Poland prepares for its presidential elections. The opposition still has to find itself.
During the marches for Independence Day, Poland’s re-elected national-conservative government distanced itself from the radical right-wing demonstrators and announced the composition of the new cabinet. The government is pressing ahead with its current agenda of restructuring the state. After all, after the election is before the election. And next year the presidential elections will take place.
There is no question about it: it is very principled in its own way. Anyone who believed that in Poland the ruling party PiS (Law and Justice) would move from radical campaigning to a moderate approach after its election victory in October is probably mistaken. After all, the government has sent out a symbolic signal. While on Poland’s 100th Independence Day last year the president and members of the government marched along in a mass demonstration, in which mainly right-wing extremist groups shouted some vociferously anti-Semitic slogans, this year the PiS establishment distanced itself from the march of right-wing radicals and held its own ceremonies.
At the same time, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced the composition of the cabinet with which they are entering the opening session of the Sejm (parliament) today. It does not envisage any major innovations, except that the small allies of the PiS will be weakened somewhat and the Prime Minister will be strengthened by the allocation of European political competences.
State Restructuring Continues: Next Goal is the Constitutional Tribunal
The signs apoint to continuity: As far as substantial reform projects are concerned, the government remains on its present course. Since taking office, the party has tried to bring independent political bodies under its control. The public media were the first victims. Then they tried to capture the Supreme Court by lowering the retirement age and dismissing disagreeable judges and replacing them with judges close to the PiS. The European Court of Justice put obstacles in the way of this, but the PiS will be able to appoint new judges anyway through its election victory in this legislative period.
In the meantime, however, we will not remain inactive elsewhere either. The constitutional state reconstruction continues. The next target is the Constitutional Tribunal. The tribunal has already stopped several laws of the PiS, which is a thorn in the side of the latter. Three new judges must be appointed on December 3rd. Consequently, the PiS has nominated three candidates, in which the party’s desire for politicization of the court (in its sense) becomes clearer than seldom before. Two former Sejm deputies of the PiS are present; the lawyer Krystyna Pawłowicz, who advocates a Catholic-conservative course in socio-political questions and has made a name for herself by quite powerful statements on Twitter, and Stanisław Piotrowicz, who had still worked as a prosecutor in the 80s among the communists in martial law – tremendous for a party that boasts of having put an end to communism in Poland. And then there is the third candidate who is a “gift” to the opposition: Elżbieta Chojna-Duch. She was deputy finance minister for the coalition partner, the Peasant Party (PSL), under the previous bourgeois government of the Civic Platform (PO). One of the reasons for the government’s deselection in 2015 was a scandal about the systematic evasion of VAT in Poland, which shook the country at the time and put the government in a state of dire straits. Chojna-Duch was the main witness of the PiS in the committee of inquiry and the PO claims to this day that she did not tell the truth there. Her nomination is a controversial decision.
Presidential Election Just Around the Corner
Why does it continue in the previous mode? Well, after the election is not just after the election. It is before the election. Next year is the presidential election. If the presidency were to go to the opposition, essential and above all constitutionally questionable laws of the PiS government could be stopped by a veto, which could severely relativize the “successes” of the PiS in “subduing” the constitutional jurisdiction.
At present, it looks as if the chances of the incumbent President Andrzej Duda, who comes from the PiS and who always presents himself as the “friendly face of the PiS”, are extremely good. This has something to do with the state of the opposition. For a long time it looked as if the largest opposition party, the moderate conservative PO, had found a cross-party ideal candidate in Donald Tusk, former prime minister and current president of the European Council. A few days ago, he withdrew his candidacy. The PO now has to struggle with several problems. Firstly, how does it find an agenda that will bring back the lost voters? In the past few years, it has softened its profile as a bourgeois party (similar to the CDU in Germany) beyond recognition and has engaged in technocratic power politics. Secondly, and much more acutely, who will run for office after Tusk’s rejection? The top candidate in the parliamentary elections, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, currently seems to have the best chance of being nominated as a candidate. But she has the image of a loser in an election campaign that has been rather disastrous for her. In addition, she has hardly developed a political profile, which reinforces the PO’s fundamental problem in this regard.
In the meantime, the Peasant Party PSL has taken the floor. Like the PO, it is part of the European People’s Party (EPP). Its chairman Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has advanced with the idea that both parties should together determine a candidate by member election – and immediately came into play himself. His party had done better than expected in the election. He offers himself as a decidedly conservative candidate, but acting according to the rule of law and democratic principles, who could snatch from the PiS the moderate part of its electorate. The outcome of this game remains to be seen. It is questionable whether the PO will respond to this, but this in turn endangers the fighting power of the opposition as a whole.
In any case, the PiS can act quite free of fears of the opposition at the moment. All parties – whether PO, PSL, the left parties (of which the Democratic Left and the Wiosna are currently laboriously talking about a merger) and the liberal Nowoczesna – must all have fierce internal discussions about their content and/or strategic orientation. They can only succeed if they have clarified at least a large part of their problems before the start of the “hot” phase of the presidential election and have agreed on a reasonably viable common line. There is little time left for this.
Project Director Central European and Baltic Countries