Can Europe Make It?

Polish opposition united to beat populists in Euro elections – and failed

Right-wing nationalists PiS increased vote share raises questions over pro-European bloc’s tactics.

Gavin Rae
10 June 2019
A march organized by the European Coalition (Koalicja Europejska) an alliance of political parties in May.
A march organized by the European Coalition (Koalicja Europejska) an alliance of political parties in May.
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PA Images

Last month’s European elections have confirmed that the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) continues to be the dominant party in Polish politics. They have also underlined the difficulties facing the major opposition parties, which suffered a resounding defeat despite the creation of a broad electoral alliance – European Coalition (KE) – against PiS. With parliamentary elections in November, the results raise the question of whether Poland’s opposition parties should continue their strategy of running as bloc against PiS.

The growth of right-wing authoritarian and nationalist leaders and parties has opened up sharp social and political divisions in many countries, including Poland. In response, some have argued that in order to defeat right-wing populists like Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump, opposition parties must form a coalition. In the UK, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable had similar ambitions for forming a pro-Remain bloc in the EU elections. The argument runs that these administrations threaten democracy and that the major opposition parties should therefore temporarily place their differences to one side. Such thinking was taken to its extreme by the most internationally renowned scholar on populism, Cas Mudde, who stated before last year’s Hungarian parliamentary elections that the liberal democratic opposition parties should even form an alliance with the far-right Jobbik party.

The Polish opposition parties tried this strategy at the European elections. The major opposition party, Citizens’ Platform (PO), allied with the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), the liberal party Modern, the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Greens. The results were disastrous.

PiS’s increased their vote by more than 13%, gaining 45% of the total vote. Meanwhile, the opposition coalition, KE, only won 38% of the vote, a decrease of more than 10 points compared to the 2014 EU elections. This victory for PiS is even more impressive due to the fact that the turnout in these elections was two times higher than in 2014 (rising from 23% to 45%). There has therefore been a huge growth in the number of citizens participating in the democratic process during PiS’s term, with the largest proportion of these new votes going to the ruling party.

As the European Coalition had no coherent positive message of their own, they could easily be outmanoeuvred and divided by PiS.

The different parties within KE were united simply through their opposition to PiS. They emphasised the authoritarian tendencies of the government and claimed that PiS are leading Poland towards an eventual exit from the European Union. As KE had no coherent positive message of their own, they could easily be outmanoeuvred and divided by PiS.

Firstly, PiS positioned its campaign around its social welfare policies, citing them as evidence they had fulfilled previous electoral promises when in government. A claim that was strengthened after announcing an expansion of some social benefits in the run up to the election. Secondly, PiS were happy to fight the elections around issues such as LGBTQI rights, which dominated the campaign. While PiS were united in their opposition to LGBTQI rights, whipping up homophobia and prejudice among its voters, KE were divided between its more liberal and conservative participants.

The incoherence of KE’s political campaign and message was particularly evident in the countryside. PiS essentially won these elections in the countryside and small towns where it won 56% and 36% of the vote (in contrast it only gained 27% in cities with a population of more than 500,000). Its main political rival in the rural regions, the PSL, was neutralised and its electorate demobilised partly due to its participation in KE. This left the field open to PiS, allowing it to advance its aim of becoming the recognised leading party in rural areas.

Likewise, the participation of the SLD in KE ensured that there was no strong independent left-wing alternative to PiS with the social liberal party Spring and the left-wing party Left-Together gaining 6% percent and 1% percent respectively. This has bolstered the image of PiS as defending social welfare in Poland and helped it to deepen its political support among some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. PiS therefore won two thirds of the votes from those with a basic or technical education, over 70% of the vote from farmers, 56% manual workers, 53% pensioners and 51% of the unemployed.

Although, it may seem to many liberal politicians and academics that the major issue facing Poland is the threat to its liberal democratic system, this view is not necessarily shared by the majority of the population. Campaigning on issues like the independence of the judiciary or Poland’s relationship with the EU are not sufficient to defeat PiS. The European elections have shown that such a strategy has actually shrunk the vote of the opposition and strengthened the position of PiS. In order to efficiently challenge the monopoly of PiS, the opposition must actually divide into different blocs and parties. Rural and leftwing parties must fight PiS on socio-economic issues to pushback against the expansion of the conservative and nationalist right into those layers of society disillusioned by neoliberal centre-right parties. And the left urgently needs to consolidate itself into a single organisation, distant from the centre, to offer a real positive alternative to the current administration.

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