Can Europe Make It?

Poland’s political predicament

PiS is a radical right party professing a nationalist-conservative ideology, but implementing social-economic policies that borrow from social democratic ideas.

Tom Junes
4 June 2019, 1.25pm
A puppet of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party, seen at the march organized by the opposition European Coalition.
SOPA/PA. All rights reserved.

Poland is experiencing a protracted election season. Following the local elections last autumn, the European elections were seen as a crucial test for the opposition’s quest to unseat Law and Justice (PiS) from power in the national elections later this year. It was a test the opposition has blatantly failed – PiS scored its biggest election victory so far, with a historic 45.38 percent of the vote.

The outcome of these European elections in Poland exposed an uncomfortable truth. Despite its creeping authoritarianism, PiS can count on significant support and mobilise it. More so, after more than three years in government, PiS and its two junior coalition partners, running together as the Zjednoczona Prawica (United Right) bloc, have managed to increase their popularity.

For conservatives, liberals, and the Left it is time to face the harsh reality that, as it stands now, there is little chance that in a few months PiS (and the United Right) will lose the national elections. If it wants to prevent PiS from retaining power after the national elections, the opposition needs to draw some necessary lessons from the European election campaign.

The toxic logic of the duopoly

Beating PiS in elections or preventing PiS from retaining absolute power is not the same problem, though it is all too often conflated. A single political party or coalition beating PiS is essentially the strategy that the leader of the Civic Platform (PO), Grzegorz Schetyna has tried to pursue between the local elections and the European elections. Having brought together PO and Nowoczesna (Modern) in the Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) for the local elections, the exercise was expanded by uniting nearly all conservative and centre-left parties in one PO-led electoral coalition, the Koalicja Europejska (European Coalition).

On the one hand, the creation of this bloc kept votes for parties that risked not crossing the threshold in play. On the other hand, the bloc did not produce added-value in the sense of winning more votes. Seeing it as too liberal or left-wing some conservative voters defected to PiS while some liberal and left-leaning voters were put off by what was essentially a centre-right dominated formation. In fact, the final result was less than the potential sum of the bloc's parts. If one compares the last two European elections, then the European Coalition scored about 10 percent less than in 2014.

Even if one added the vote tally of the only other party that crossed the threshold, the progressive political start-up Wiosna (Spring), to that of the European Coalition, PiS would still have won the elections. In other words, uniting the opposition into one ideologically opaque 'anti-PiS' bloc failed to defeat PiS. While such an 'ultimate showdown' scenario fits within the logic of Poland's 'duopoly' (as the longstanding PO-PiS rivalry is known), it would be counter-productive as a strategy for the national elections. Not only because the consequence of a likely opposition defeat would be an absolute majority for PiS in parliament, but the fall-out of such a defeat would throw the opposition into disarray and could constitute a blow from which it (and perhaps Poland's democracy) was difficult to recover.

Ideas and campaign tactics matter

Any strategy to attract and mobilise voters should be based on ideas and a political programme. This, however, is the opposition's Achilles heel since neither the PO-led coalitions nor PO itself have managed to formulate a credible alternative to the PiS programme, a problem exacerbated by running as an 'alliance' of parties with conflicting agendas. Lacking an effective programme the PO-led opposition has basically resorted to simplistic anti-PiS rhetoric or 'Polexit' fearmongering i.e. the unfounded threat of PiS aiming to pull Poland out of the EU. This can work to rally those who oppose PiS on principle, but it will not flip any PiS voters needed to win an election.

In the case of Razem, its fortunes have declined significantly in part due to the party's …inability to build beyond its core base of young urban leftist voters.

The progressive Wiosna or the left-wing Razem (Together) do have the ideas and a programme, but suffer from other problems. In the case of Razem, its fortunes have declined significantly in part due to the party's sectarian reflexes and inability to build beyond its core base of young urban leftist voters. In contrast, Wiosna, the progressive party recently launched by the popular (former) mayor of Słupsk, Robert Biedroń, managed to cross the threshold but its performance was a disappointment in light of earlier promising polls. Biedroń's tendency to make extravagant statements and his party's seeming incompetence in dealing effectively with the trappings of a polarising election campaign surely played their part in this underperformance. If Wiosna hopes to be a credible electoral alternative then it will first and foremost have to address these tactical issues in the coming months.

Showing how it’s done

In contrast to the European Coalition and Wiosna, PiS managed to put forward concrete ideas and show superior tactical prowess during the campaign. While the party's control of public media (turning it into a propaganda tube) contributed to its victory, a fact that tends to be overlooked is that PiS managed to adapt and manoeuvre in a more flexible and effective manner than other parties shifting back and forth between topics and issues. This is in part due to the nature of the party, which is an amalgam of several factions which are held together by the authority of the uncontested leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Depending on the situation, Kaczyński can silence or put into play various factions and alternate between them, radicalising or moderating in pushing forth the party's agenda.

PiS' capability to manoeuvre vis-à-vis the opposition was very apparent during the campaign when the party for the first time in years was not completely setting the agenda, but had to deal with the fall-out of the murder of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz, a corruption scandal involving Kaczyński himself, a rise in anti-Semitism, a nation-wide teachers' strike, and a paedophile scandal engulfing the Catholic Church. While its opponents scrambled to exploit these issues, PiS responded by rallying its own base and feeding the opposition's inherent divisions. In the process, PiS ignited a full-blown culture war, which is bound to continue beyond the European election campaign.

It is important to note that PiS does not face serious competition from the far right which allows the party to dominate the nationalist and conservative vote share. While Poland has a far right problem, with proliferating hate crimes and more recently a discernible rise in anti-Semitic sentiments, electorally it remains a rather marginal phenomenon especially in comparison to other European countries. Over the years, PiS has managed to contain the far right, either by a divide-and-co-opt strategy or simply by the ability to present itself as a more realistic alternative for part of the far-right nationalist electorate.

More significantly, the party put forward a set of economic welfare policies that appealed to less ideological, but transactional voters.

More significantly, the party put forward a set of economic welfare policies that appealed to less ideological, but transactional voters. Though sometimes incorrectly characterised as a far right party, PiS is a radical right party professing a nationalist-conservative ideology but it has been implementing social-economic policies that borrow from social democratic ideas. Since it gained power, initial forecasts that PiS' policies would harm the economy have not materialised. Instead, some of these policies, like the party's '500+' child benefit programme, have been received with widespread approval among the population.

It is precisely in the social-economic sphere that PiS has proven to be unbeatable in recent years. PiS can boast that it has kept its promises, and just like this helps to lure voters with new promises of benefits, while it also maintains support among those voters who have so far benefited from PiS programmes and who might be galvanised by fear of losing those benefits. The main lesson to be drawn from the European elections is that the opposition cannot beat PiS on social-economic issues and that it could not best PiS when the campaign turned into a full-blown culture war.

Poland's societal divisions are important

Electoral maps showing a divided or even 'partitioned' Poland along east-west lines have become something of a genre in the wake of these elections. However, unless meant as parody or satire, such maps are highly misleading (the 'Poland A' versus 'Poland B' is a longstanding trope). This is not to say Poland isn't divided. It certainly is, but not along some simplistic cold-war style geographic lines. The divisions that run through Polish society are situated between urban and rural areas, and are defined by class, generational, religious and cultural rifts in which changing historical and sociological trends matter.

More importantly, these divisions do not fit well within the binary logic of the duopoly nor do they resonate entirely in the country's increasingly polarising political climate. Poland is often seen as a conservative and Catholic country. This still holds largely true (hence part of PiS' success), but the past decades have seen an increasing secularisation and cultural liberalisation take hold as the country has grown wealthier and more open to the world. And although this is a noticeable trend, it is also an uneven process affecting different parts of society to varying degrees.

This presents the opposition with a conundrum since it needs to appeal both to voters who do not wish for rapid or significant social change and to those for whom it is not happening fast enough i.e. conservative-liberal and liberal-progressive groups of voters. This became blatantly obvious once the election campaign of the past months morphed into a full-blown culture war.

The concept of a united anti-PiS opposition bloc has proven to be a failing strategy and the opposition for now cannot hope to outbid PiS on social-economic issues. If the goal is to put a halt to authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, then the only viable option is to challenge PiS in the cultural sphere. But for that to succeed the opposition needs to regroup and start winning and mobilising voters with a coherent set of ideas while staying on message. Beating PiS outright may prove unlikely, but preventing it from gaining an absolute majority by collectively outperforming PiS (for example with distinct conservative-liberal and centre-left coalitions) is still possible.

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