On October 15, Poland holds parliamentary elections that could be the most closely watched European elections this fall. Opinion polls point to a difficult situation. Will the Law and Justice party (PiS), which has dominated Polish politics since its electoral victory in 2015, obtain an unprecedented third term? A third term that could mean more fights with Brussels and Berlin and the pursuit of a socially conservative national agenda. Or will a group of opposition parties seize power, attempt to repair relations with various European capitals, and roll back some of the previous controversial reforms, such as the politicization of the judicial system ?
Like many other times in Poland’s recent political history, the two largest parties competing are the conservative PiS and the center-right Civic Coalition (KO). Polls show that PiS is expected to finish first with around 35 percent of the vote and KO a little behind with almost 30 percent.
Both will seek potential coalition partners among three political groups that all garner around 10 percent of the vote: the left-wing political alliance; the Third Way, a political coalition between the Polish People’s Agrarian Party and a new centrist force called Poland 2050; and the far-right Confederation party.
The first two appear ready to join forces with the Civic Platform, so the party to watch here is the Confederation. At first glance, it seems like he would be a natural partner for PiS, with its hard line on migration, the EU and social issues. But there are obvious obstacles to overcome.
Poland’s decision to stop imports of Ukrainian grain earlier this year to protect its own farmers angered Kiev, and in a subsequent diplomatic spat Warsaw also threatened to restrict arms deliveries.
The Confederation likes to present itself as a “political outsider”, eager to reorganize the entire system rather than simply joining the government as a junior partner. His “pro-business” program with tax cuts and cuts in social spending also goes against the lavish social benefits paid by PiS in recent years. This could mean a hung Parliament, leading to predictions that, in the event of a deadlock, snap elections could be called in early 2024.
Deep context: Besides being a fight between old rivals PiS and KO, these elections are another round in the ongoing battle between the two men who have dominated Polish politics this century: Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Law and Justice and Donald Civic Platform Tusk.
Both came from the Solidarity movement that overthrew the country’s communist regime and ushered in democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both enjoyed stints in power and remain the leaders and biggest stars of their party. Kaczynski served as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, but since PiS returned to power in 2015 he has avoided running for office, preferring to remain deeply influential behind the scenes.
Tusk, meanwhile, served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014 before becoming president of the European Council, which sets the direction and priorities of the European Union, and leading the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). , the largest political group. in the European Parliament. In 2022, Tusk returned to Poland to lead the Civic Coalition again because, without him, the party had suffered one electoral defeat after another.
The fact that there is no love lost between the two only adds spice to the rivalry. Problems between the two men date back to the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, where then-president Jaroslaw’s twin brother Lech Kaczynski was killed along with many senior Polish politicians and officials. Kaczynski continues to blame his brother’s death on Tusk, who was prime minister at the time. He has often advanced the widely discredited conspiracy theory that it was Tusk, in collaboration with the Kremlin, who was behind the plane crash, which claimed the lives of 96 people.
Foreign observers often warn of the political backsliding observed in Poland under the Law and Justice party, highlighting severe restrictions on the right to abortion, the emergence of “LGBT-free” local municipalities and, above all, the politicization of power. judicial. This has led to the refusal of EU funds, numerous cases before the European Court and the possibility of Warsaw losing its voting rights in the Council of the European Union, which can modify or veto proposals from the European Commission . Despite everything, PiS remains popular in Poland.
The party’s popularity can be explained by the fact that a large part of the electorate identifies with its socially conservative program, which highlights the nationalist and Catholic character of the country and regularly expresses historical grievances, notably in with regard to Germany. But the party has also overseen healthy economic growth, helped by a steady flow of EU funds (Poland is the biggest net recipient of Brussels money) and increased social spending.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the time when the Civic Coalition was in power, between 2007 and 2015, was that it only addressed cosmopolitan city dwellers and neglected the countryside and the less well-off. Law and Justice have taken note of this. Its flagship family allowance program – named 500+ in reference to the 500 zlotys ($115) per month per child it offered to parents – has proven popular, with the allowance now increased to 800 zlotys. When in power, PiS promised not to raise the retirement age and banned the sale of state-owned companies to foreign companies, two proposals that were well received.
But don’t expect a sudden rollback of many of these reforms if the more liberal opposition prevails. The current president, Andrzej Duda, is widely seen as loyal to PiS and has a veto that can only be overturned by a three-fifths parliamentary majority, something unlikely to be achieved by KO and its potential partners. And then there is a constitutional court, which tests the legality of laws passed in Parliament and whose members are considered favorable to PiS; not to mention a potentially hostile attorney general and other levers of political power put in place by PiS over the past eight years.
Then there is the question of Ukraine, Poland’s war-torn neighbor. In the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, Poland was perhaps Ukraine’s biggest supporter. She hosts the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, lobbied in Brussels for tough EU sanctions against Russia and generous aid packages for Kiev, pushed for Ukraine to join the EU and the NATO, and Poland remains the main channel for delivering weapons to the front.
But the period leading up to these elections was also marked by radical change in Warsaw. It began when Poland (and other eastern EU member states) blocked the passage of some Ukrainian agricultural products entering the EU in May, complaining that the glut of food was endangering the livelihoods of its own farmers. Despite mediation from Brussels, Warsaw currently only authorizes the transit of a few Ukrainian products. Most European diplomats I spoke with see the whole affair as a cynical attempt by Law and Justice to win over rural voters, a crucial segment of the Polish electorate.
It doesn’t stop there. Recently, Poland wanted to postpone an EU decision allowing Ukrainian refugees in the bloc to continue to have access to local labor markets, housing and health care. Polish officials at different political levels have been reluctant in recent times to meet their Ukrainian counterparts and Warsaw has suggested that no further deliveries of Polish weapons to kyiv are planned.
With the moderation of rhetoric and electoral populism, Polish-Ukrainian relations are expected to improve after the elections, regardless of who comes to power. But will it return to the peak of good relations observed immediately after the Russian invasion?
One thing is sure: The closer Ukraine gets to joining the EU, the more Poland and Ukraine will become political rivals. Certainly, trade between the two countries will probably explode, but they will also compete for the same European funds intended for farmers and poorer regions. And Warsaw will exercise its right of veto in Ukraine’s EU accession process if it believes its economic or political interests are threatened.
On the same day as the legislative elections, a referendum will also take place asking four questions on the possible privatization of public companies; increase in retirement age; the admission of migrants under the EU relocation mechanism; and the removal of the fence on the border between Poland and Belarus, erected to prevent migrants, usually from non-European countries, which Warsaw, according to Minsk, is pushing into the country.
The referendum questions were heavily criticized because they were geared towards exploiting the opposition and designed to increase voter turnout in favor of law and justice. It was also compared to similar referendums held in recent years under Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which critics also said were aimed at gaining support for the government. More than 50 percent of all registered voters must participate for the result to be valid and, given that the opposition is calling for a boycott, it will be interesting to see if this number will be reached and how this referendum will be used politically in the future. future.
Rikard Jozwiak is Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, where he focuses on coverage of the European Union and NATO.
Reprinted from Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter that focuses on key issues concerning the European Union, NATO and other institutions and their relations with the Western Balkans and Europe’s eastern neighbors . View original here.
The opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.