By Aleksandra Sojka (University Carlos III)

On October 13th the domination of Polish politics by the ruling party of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) was put to the electoral test as Poles were casting a deciding vote on the desired future path for the country. The main choice was whether the right-wing nationalist government of PiS should continue their radical reform of the Polish state, its economy and politics. Their rise to power in 2015, marked a break with the previous period of liberal center-right government of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) that remained in government between 2007 and 2015.
In 2015, in what might be deemed an accident of Polish democratic system, PiS obtained an absolute majority of seats in the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament (Sejm) while receiving only 37% of the popular vote. This was possible due to the majoritarian effects of the proportional electoral system, the fact that electoral barriers left radical right and leftist parties outside the parliament, and relatively low participation (51%). Back then, PiS promised to help “lift the Poles from their knees,” appealing to notions of national dignity and promising a corrective to the supposedly flawed democratic transition.
The electoral success of PiS occurred after decades of deep social, economic and political reforms in Poland. Poles suffered the brutal socio-economic costs of the adjustments of the post-1989 “Shock Therapy,” hoping that the results of these liberal market reforms would bring about the wealth and welfare observed in Western democracies. Under the government of the liberal PO, Poles often heard their politicians brag about how well the Polish economy was doing, especially relative to the global difficulties during the economic crisis era (Poland was the only EU member state with uninterrupted economic growth by the end of that decade). However, an important segment of Polish citizens remained excluded from reaping the benefits of privatization, opening to international trade, and foreign investment. This was true especially in rural and the eastern parts of the country, the least economically developed. In this context, PiS came to power in 2015, with the promise of stronger social protection from the state. These promises materialized in the 500+ program, which offers financial help to Polish families by paying a small subsidy to all families with children (500 PLN, around 125 Eur, per child monthly). PiS social program, with its many problems, stands in sharp contrast to the lack of serious redistribution efforts during the era of liberal government of PO when the uncontested paradigm was that Poland’s economy was doing well, but the country was nowhere rich enough to have a generous welfare state.
The social program of PiS proved to be a great success among their electorate, giving many people a sense of dignity and making them feel like participants in the economic success of the country. Yet, the generous social transfers were only a small part of a broader program which included an integral vision for the overhaul of the democratic institutions in Poland. According to PiS ideologue and leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, these institutions were flawed from their inception. Polish democracy was rooted in a failed process of economic, political and social transition, which has been dominated by communist elites and spies, selling out the Polish economy to foreign investors and giving up national sovereignty to international elites without taking proper care of Polish citizens. PiS has been correcting these flaws over the past four years. These reforms have sometimes put it on a collision course with the EU, as happened with the conflict over the rule of law after the reform of the judiciary. Other efforts, such as the complete domination of the Constitutional Court, the public media, or taking over of public enterprises by loyalists of the party remain uncontested, and together with the social transfers, offer the ruling party a fast grip on an important part of the Polish society.
The campaign for the 2019 parliamentary election took place in a country dominated by PiS and its firm hold on public institutions. The main issues of the campaign remained the idea that PiS is the only party that cares for Polish citizens and will do everything to protect them from the maladies of global economy, the exploitation by the corrupt liberal elites, and the scheming of cosmopolitan elites within international institutions to take away their sovereignty and dignity. While in 2015 PiS took advantage of the migration crisis Europe was facing to pinpoint the enemy and stir fears of the refugees (even if very few were aiming to make it to Poland), in 2019 the enemy LGBTI individuals, who are supposedly putting in danger the notion of traditional Polish family. These ideas have been embraced by a conservative segment of the Polish Catholic church and channeled through the Polish state media, which has been transformed into a source of crude government propaganda and alternative facts, and whose only purpose is to hail the many successes of the governing party (the Director of Polish state television, which is supposed to remain independent, was seen celebrating PiS’s electoral success with Kaczynski on Sunday). These symbolic politics of the ruling party of Poland contribute to a very strong polarization within the Polish society, based on the notion that those who oppose PiS and its reform are traitors of the national community.
The fragmented opposition tried to offer an alternative: Civic Coalition embodying the economic success and liberal project of the previous government, the Left uniting left-wing politicians across the spectrum to avoid being left out due to electoral barriers as happened four years ago, and the agrarian party of PSL incorporating the anti-system followers of the rock singer Pawel Kukiz to appeal to the anti-system segment of the radicalized Polish youth. In a symbolic push for the opposition, in the final week of the electoral campaign the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk, a feminist, vegetarian, and an activist of animal rights, exemplifies the enemies of PiS within Poland, the progressive segment of Polish society that remains beyond their reach. Moreover, as a writer who questions the myth of Poland’s historically formed cultural and religious homogeneity, and vindicates a plural and open identity, she offers a counter-narrative to the symbolic politics of the ruling party (the Minister of Culture said in a recent interview that he has not finished reading her last book, but it did not seem very good).
Strong polarization and the sense that an important decision about Poland’s future was to be made in this election, translated into a very high turnout – 61,74%, only slightly less than the highest ever turnout since 1989, in the partially free elections that marked the path towards democratic transformation. This strong electoral mobilization, however, did not benefit either the government or the opposition. The official results came in on Monday, late in the evening:
Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) – 43,5% (8.051.935 votes), 235 seats
Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska – KO) – 27,4% (5.060.355 votes), 134 seats
The Left (Lewica) – 12,56 proc. (2.319.946 votes), 49 seats
Polish Popular Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe – PSL) – 8,5% (1.578.523 votes), 30 seats
Confederation (Konfederacja) – 6,81% (1256953 votes), 11 seats
PiS revalidated its control of the Sejm, with the same number of seats as in 2015, even though it earned six percentage points more of the vote share and over 2 million more votes than in the previous election. “We received a lot, but we deserve more. This means a commitment to even better work, new ideas and looking at social groups that did not support us” – Jarosław Kaczyński said yesterday, indicating that he was disappointed that the efforts of PiS did not improve their position in the Sejm and bring about the desired majority to change the Constitution (307). Promising to look into the social groups that do not support PiS sounds ominous and does not bode well for any reconciliation within the divided Polish society.
Making matters worse for PiS, the opposition narrowly won in the upper chamber of the parliament (Senat). This is an important symbolic and practical success for the opposition parties, which have agreed not to compete against each other (the electoral system is majoritarian in the Senat). Unless PiS manages to steal away a member of the opposition or one of the independent candidates closely aligned with the opposition, passing laws through the Parliament in express mode and without any serious discussion, a staple in the PiS government, will not be an option anymore. Also, Senat has a role in appointing some of the key positions in the state, such as the Ombudsman. Current Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, has been one of the most ferocious critics of the government and its democratic backsliding, and PiS was looking forward to getting rid of him in 2020. This might turn out more difficult than anticipated if the opposition maintains the control of the upper chamber of parliament.
It must be also noted that the open party-list system in the Sejm offers further insight into the dynamics of Polish politics in the future and there is bad news for both the ruling party and the main party of the opposition. On the one hand, Kaczynski has been re-elected, but he obtained far fewer votes than the candidate of Civic Coalition in Warsaw. Moreover, some of the top PiS officials have not revalidated their seats in the parliament. The 43%, thus, even if this might seem like a sound result, reveals cracks within the foundation of the ruling party grip on Poland. At the same time, the leader of the opposition Grzegorz Schetyna received fewer votes than the candidate of PiS in his electoral district. Therefore, leadership within the liberal PO has also shaky grounds.
On the other hand, it must be noted that the left (as Lewica) re-enters the Sejm with 12,6% of the vote (in 2015 they remained 0.5% short of overcoming the electoral barrier for 8% coalitions) with younger leftist candidates, who have the potential to renew the face of the Polish left and embody a more open discourse within the Parliament. Still, Lewica includes members of various parties with quite different electorates and goals, and only time will tell if they will be able to continue working together or whether the fight for leadership on the left will bring back its previous disastrous divisions.
The most worrying results seems to be the success of a radical party to the right of PiS, Konfederacja with Janusz Korwin Mikke at its helm (in 2015 his party, KORWIN, was kept off the Sejm by 0.5 percentage points), which has been undoubtedly helped by the normalization of the discourse of the radical right within the state-controlled media. This might mean that if PiS wants to recover its control of rightwing politics in the country it will have to try harder to appeal to voters to their right through misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, and islamophobia.
To sum up, given that the results spell some new constraints for PiS, it well might be that the good times for Polish populists are in the past. Even though PiS managed to keep control of the Sejm, it has now lost the control of the Senate, and the upcoming election of President in 2020 offers yet another possibility to challenge its domination of the Polish political scene. Given that the Presidential candidate needs to obtain a majority of votes to win, this might be difficult for PiS under current circumstances. The Sunday election also indicates that some degree of cooperation within the opposition camp without actually merging into a single block can be successful, and if they manage to find a candidate that could appeal to its different sectors of voters (the liberals, the left and the farmers), they could succeed in taking over the Presidency. Indeed, it looks like there were good reasons for Kaczynski’s sombre mood yesterday in spite of improving the number of votes in comparison to 2015. If PiS just hit its ceiling in these elections, the future of Kaczynski’s project to overhaul Polish democracy into an illiberal state a lá Orban might have peaked yesterday, especially given the relatively favorable conditions for this campaign marked by continued strong economic performance in spite of costly social transfers and the total control of the media.

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