By Kamil Marcinkiewicz (formerly University of Hamburg)
In the parliamentary election on October 15th, 2023, Poles voted for 460 members of the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, and 100 members of the upper house, the Senate. The authoritarian Law and Justice (PiS) is expected to win according to the late polls roughly 36% of votes, the liberal Civic Coalition 31%, the centrist-agrarian alliance “Third Way” 14%, the Left 8.6% and the far-right Konfederacja 6.8% (tvn24, 2023). Due to the record high voter turnout, however, the final results may differ from the forecast (see Figure 1).
The election brought an end to eight years of domination of PiS. Between 2015 and 2023 the party held absolute majority of seats in the Sejm and controlled the government. The cabinet was headed first by beata Szydło (2015-2017) and then by Mateusz Morawiecki (2017-2023). The founder and leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, remained in the background, but was in fact the final decision maker and an informal supreme leader of Poland. The power of PiS was reinforced by the presidency of Andrzej Duda elected in 2015 and reelected in 2020 for a second five-year term.
Figure 1. Polish party polling trends 2019-2023 with late poll 2023 election results.
Eight years of PiS government were characterized by two different developments. On the one hand, party substantively expanded welfare system using direct transfers of money from the budget to families in the form of child benefit known as “500+”. A 500 złoty child benefit, worth currently roughly 110 Euro, became immensely popular as it came after two and a half decades of fiscal austerity policy practiced by virtually every government since democratic transition in 1989.
Simultaneously to expanding the welfare state, however, PiS initiated an unprecedented takeover of judiciary, limited civic liberties, disregarded parliamentary rules and changed public media into its own propaganda channel. The changes in the judiciary started directly after PiS gained absolute majority of seats in the Sejm in 2015. Andrzej Duda, elected president just four months before 2015 parliamentary election, refused to appoint the Constitutional Court’s judges elected by the previous Sejm, in spite of the Court’s ruling specifying which of those judges were nominated in proper manner and which not. PiS government, furthermore, refused to publish the rulings of the Constitutional Court which it considered unfavorable for its own party interests. The standoff between the Court and the government came to an end only when the PiS-dominated Sejm selected new judges of the Constitutional Court disregarding previous rulings. The reform of the judiciary in 2017 gave the government even more power and became a starting point of a long battle with the European Union which initiated the Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union infringement procedure against Poland in December 2017.
In spite of authoritarian tendencies, takeover of judiciary and the public media, PiS easily won absolute majority of seats in the Sejm in the 2019 parliamentary election. Factors which aided PiS included strong economic growth, popularity of welfare expansion and organizational weakness of the opposition. Additionally, PiS benefitted from its unexpectedly strong performance in the European Parliament (EP) election 2019. It took the opposition parties, which built a common block, by surprise, since PiS voters had turned out in EP elections at lower rate in the past. Over time PiS was able to build up extremely mobilized voter base with strong attachment to the party. This was aided by the one-sided public media and radical language of confrontation using hate speech both against political opponents and minority groups such as LGBT community or refugees.
At the 2019 parliamentary election PiS made it possible for its two satellite parties, “Agreement” and “United Poland”, to nominate candidates to more favorable positions on party lists and hence win more seats in the Sejm. The former party represented a more moderate version of PiS whose role was to attract conservative intellectuals while the latter, led by the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, used even more radical rhetoric than the PiS mainstream.
While PiS won the Sejm majority, the opposition managed to win in the 2019 parliamentary election a narrow majority in the upper house, the Senate. Building a block of opposition parties and nominating one opposition candidate per district turned out to be a successful strategy in the context of the first-past-the-post system which has been used since 2011 for the upper house election since 2011. It turned out to be more favorable for the opposition than the preferential list PR with d’Hondt method applied in the Sejm election. The win of the Senate majority in 2019 was a starting point of more formal collaboration of three main opposition parties, the liberal Civic Coalition (KO), the leftist Left (SLD) and the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL).
In the lower house the scale of PiS victory in 2019 was further aggrandized by lack of adjustment of seat allocation to population changes between districts. This favored rural areas and gave PiS roughly 8 additional seats above what could be expected if seats were distributed according to national election results, not in the districts. Considering the fact that PiS won 235 Sejm seats, while 231 are needed to hold absolute majority, the malapportionment was yet another factor which contributed to success of PiS in 2019.
After the outbreak of the Covid pandemic the popularity of the government soared, but an attempt to use this opportunity to further skew electoral procedures in own favor and secure easy reelection of president Duda in 2020 met with strong opposition, also within the cabinet. Due to the protest of the minister of higher of education, Jarosław Gowin, who threated to withdraw members of his party, Agreement, from the government, PiS leadership relented and reached a compromise with the opposition making it possible to conduct presidential elections in conditions less strongly infringing the principles of free elections.
Following the re-election of Duda, which turned out to occur by narrower margin than expected and which was aided by the use of Israeli-produced spyware “Pegasus” against the opposition PiS reached the pinnacle of power and decided to use it in autumn 2020 by substantively limiting the access to abortion. The abortion ban was officially made possible by the ruling of the now PiS-controlled Constitutional Court and quickly implemented by the government. This decision resulted in large protest wave which exceeded the size of the protests in defense of judiciary taking place between 2015 and 2017. Similarly to all other protests before, the PiS government remained unmoved and did not signal any willingness to seek compromise. The protests died down around December 2020 and PiS was able to slightly improve its polls. It has not managed, nevertheless, to rebuild its strength from the period before autumn 2020.
Since the abortion ban in autumn 2020 monthly means PiS polls fluctuated between roughly 34 % and 38%, i.e. 5 to 9 percentage points below its 2019 election result. At the same time the Polish party system started undergoing a new period of transition. Szymon Hołownia, a former television host who finished third in the 2020 presidential election launched his new centrist party “Poland 2050” (PL2050), which quickly started to gain support among moderates and voters tired of the conflict between PiS and the centrist-liberal KO (Civic Coalition) which has been the main conflict line in Polish politics since 2005. By spring 2021 with increasing number of defections from the KO to PL2050, the former started to face existential crisis. This prompted the return of Donald Tusk, who was a PM from 2007 to 2014, president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019 and the leader of European People’s Party, to take over the leadership of the KO. The polls of the KO improved and the party started a slow race to close the gap to PiS.
Re-bound of the KO co-occurred with losses of the PL2050 which by early 2023 dropped below 10% and started to come close to the 5% threshold. As a countermeasure the PL2050 entered an electoral alliance with the agrarian PSL (Polish People’s Party). The PSL suffered substantive losses after lukewarm performance of its leader, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz in the 2020 presidential election and had been polling around 5% threshold since autumn 2021. After a lackluster start of its campaign in May 2023, the alliance of the two parties named as “Third Way” improved its polls by autumn 2023 which enabled it to pass the more rigorous 8% electoral threshold for electoral coalitions in the election.
The third component of the opposition, the Left, failed to pass the electoral threshold in 2015 and was not represented in the Sejm between 2015 and 2019. In 2019 three leftist parties joined their forces and entered the parliament after attracting almost 13% of popular vote. Poor performance of the candidate of the Left in 2020 presidential elections had, however, negative effects on party’s polls. Then a conflict between a more moderate faction and young more radical MPs resulted in the split in the party. Furthermore, a young radical wing clashed in the parliamentary arena not only with PiS, but also with KO accusing liberals of fiscal and social conservatism. These conflicts died down in 2023 as the election came closer. As a result in the weeks preceding the election three main opposition parties, the KO, the Third Way and the Left demonstrated unity and declared a willingness to build together a coalition government.
The electoral campaign itself characterized by brutal attacks of PiS representatives against Donald Tusk implying his lack of patriotism, questioning his Polish identity (Tusk comes from formerly Polish-German border region around Gdansk) and warning that his return to power will result in cutting down the welfare state. The government used public media to disseminate its propaganda and circumvented spending rules by pouring money from state-owned companies into its own campaign machine. Furthermore, the PiS-controlled Polish Central Bank (NBP) conducted cuts of interest rates in the middle of the campaign to aid the government. At the same time the state-owned petroleum company, Orlen, sold petrol at rates well below the prices of private competitors in the weeks preceding the campaign. PiS received throughout the whole period of its rule also strong support from the Catholic Church, which remains a powerful institution in Poland able to mobilize millions of voters, especially in rural areas.
Finally, the PiS government conducted on election day also a referendum with four leading, biased and poorly formulated questions. They concerned among others pension age, “accepting thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East according to the binding re-location mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy”, “selling out Polish national property to foreigners” and the anti-migration wall at the border with Belarus (PKW 2023). This firstly made it possible for the ruling party to spend more money on campaign and secondly was expected to prompt PiS voters to turn out to vote. Due to boycott of the referendum by the opposition voters it failed to reach the 50% turnout threshold and hence its results are non-binding.
The opposition mobilized its voters by mass demonstrations which took place on the anniversary of first free elections on June 4th and then two weeks before the election, on October 1st. The latter demonstration gathered according to the Warsaw municipal sources roughly 1 million people. Another event which impacted campaign was resignation of two most senior commanders of the Polish Army on October 10th. The news came as a shock as it was announced in the middle of the Middle-East Crisis and at the time of the ongoing Russian invasion of Poland’s Eastern neighbor, Ukraine. The decision was interpreted as a protest against increasing political impact of PiS on armed forces.
In spite of extremely hostile conditions and open support of state of agencies for the ruling party, the opposition was able to gain majority of Seats in the Sejm. According to the exit polls the coalition of three democratic parties, the KO, the Third Way and the Left secured together at least 248 of 460 Sejm seats giving them save majority. This was possible primarily due to high voter turnout among younger voters and inhabitants of large cities. In spite of malapportioned this exceptional mobilization made it possible to counterbalance highly mobilized PiS electorate dominating in rural areas. The 73% voter turnout predicted by the exit poll was highest in the history of Polish democracy and surpassed even the former record set during the 2020 presidential election.
Photo source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-67118787