Poland’s PiS party (prawo i sprawiediwosc=law and justice) in power since 2015 is worried. In the recent presidential elections its candidate, the incumbent President Andrzej Duda, failed to win 50% of the voting turnout. He is doomed to meet his closest rival, the liberal and Europhilic mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski. in a second round of elections on July 12.
PiS’s coming to power in the autumn of 2015 was not altogether unexpected. The business friendly PO (ptarforma obywatelska=civic platform) had been in power since 2007. It had steered Poland successfully through the financial crisis of 2008, making Poland the only European country that had not experienced a fall in national income during the crisis. However, the prime minister, Donald Tusk, had absconded to Brussels as head of the European Council (at the time he only knew Polish and a smattering of German; since then he has mastered English). The PO was further harmed by an illicit recording of its bigwigs foul mouthing their allies during an extravagant dinner at taxpayers’ expense.
What was unexpected was the extent of the PiS victory. Whereas during the period 2005-2007, PiS had governed in a coalition, it was now able to govern by itself, the first time a single party held power in post-communist Poland.
PiS lost little time in putting through its social reforms. It brought the retirement age back to where it had been before the previous government raised it. The lynchpin of the reforms was the “500+” programme which provided 500 zlotys (approximately £100) for each second and additional child. The programme proved so popular that opposition parties have promised to maintain it should they return to power, in spite of reservations about the costs of the programme. PiS experienced its best performance in spring, 2019, when it won 27 out of 51 seats attributed to Poland in the European Parliament, eliminating smaller right-wing parties.
In spite of such success PiS took no chances. Before the national legislative elections in autumn 2019 PiS multiplied promises. It extended the “500+” programme to cover the first child; it promised to double the minimum wage in Poland and it offered to raise pensions. Nevertheless, the elections proved a disappointment. True, PiS’s share of the popular vote rose by almost 7%. However, it kept the same number of deputies in the Lower House of Parliament that it had enjoyed before and, above all, it lost control of the Upper House, the Senate.
This is why the presidential elections are crucial for the future of PiS. The President wields a veto on legislation. A President, such as Rafal Trzaskowski, who is hostile to PiS’s nationalist and populist goals would not look kindly at the party’s agenda. In the first instance, he would uproot the Polish-Hungarian tandem which has been defying the EU.
The presidential elections in Poland have put into question some received wisdom. How will the electorate judge PiS’s ever cozier relation with the Roman Cathollc Church in an age when clerical sexual abuse is a live issue, even in Poland? It has also been noted that during the pandemic the government authorized religious ceremonies while prohibiting secular ones.
How will Polish electors, profoundly European and aware of international trends, react to the recent statement of incumbent President Duda that the LGBT movement is “worse than communism”?
The electoral results expected on July 12 will provide an answer to these and other questions. In any case, the PiS government will have to manage the country after the pandemic, whatever the results of the presidential elections.