The Poles have cast their ballots and the vote has overwhelmingly come out in favor of the opposition national conservative Law & Justice Party (PiS). In parallel to the return of Law & Justice, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform Party of EU Council President Donald Tusk tanked at the polls and now faces a bleak future as the largest opposition party to Law & Justice. Since their erstwhile leader’s departure for Brussels, the party has dropped in the polls and the drop has been further enhanced by marring corruption scandals.
Parallel to the rise and fall of the two giants in Polish politics, a new star has risen on the sky of Polish politics, the liberal party Nowoczesna. Less than 12 hours after the polling stations closed their doors the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and the ALDE Party invited a Brussels-based crowd to delve deep into the intricacies of Polish politics with journalist Dominika Cosic and think-tanker Blazej Lenkowski. What is the key to Law & Justice’s success? What happened to Civic Platform and how did Nowoczesna rise from the ashes of political liberalism to be the country’s third largest party? Will Warsaw find a new trajectory at home and overseas, or can we expect more of the same, rhetorics aside?
In Dominika Cosic’s view, Europe and Brussels would make a fundamental mistake by equating the current Law & Justice Party with the erstwhile government party of the Kaczynski brothers. Since their ousting from power eight years ago by Donald Tusk, the party has managed to reform its image and diversify its voter base.
Even though Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains the leader of Law & Justice, the party’s parliamentary front-runner was Beata Szydło, and this change in image from the dour Kaczynski to the more outgoing Szydło has helped re-vamp PiS’s image in Western Poland, the traditional Civic Platform stronghold. As Cosic also stressed, the party has run a sophisticated social media campaign which helped the party move beyond its core rural, older, electorate.
The double ticket Szydło/Kaczynski has given the party a greater chance of talking with two tongues, with Kaczynski appealing to core PiS voters while Szydło has been cooing new voters. The strategy has paid off, but the question placed to the panelists was: Is PiS’s electoral success a result of a successful campaign by Law & Justice, or the consequence of a Civic Platform Party in free fall?
Liberal think-tanker Blazej Lenkowski was quick to make the point that the success of PiS has just as much to do with the collapse of Civic Platform. According to Lenkowski, the party has been hollowed from the inside as a result of eight years in power and lack of vision for the future of Poland.
He pointed out that Civic Platform leader and Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz has proved an uninspiring leader for the party and the country. Programmatically Lenkowski deplored the party’s inability to solve some of Poland’s most pressing economic challenges, including improving business competitiveness. Instead, Civic Platform has ventured onto the slippery slope of populist promise-making akin to the party of Mr Kaczynski, a path he criticized as another reason for the party’s fall from grace.
The liberal wonderboy of the Polish election is Ryzard Petru, former World Bank economist and protégé of Poland’s legendary Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz. Disgruntled by the populist direction of Civic Platform, Petru founded Nowoczesna, or Modern, as a liberal alternative to both power-blocs. In times when both major parties have been promising increased social security and lower taxes Petru has stood out as a voice of reason and fiscal responsibility.
The party gained 7,2 % according to the latest exit polls, landing it the seat as Poland’s fourth largest party represented in the Polish Parliament, or the Sejm. Lenkowski pointed out that not only has the party’s showing in the polls been impressive, so too has its programmatic and buildup of party-political structures. This is underlined by the Secretary General of the ALDE Party, Jacob Moroza-Rasmussen, who said that “with the right support and approach, I think we have the making of a good solid liberal force for years to come.”
The Brussels-based audience was keen to know how a new government is likely to change Poland’s trajectory. Cosic was bullish in her belief that Law & Justice will continue Civic Platform’s moderate EU-criticism and strong support for NATO and a US presence in Europe vis-à-vis Russia. Lenkowski supported this statement, arguing that we are more likely to see changes domestically, where Law & Justice will now be called to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
As long as the new government does not have the power to change the Constitution, Lenkowski was positive that the incumbent will not drastically depart from the international route of Civic Platform. In the realm of European and foreign policy, Lenkowski is however more pessimistic than Cosic, worrying that coarse Law & Justice rhetoric could jeopardize the special relationship between Warsaw and Berlin. Asked whether or not the elections had rocked the Polish boat, Dominika Cosic agreed, but pointed out, the boat has indeed been rocked, but it is far from capsizing.
For a further analysis of the elections in German, please consult our recent report here.
By Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom