The parliamentary election campaign was officially launched in Poland: on August 6, President Andrzej Duda signed a decree stating October 13 as polling day. But for the Poles, the big electoral cycle will not end there, with the presidential election scheduled for 2020. Earlier, deputies of the European Parliament were elected in May 2019, and in the autumn of 2018, voivodeships (provinces) voted for local governments. The ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) of Yaroslav Kaczynski demonstrates persistent high result; experts and polls predict it would win in October.
Prior to the rise of Kaczynski’s party, the victory was gained twice consequently, in 2007 and 2011, by their main opponents from Civic Platform party with a bright leader Donald Tusk, shaping the ruling coalition for eight years. However, in 2014 Donald Tusk left the party and headed the European Commission, so the absence of a party leader ahead of the 2015 parliamentary elections could not but affect their results. Apart from the leadership crisis, a crisis of ideas was also observed in Civic Platform, since the party failed to respond to declining ratings (since 2013) and lost about a third of the vote in the 2015 elections and 69 seats in the Sejm, compared to 2011.
Internal conflict within Civic Platform led to the replacement of party leader Ewa Kopacz, Tusk’s successor as prime minister, who lost the election and further attempted staff changes in the party structure, but only lost her support entirely. In 2016, Grzegorz Schetyna won the vote for Civic Platform chairman, since his main rival Tomasz Siemoniak, though supported by Ewa Kopacz and Donald Tusk, withdrew his candidacy in consideration of vice-chairmanship in Civic Platform. Grzegorz Schetyna, one of the most influential politicians and the party co-founders, was in disfavor since 2011 due to the conflict with Donald Tusk and lost a number of positions. As soon as he headed Civic Platform, Schetyna gradually removed from the party Tusk’s people and ideological opponents including six sitting deputies of the Sejm, who had violated, in the leader’s opinion, party discipline. Schetyna’s tough style and uncompromising stand in party matters centered the ranks of Civic Platform around him, reducing the internal confrontation and focusing criticism on political opponents – the ruling party Law and Justice.
It is highly probable that Civic Platform will enter the upcoming elections jointly with Modern, another liberal party, as has happened in the October 2018 local elections. At that time, their Civil Coalition bloc won in all major cities, including the capital, with about 27% of the vote, which is however less than their overall result in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Rising on the wave of novelty, Modern gained 7.6% in 2015, taking off part of the electorate from the Civic Platform. Its popularity increased, but the party was unprepared for that – there were few professional politicians in its ranks and its high ratings resulted from the crisis in Civic Platform.
In December 2016, Poland faced a political crisis sparked by the desire of the government party to restrict journalists’ access to parliament. Opposition MPs from the Civic Platform and Modern considered this initiative as continuation of PiS’s course on restricting media freedom and blocked the work of the Sejm. Several thousand opposition supporters came to the parliament building and police forces were drawn up to disperse the protesters, who chanted “Go away, dictator!”, addressing Kaczynski. Protests took place in other major Polish cities as well. The opposition was also dissatisfied with the draft budget, which envisaged improving conditions for Ukrainian labor migrants meaning that hundreds of thousands of Poles would lose their jobs.
Grzegorz Schetyna stayed in the Presidium hall till the last moment, stifling the work of the Sejm, and on January 11, 2017, he reached an agreement that media access to parliament would be retained. However, he called the speaker of the lower house of the Polish parliament Marek Kuchcinski to resign and addressed the president not to sign the adopted budget. While Civic Platform chairman defended the interests of the opposition and his electorate, the leader of Modern Ryszard Petru went on vacation on January 2, 2017, just in the midst of the parliamentary crisis, completely disappointing his supporters. In November 2018, Petru lost his chairmanship to Katarzyna Lubnauer, an experienced politician who had previously won local elections only.
Modern, like the Civic Platform, is experiencing a change of leader and an outflow of supporters due to the lack of fresh ideas that could soundly challenge the ruling course. According to some analysts, the alliance of such similar liberal forces induced by electoral goals will lead to either a merger into one party, or a complete withdrawal of Modern from the political scene if the October elections bring unconvincing results.
Upon overcoming the 2016-2017 political crisis, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party has regained its leading position in the ratings and continued its course towards concentration of power. The majority in the Sejm enabled Kaczynski’s party to pass a law supervising the judicial system and the prosecutor’s office, expanded the powers of the police in terms of access to personal data of citizens through wiretapping and accessing personal data online. Loyal media leaders were placed – those, who supported reforms of the new government and showed up opposition protests as destabilizing the situation in the country.
External pressure from the European Union, criticism of Kaczynski’s authoritarian methods voiced by the opposition, and accusations of attacking the foundations of Polish democracy failed to make Law and Justice change its principles, while citizens’ support for social reforms, albeit populist, remains at a high level. Welfare payments to the poor, lowering the retirement age and raising the minimum wage — all the party’s election promises were fulfilled.
General municipal elections in October 2018 became the first major post-election test for the ruling party, where party affiliation is often less important than personal qualities of candidates living next door to their voters. The right-wing conservative United Right bloc (Law and Justice, Agreement, United Poland) got 33% of the vote, the liberal Civic Coalition – 26.7%, the left-wing Polish People’s Party – 13.6%, Democratic Left Alliance – 6.6%, Kukiz’15 movement and non-partisan candidates – 5.9% each, and the other received no more than 1.5%.
In these elections, Poland has traditionally divided upon voting geography into the liberal north-west and the conservative south-east, with the right-wing winning in 9 out of 16 voivodeships, including the majority of the usually liberal Silesia sejmiks (local parliaments). Voting of young people (under the age of 30) was indicative: they voted for Law and Justice, a traditional choice of the older generation, due to the increased payments to families with children, allowing young people to look more confidently into the future and plan their family life. However, all major cities went with the representatives of Civil Coalition.
A new challenge for Law and Justice in the May 2019 European Parliament elections was to test their frankly skeptical views on the degree of support among compatriots. The results once again strengthened the ruling party’s confidence in the righteousness of its course in the international arena, as evidenced by the unusually high turnout (over 45%) and the same final percentage of the votes cast for PiS. The European coalition gained 38.2%, which, according to experts, will not allow it to enter the parliamentary elections in the same composition.
At the moment, the liberal forces are trying to play on the antagonism of Polish society related to traditional values, by organizing support for the LGBT movement. Within a short period of time, LGBT solidarity actions have already taken place in two cities, Bialystok and Polotsk. Thus, the Civic Platform hopes to provoke the conservatives into a violent scenario, by polarizing society and depriving the rightists of young voters’ support. Far-right nationalists also come into play, claiming part of the young electorate from moderate conservatives, as well as those professing Catholicism, the main denomination in Poland. However, Law and Justice has already successfully exploited the voters’ fear, calling homosexuals the main threat to Polish society during the European parliamentary campaign.
The opposition can only count on blunders made by Kaczynski and his entourage, play the card of restricted freedom of speech and look for corruption ties of the “gray cardinal” of Polish politics. The economic situation favors the current government, the foreign policy situation is also in line with the rhetoric of the Polish Foreign Ministry; hence the opposition will have to find its own reserves and to contend with dignity the populists and right-wing conservatives, whose ideas have already gripped many European countries.