Poland Before the Election: It Remains Exciting 

 

On 13th October Poland expects an election of fate. The Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party, which has been in power since 2015, has since its election purposefully and skilfully put the country on a national-conservative course with authoritarian traits. It is performing well in polls – not least because of its generous social policy. The opposition still needs to develop some momentum in order to win the elections.

 

They have made the public media the mouthpiece of their policies and control parts of the judiciary. They have added to the education system a national-patriotic curriculum and, with massive pension increases and the election promise of a minimum wage that is uniquely high in Central Europe, have also scored among those who might not have followed their national-conservative agenda entirely. The PiS government has already transformed the country in its own way. This gives cause for concern, because a second term in office should be seen by the government as a clear sign that the nationalist course and the restructuring of the state, which at times is reminiscent of Hungary’s “illiberal democracy”, is being pushed forward.

 

Polonized Media

In any case, the government’s programme already envisages clear steps in this direction. While the state media is fully subservient to the government, Poland still has a very lively and pluralistic private media landscape. PiS’s programme now contains concrete political indications. The party criticises the fact that government-critical media is mostly owned by foreigners. For example, the country’s largest tabloid, FAKT, belongs to the German Springer publishing house. The party is now striving for a “polonisation” of the media. It is more than likely that the change in ownership will be accompanied by a change in direction. In addition, a Media Council will be created, to serve the accreditation of journalists and the enforcement of “quality standards” set by the government.

The ruling party is conducting an extremely polarizing election campaign. While in the 2015 elections the “flood of refugees” was still the central theme for stirring up collective fears, this year the LGTBI community will be stylized as a threat to Poland. The demand for introduction of the registered partnership was recently called “cultural revolution against Christian civilization” by the party’s “grey eminence”, Jarosław Kaczyński, at an election event. Opponents of the party are portrayed as “messengers of hatred” who fight good, peasant and Catholic Poland. During demonstrations by LGTBI activists, violent attacks by right-wing hooligans repeatedly occur,. The government merely lukewarmly condemns them, often pointing out that violence is wrong, but that the activists themselves are also a little to blame.

 

Expenditure-Friendly Social Policy

Everything indicates that a majority of Poles do not think so. But can the opposition benefit? At present, all polls confirm that the PiS can hold or even expand the absolute majority of seats., which is frustrating for the opposition. In the regional elections of October 2018, it succeeded in displacing the PiS in all cities, including the smaller ones. In the European elections in May, on the other hand, the opposition won many votes, but the PiS managed to mobilise its regular voters better. This was also thanks to its control over public media, which is often the only major source of information in the countryside, and the vehement support of the Catholic Church, which is ultraconservative and politicised in Poland. At the same time, the party scored points with undecided voters for its social policy of spending money. The PiS has thus embarked on a fiscal policy course that in the long term will endanger the extraordinary solidity of the Polish economy (the financial crisis and the euro crisis have left Poland unscathed), but will benefit the party in the short term.

More important – and this is the real crux – is the state of the opposition itself. The electoral system (which, by the way, is not the work of the government, but already existed before) prefers large parties. Purely mathematically, a common list of the opposition would make sense. However, the parties could not agree on this. and after all, three blocks have formed. The moderate Christian Democratic Civic Platform (PO) and the small liberal Nowoczesna (.N) form the centrist coalition (KO), the Socialists and the new Viosna (Spring) party the left, and the Peasant Party (PSL) together with the populist Kukiz the conservative. According to the latest poll, the PiS would come to 42 percent and KO and Left together would also come to 42 percent. Everything depends only on a few percent and on the question of whether the small parties will make it into parliament. PiS currently has the better chances, but has not yet won for sure.

 

Weakness of the Opposition

The weakness of the opposition is also due to the weakness of the once ruling Civic Platform. It was voted out of office in 2015, because for many Poles it embodied the arrogance of power and was involved in numerous scandals. This convinced many voters to try going for the right-wing PiS. Grzegorz Schetyna, who took over the presidency after the election, proved to be a less charismatic power technocrat, who personified for some voters all that had led to the PO being voted out. At the same time, he fomented inner opposition fights. Due to the weakness of the PO, the liberal party Nowoczesna was formed in 2015 and began to dispute the PO’s leading role in the opposition. In January, Schetyna succeeded in slowing down this success run (which had already begun to falter due to some political failures of Nowoczesna itself) by encouraging seven Nowoczesna deputies with promises to change factions. The liberal party then lost faction status for some time.

This marked the beginning of the Liberals’ suffering in the country. Since their own strength is not sufficient and the electoral system would make the victory of the sole running PiS almost inevitable, Nowoczesna is now teaming up with the PO for the third time after the regional and European elections. PO in turn actually seeks to undermine their partner. Depending on how the election turns out, the small liberal party faces enormous problems, if not an existential crisis.

Worse still, Schetyna’s coup against Nowoczesna was one of the main reasons why there was no major party alliance against the PiS government in this election campaign. The distrust against him among the other opposition parties was too great. Schetyna has now realised far too late that he is diminishing the chances of the opposition. At the beginning of September, he announced that the party would not run for top office. Instead, Kidawa-Błońska, a member of parliament with integrity and a former film producer, is now running as a candidate for the office of head of government. Since then, she has fought with a low degree of popularity and far too short a lead time for the election. The PiS, on the other hand, is united in its fight. It has also found an unexpected ally, US President Donald Trump, whom it has always courted. He promised the Poles visa-free entry to the USA as a kind of electoral aid.

Whether this will help her, however, is written in the stars. Everything depends on voter mobilisation. On Sunday it will depend on whether those who want a change will head to the polls. It will be tight and exciting.

 

 

Dr. Detmar Doering

Project Director Central European and Baltic Countries