By Michał Kotnarowski (Polish Academy of Sciences)

In mid-2014, a year before presidential and parliamentary elections almost everything looked good for the ruling party PO (Civic Platform), which had been governing the country together with its junior coalition partner PSL (Polish Peasant Party) for seven years. Economic indicators were very good – a continuous increase of GDP and steady decline in unemployment were noted. In addition, the PO-PSL coalition boasted that, during their rule in the previous parliament term, Poland painlessly went through the global economic crisis. In mid-2014 the country was also successful in foreign policy. Among the EU countries, Poland played one of the most important roles as an active advocate of Ukraine in the conflict with Russia, and according to the press reports, a Polish politician was to take one of the key functions in the EU institutions. It was said that Radek Sikorski had a chance to be the head of EU diplomacy, but in the end Donald Tusk took the position of the President of European Council. Moreover, many objective indicators of the functioning of Polish democracy showed a significant improvement since the beginning of the transformation. Among the CEE countries, in many areas Poland could be presented as a poster child of successful transition to democracy, even though the values of indicators were still far from the values obtained by the stable democracies of Western Europe (Markowski et al. 2015). In the Polish semi-presidential system of power, PO-PSL coalition was also supported by the President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, who originated from PO. From the very beginning of his term Komorowski enjoyed high level of popularity and social trust, so his re-election seemed almost certain. At that time, opposition parties looked quite weak. The biggest of them, PiS (Law and Justice), was radicalized, with the support of only its faithful electorate, reaching around 20% of voters. It seemed very difficult for PiS to get support of any new groups of voters.
In 2015, the Polish political reality once again proved to be surprising. In May 2015 Komorowski lost presidential election. This failure was painful for PO since Komorowski was defeated by a PiS backbencher Andrzej Duda. In October 2015, PO failed to maintain power in the Parliament. PiS won the parliamentary elections, and this victory was unbearable for PO, since PiS has managed to obtain the support of 38% of the electorate, securing a majority of 235 seats in the 460 seat Lower Chamber of Polish Parliament (Sejm). PO took second place with the support of 24% of the voters and secured 138 seats in Sejm. Good electoral results of two populist and anti-elite parties (Kukiz ’15 and KORWiN) was also surprising in the context of indicators of quality of Polish democracy mentioned above. Kukiz ’15 was supported by almost 9% of the voters and became the third political power in the Sejm. KORWiN, was supported by almost 5% of voters (it was very unfortunate result for them since electoral threshold in Poland is 5%). In total, anti-system populists gained support of almost 14% of voters. How to explain what happened in Poland in 2015? To complete the task, a fairly complex empirical analysis would be needed. Here I will try to provide some explanations of rather hypothetical status.
Let us first look at PO weaknesses. PO was a bit worn out after ruling for eight years. Voters were already tired of PO governing and during that long time in the office PO had also many opportunities to make mistakes and, actually, managed to make them.
Another problem for the PO was lack of the effective leadership in the period preceding the elections. Until December 2014 Donald Tusk was the head of PO and the Prime Minister of Poland. He had been undoubtedly a very effective leader of PO. But as a result, during his time in the office as the head of PO, he got rid of his potential rivals inside the party. In December 2014 Tusk took over position of the President of European Council. Before departing to Brussels he nominated Ewa Kopacz as his successor as head of the party and as the Prime Minister. In other words, Kopacz did not obtained her position due to her organizational abilities, but by nomination. Hence her status within the party was not as strong as Tusk’s position. Kopacz began her time in the office with some gaffes. Nevertheless, she conducted the office properly at least, trying to resolve matters neglected by the Tusk’s government, such as reform of the tax system. Kopacz aimed to present herself and the policy of her government as independent and different from Tusk’s politics. But those activities were not credible to voters. There were opinions that Kopacz merely represented the party that had been ruling for eight years and the introduction of radical reforms during the last months in the office was a bit late.
The wiretapping scandal, which erupted in the summer 2014 had seriously weakened the PO status. Vulgar talks of the major PO politicians were recorded in the most expensive Warsaw restaurants. Group of problems hit PO with scandal: firstly the content of the talks – e.g. negotiation of one of the ministries with the President of National Bank (according to Polish Constitution, National Bank is independent from political forces), secondly, the fact that expensive dinners took place at the expense of the Polish taxpayers, and thirdly, state apparatus was discredited by the fact that the most important persons in the state – including the head secret services (sic!) – got secretly recorded.
Data from the exit poll also show that the PO lost the support of the employees of the public administration (including employed in offices on different levels administration and public offices, teachers in public schools etc.). This could have been caused by a pay freeze in the administration, imposed as measure of struggling with the economic crisis. It should be noted here, that employees in administration were the group quite strongly supporting the PO in the previous elections.
Another factor that worked against PO was the fact, that before the elections PO incorporated several well-known politicians that had been playing a significant role in other parties – be it leftist or a rightist. PO behaved in this matter as a catch-all party, which tries to attract voters from the whole spectrum of political scene. However, in the eyes of Polish voters it could have led to blurring credibility of the formation.
It seems that there were also bad political marketing decisions made by PO during electoral campaign. PO quite often used negative messages, instead of positive ones. The main message of PO could be presented like this: PiS is dangerous, maybe we are not perfect, but vote for us to keep PiS out of power. Such strategy did worked in elections held in 2007 and 2011, when the experiences of PiS government in 2005-2007 were fresh in voters’ minds. But this formula was not enough in 2015. Especially young voters were not frightened by PiS simply because they did not remember times of PiS in the office. To some extend PO committed the same mistakes as Tories in 1997, who as its main asset presented arguments that were important to voters in 1979 and in the 80s, but not necessarily in the late 90s.
Let us now look at the strengths of the PiS. First thing are moral values. Traditional values and moral issues are important determinants of political behaviour for a significant segment of Polish voters. PiS had a coherent and consistent conservative message for them. Those people are also hard-core PiS identifiers, on whom PiS can always count.
PiS also appealed successfully to voters dissatisfied with the economic situation. Despite good overall indicators of economic situation of the country, certain groups of Poles – younger people, people living in rural and suburban areas, the oldest segments of the population (pensioners) – suffered because of economic problems. PiS promised to increase social assistance for the poorest. One of the election promise was also introducing the provision of 500 PLN per month (ca. 100 GBP) for each second and next child in the family. PiS benefited from the welfare promises, since for many voters PO was associated mainly with reductions in public spending (which were reactions to the economic crisis). According to the exit poll data, despite the fact that PiS won in almost all of the social groups, the party got the strongest support from the elderly, less educated and residents of smaller villages and towns.
PiS also took advantage of the refugee wave problem spreading in Europe. Poland is a mono-ethnic country. For the first time after the collapse of communism, issue of immigration was important during the electoral campaign. PiS used anti-refugee sentiments of large number of Poles, who expressed fear of the potential new-comers.
Another factor responsible for the PiS electoral victory was, in my opinion, the dynamic of the double electoral campaign. The turning point was unexpected electoral success of Andrzej Duda in the presidential election. This blew the wind in PiS’ sails – from that moment politicians and voters of PiS started to believe that they could also win the parliamentary elections. The same event cast doubt among politicians and voters of PO, who fairly quickly came to conclusions that they could lose parliamentary elections as well. One thing should be mentioned here. The defeat of ex-president Komorowski stemmed mainly from disregard of the opponents prior to the first round of presidential elections and set off nervous decisions of Komorowski before the second round of elections.
And the last thing about PiS strength is political leadership. Contrary to PO, PiS was played with leadership in a very effective way. The most controversial politicians of this party (including the head of the party Jarosław Kaczyński) were somehow in the shadow during the electoral campaign. Main faces of PiS were its younger activists, who had not hold any important political offices at the time of the previous PiS government, and were not connected to bad memories from this period.
Let me conclude with a brief analysis of support for two anti-system parties Kukiz ‘15 and KORWiN. These parties attracted mainly young voters. According to exit poll data, one third of the voters under 30 voted for one of them. To compare – only 10% of voters age 40+ supported these parties. Among social groups, so called anti-system parties received the highest support from high school and university students. So, the voters of these parties are mainly young people who have to be in some way disappointed by the political elite and the functioning of Polish political system. Voting for anti-system parties may also have an economic aspect – young people in Poland are struggling most with the unemployment, and if they have a job, it is often a precarious work.
Lastly, I would like to briefly comment on two additional important results of the last Polish parliamentary elections.
First thing is disappearance of the post-communist left party SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) from the parliament. SLD run in this election as a ZL coalition (United Left), together with other leftist parties, and the main faces of the ZL campaign were young politicians who were only children during the communist period. Nevertheless the main member of ZL was SLD and SLD was still ruled by politicians associated with the former communist party. The absence of this party in the parliament is perhaps a symbolic end of a certain era in the political history of Poland. (ZL was a bit unlucky, since it has got support of 7.6% of voters but threshold for coalition is 8%).
Secondly, this elections had a low voting turnout, only 51% of the voters went to the polling stations. It means, the most often electoral choice in Poland is abstention. This level of turnout is rather typical for Poland after 1989, but unique in comparison to established Western democracies and even to other post-communist countries. One of the consequences of low turnout is that PiS has a majority in parliament, as it was supported only by 20% of the electorate.
Finally, it should be noted that the critics of PiS accuse this party on leaning towards authoritarian rules that pose an ostensible threat for democracy in Poland. PiS and its leader Jarosław Kaczynski are also compared with the Hungarian party Fidesz and the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who announced some time ago the end of liberal democracy in Hungary. The first decisions of the new President and the new PiS government are worrying, but that is a topic for another entry in this blog.

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