The PiS party (Prawo i Sprawedliwosc, or 'law and justice') in power in Poland is worried. To be sure, 'its' candidate, Andrzej Duda, won the second round of the presidential election on Sunday. He did so by whisker, however, leaving a country evenly divided between PiS’s nationalist and conservative message and the Europhilic and 'progressive' message of Duda’s opponent, Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw.
Of course, it would have been worse for PiS if Trzaskwski had won. The President of Poland does not have many powers but he can veto and delay legislation and he can represent Poland abroad, as Duda did recently visiting Donald Trump; this is something Trzaskowski would not have done. He might have been expected to go to Brussels before going to Washington.
But PiS is still worried. It suffered a surprising reversal in losing control of the senate in last year’s parliamentary elections, even though it managed to maintain its majority in the lower house. Above all, PiS sees the writing on the wall. PiS has counted on the support of the Church and the government’s exceedingly generous social programme: a thirteenth monthly salary for retirees, a family allowance scheme that is so popular opposition parties have vowed to maintain it, a doubling of the minimum wage. The country has indicated that it is happy to cash in on such goodies but it is also ready for a change. Rural Poland may remain faithful to PiS but the larger cities, the future of the country, have shown once again that they will have no truck with the government’s nationalist and socially conservative message.
And what will happen when Poland comes out of the artificially frozen state into which the covid crisis has plunged it? Polish representatives in Brussels have been remarkably silent on the ticklish issue of Eurobonds that would bail out the weaker members of the Union, and they have been silent not only because Poland has not joined the Eurozone.
Polish representatives have confined themselves to ensuring that in the new EU budget Poland remains the largest recipient of EU largesse, as it has been in the past. This may be an uphill battle as European dissatisfaction with Polish Europhobia may well have financial consequences.
Regardless of what happens in Brussels, the Polish economy is heading for a downturn. Car production, an important industry here as in other new EU members is undergoing a world-wide crisis. PiS’s social programmes are expensive and it is not sure that the country can afford them. Above all, PiS is aware that it came to power in 2015 thanks to general lassitude about the eight-year reign of its predecessor. The same lassitude may well mark the end of PiS power at the next opportunity, the parliamentary elections of 2023.
And what will happen when Poland comes out of the artificially frozen state into which the covid crisis has plunged it?
How can PiS be expected to react? It may well double down on its present course. It has taken over the judiciary and the official media; it will seek to make these changes permanent, although it does not enjoy the “super majority” that makes Victor Orban’s life easier in Hungary.
It can be expected to intensify its nationalist rhetoric, directed primarily against its powerful neighbour, Germany, and the EU which Germany dominates. This will also be the means to explaining why PiS is unable to provide new social programmes or even to afford existing ones in the new climate of austerity. In any case, PiS expects to lose power and it has no qualms about leaving a divided country.