; it supports traditional gender roles in society and even calls for liberalisation of gun policy.

Konfederacja’s debut in the European election was a failure. But if successful on its own political turf, so to speak, this faction could become the only ally of the PiS in the parliament, helping it further to reconstruct the Polish state—before being absorbed by that juggernaut.

Two scenarios

Overall, the situation in Poland is complex. The PiS has petrified its power position, but the prospect of winning a super-majority, enabling it to change the constitution, is not very likely and mostly depends on the electoral performance of the opposition.

We also witness an irreconcilable division within the society—similar perhaps only to what the ‘Brexit’ debate has left behind in the United Kingdom. On the one hand, there is hostility and a communication impasse between the government and the opposition, feeding radical tendencies on the right. On the other, there is hope and a readiness to put away pride for a higher purpose, as demonstrated by the Polish left.

Hence, two scenarios emerge: a destructive monopolisation of political power and further brutalisation of public debate or a breakthrough and balancing of the political scene beyond the PO-PiS arm-wrestle. Whatever the outcome, the vote will determine Poland’s future far beyond the next parliamentary term.

This text was originally published at Social Europe: https://www.socialeurope.eu/the-parliamentary-election-in-poland-the-future-at-stake