The Law and Justice Party won the elections in Poland. The opposition is in crisis.
Most observers had expected it: The national-conservative government of the party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS for short) has been clearly confirmed in office. According to the latest projections, PiS’s share of the vote rose from 37.6 per cent in 2015 to 44.57 per cent. It owes this not only to its extremely rude but very skilful election campaign strategy, but above all to the weakness of the opposition.
On paper, the proportion of votes cast by the opposition does not look so bad. In order to avoid fragmentation, most parties had bundled their forces on joint electoral lists or coalitions. The centrist opposition list “Civic Coalition” (KO), which consists of the Christian Democratic Civic Platform (PO) and the small liberal Nowoczesna, came to 26.65 percent, the left-wing alliance of the Social Democrats and the new Viosna Party (Spring) to 12.27 percent, and the conservative list of Peasant Party and Populist Kukiz15 to 8.63 percent. That’s 47.55 percent – which means that the PiS by no means has the majority of voters behind it.
However, the system of seat allocation according to D’Hondt’s calculation method (which, incidentally, was already in force before PiS took office) systematically favours the relatively larger parties. Already with the result of 2015, the ruling party comfortably reached the absolute majority of seats. Now it has expanded this lead even further.
Right-Wing Extremists also Strengthened
Ironically, however, this is perhaps the less bad of the bad options. If the PiS had missed the absolute majority, it would have had to form a coalition. Possibly, only the new right-wing extremist party Konfederacja would have been considered as a partner, with an immediate 6.76 percent. Its leader believes in the Jewish world conspiracy and thinks that lower wages are right for women, because they are weaker and less intelligent. Konfederacja makes the PiS look like an island of tolerance.
But things could still get worse. During its previous term in office, the government had already created unfair electoral conditions – for example through the complete instrumentalization of the state media – and had otherwise taken a course that was questionable from the point of view of the rule of law. For example, the EU had to intervene in an attempt to restrict the independence of the judiciary. It must be assumed that the PiS will attempt to “polonise” opposition private media – especially those owned by foreigners – in the coming legislative period. Also, life will probably not be made easier for non-governmental organizations that are critical of the government. They are already more or less excluded from any public funding at the national level. Since the opposition (especially in the cities) still often governs at the regional and municipal levels, there are still opportunities for support, but it cannot be ruled out that the government is now beginning to restrict local autonomy and self-government, which has long been a thorn in the side of national centralism. A similar situation has already been observed in Hungary under Viktor Orbán.
What About the Opposition?
The opposition has already had a hard time in these elections, which are definitely free but a little unfair. The next election is likely to be even more difficult. This is something it has to blame itself for a little as well.
What is striking is that for the first time since 2015, an explicitly left-wing formation has returned to parliament. On closer inspection, however, this is not evidence of a renewed strengthening of this policy segment. For the last time, the left was fragmented, which led to the respective failure at the five percent hurdle. The share of the united Left in the vote this time was clearly enough for the entry into the Sejm, but is no proof of a strong Left in the country. Even the conservative alliance of the Peasant Party and Kukiz15 survived only as an alliance. Individually they would have failed. It is hard to hide the fact that the PiS government also has the more moderate conservative field well under control.
Self-Inflicted Tragedy of the Citizens’ Coalition
What remains is the real tragedy: the centrist coalition of citizens. Its core component is the PO, the largest party that ruled until 2015. The party was voted out of office in 2015 because it was perceived as devoid of content, power-hungry and scandalous. Under its chairman, Grzegorz Schetyna, it did everything it could to maintain this reputation. The renewal did not take place. In addition, Schetyna tried to systematically keep the potential coalition partners small, which was felt above all by the list partners, the liberal Nowoczesna. He sowed mistrust in the opposition camp. Too late, he realized that as the top candidate of the KO, he would only do damage and only in September did he appoint the unknown member of parliament Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as the top candidate for the office of head of government. In an election campaign marked by failures, she could no longer manage to give the centrist opposition any renewed profile.
That would have been necessary, because the PiS knew how to conduct an election campaign that appealed to national feelings, successfully built up enemy images (for example through a hateful campaign against LGBTIQ rights supported by the Catholic Church) and promised countless expensive social benefits. The Civic Platform (PO) had nothing to oppose this. On the contrary, by entering into a race with the PiS to determine who was more socio-politically generous, Schetyna also sacrificed (despite warnings from liberal coalition partner Nowoczesna) the central brand core of the Civic Platform, the Party of Economic Reason.
It can be assumed that in the centrist camp there will now be serious quarrels, even tests of tearing apart. A complete new formation is no longer excluded by observers. It remains to be seen whether this will also affect the liberals, who were also badly taken along by their alliance with the PO. It will be seen whether the crisis and the expected upheavals in the centrist camp will even result in a stronger formation.
Also in Germany one has to ask oneself questions. For a long time it had been hoped that the government of the PiS, which is pursuing a robust, EU-critical and latently anti-German course, would only be an interlude. This is not the case. The PiS not only remains in power, it is now even stronger. It will appear even more self-confident. What is needed now is what has been lacking in both German and European politics – a clear strategy. In the case of violations of European core values in the area of the rule of law, more determined and consistent action must be taken. But there must also be improved involvement of the government in Poland, where it can express legitimate interests. Exclusion alone is not enough. There are also understandable reasons – for example in the area of security policy or in relation to Russia’s aggressive behaviour – why a mood has developed in Poland that has led to irrational withdrawals into the national sphere. Neither the EU nor Germany have been skilful in this regard. Both toughness and skill are required. Poland will certainly remain a challenge for the rest of Europe.
Project Director Central European and Baltic Countries