The Polish Continuum

The Polish parliamentary elections on 15 October have created a period of political uncertainty. Although the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the largest share of the vote – just over 35% – it lost its parliamentary majority, and the poor showing of the far-right Konfederacja party deprived it of a potential coalition partner. Meanwhile, young people and women voted en masse against the incumbent, with an overall turnout rate of 74%. Should PiS fail to form a government, as looks likely, the task will fall to the Citizens’ Coalition (KO), which will try to assemble an alliance with the centre-right Third Way (TD) and the Left. PiS’s prospective removal has prompted sighs of relief from Brussels, legacy media outlets and international markets. The Guardian is triumphantly announcing that a KO-led government will ‘bring radical change to Poland’. Yet things may not be so simple.

Having come to power in 2015, PiS was able to increase its mandate in the 2019 elections thanks to a significant section of the electorate who felt that their living standards had improved under its tenure. It introduced universal child benefits and extra pension provisions, as well as raising the minimum wage. Yet while these measures have enabled it to retain a large voter bloc, its social spending waned during its second term. It did nothing to redistribute wealth nor challenge the power of international financial institutions and corporations, despite its nationalist rhetoric. Rising inflation, growing difficulties for young people to secure proper housing, a precaritized labour market and a crumbling health service – overburdened by the pandemic – contributed to popular frustration.

KO, led by the former Polish Prime Minister and President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has led the opposition to PiS. A Christian-Democratic outfit tied to the European People’s Party, it has historically combined neoliberal economic policies with social conservatism. More recently, KO has attempted to court younger voters by tempering its free-market zeal and pledging to soften the government’s ban on abortion. Its electoral heartlands are situated mainly in urban regions, especially in the west of the country, and among highly educated and better-off voters. At this election it failed to make substantial inroads beyond such demographics, increasing its vote share from the previous parliamentary elections by only 3%. It now stands at 30.6%.

The Left gained a paltry 8.6% of the vote, a 4% drop since 2019. In recent decades, its strain of social democracy has struggled to gain a foothold in the Polish political scene. It was largely discredited in the mid-2000s when the governing Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) reneged on its electoral promises. The SLD continued the privatization and deregulation programme of the previous right-wing government. It did not reform abortion laws nor weaken the power of the Catholic Church in public life, and it actively supported the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This ceded ground to two political blocs from the right – the Law and Justice Party and the Citizens’ Platform (which later became the Citizens’ Coalition), with the left essentially becoming an appendage to the second. The 2023 election campaign exposed its signal failure to set out a coherent policy platform. Though it advocated more public housing and increased health spending, it also embraced the hawkish consensus on Ukraine and remained silent on whether a border wall should remain in place along the frontier with Belarus. Its support for higher military budgets made its social policies ring hollow. Having been fully assimilated into the KO agenda, it found itself without a distinctive pitch to make to the public.

The only real breakthrough was the newly formed TD, which brought together the Agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) and a new political movement built around the media personality Szymon Hołownia. It won an impressive 14.4%, running on a neoliberal-conservative programme that drew some voters away from Konfederacja. TD promotes low taxes, market solutions to the housing crisis and an increased role for the private sector in public services. It supports reversing the complete abortion ban introduced by PiS but opposes legalizing abortion up to twelve weeks. The PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has insisted that abortion and other social issues will not be part of any coalition agreement. Should the Left decide to join the incoming government, it will have no leverage to change this state of affairs. The dominant influence of KO and TD means that even if the administration passes some minor progressive reforms (such as restoring state funding for IVF), there will not be a real rupture with years of conservative rule.

The elections took place against a background of profound changes in Poland’s international relations. At the beginning of the Ukraine war, Poland was presented as a model for ‘the West’. It accepted large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, steadfastly supported Kyiv and supplied it with copious military equipment. PiS urged other nations to follow its lead, chastising Germany and France for their supposed heel-dragging. Commentators inside and outside the country began to hail Poland as a new European superpower that could shift the continental balance of power to the east. As part of this bombast, the government announced huge increases in military spending – around 4% of GDP this year – with the enthusiastic backing of the opposition. If all goes to plan, by 2035 Poland will have spent around €115 billion equipping its army and doubling its ranks.

Yet Poland’s status as NATO’s poster boy began to unravel last summer, as domestic farmers began to protest that a glut of Ukrainian grain was pushing down agricultural prices and threatening their livelihoods. With elections looming, PiS was forced to heed their demands, as agrarian workers constitute an important section of its voter base. Poland thus banded together with neighbouring states to place an embargo on grain imports from Ukraine. The EU followed suit – but when its temporary embargo expired last month, Poland reintroduced its own, along with Hungary and Slovakia. This led to a fierce diplomatic conflict between Warsaw and Kyiv, with the latter submitting a formal complaint to the WTO. In response, the Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki threatened to stop sending new arms to Ukraine and discontinue financial support for Ukrainian refugees. Some in the Polish government mooted the idea of extraditing Yaroslav Hunka, the Ukrainian Nazi who served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. Over the coming months, a KO-led government will likely have to confront the contradiction of satisfying Polish farmers while also avoiding conflict with Ukraine and the EU. NATO leaders are hopeful that tensions can be calmed. But it remains to be seen how Tusk’s attempts to curry favour with the ‘international community’ will affect his domestic political fortunes.

Though it took some time for PiS to turn against Ukrainian refugees, it has always been fiercely hostile to those arriving from the Middle East and Africa. The Polish security forces have illegally pushed back migrants crossing the Belarusian border, where hundreds of soldiers have been deployed and a towering fence constructed. In August 2021, at the request of the government, President Andrzej Duda introduced a temporary state of emergency in the border region to inhibit the work of journalists and activists. All this was in line with the EU’s demands to keep refugees at bay: an edict that has created a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe, with asylum seekers freezing in Poland’s forests and drowning in the Mediterranean. Far from opposing this agenda, KO pledged to secure further EU funding to help fortify the Polish border. Tusk has, if anything, positioned himself to the right of PiS on migration, whipping up hysteria about arrivals from Islamic countries and urging the government to stop the influx.

Despite enforcing the policies of ‘Fortress Europe’, PiS has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over its judicial reforms. The government has sought to challenge the EU strategy of ‘integration through law’, as well as the general supremacy of European laws over domestic ones, via a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal that certain EU Treaty articles are incompatible with the national constitution. For these and other alleged violations of EU rules (regarding the appointment of judges, for instance), the Polish government pays a daily €1 million fine to the European Court of Justice, and the European Commission has refused to release €36 billion in loans and grants from the EU’s pandemic recovery funds. Yet the PiS, aware that its stage-managed confrontation with the Euro-bureaucracy bolsters its credentials as a defender of traditionalist values, is unwilling to back down. It rejects EU refugee quotas and LGBT rights directives, claiming that they represent attempts to impose multiculturalism on Poland and erode its family structure.

At the same time, the PiS government has claimed €1.3 trillion in reparations for damage caused in World War Two. During the election campaign, it accused Germany of supporting KO and presented Tusk as a servant of the Bundestag. One of its election broadcasts condemned Olaf Scholz for attempting to influence Polish politics and claimed that the only way to challenge German hegemony was to vote for PiS. Such rhetoric resonates with large swathes of the population, both due to legitimate long-term historical grievances and to more recent memories of Germany helping itself to Poland’s industrial and financial spoils during the chaotic years of capitalist transition.  

KO, by contrast, has styled itself as a modernizing Europeanist force – the voice of Polish liberal aspiration. Within days of the election result, Tusk announced he would travel to Brussels to reassure the EU that he would repeal PiS judicial reforms and, in return, gain assurances that frozen funds would be released. One of the primary aims of a Tusk-led government will be to return Poland to the European mainstream. Yet this hardly represents the triumph of liberal democracy over authoritarian populism, as some onlookers have claimed. For the EU is more than willing to embrace the latter when expedient: establishing a warm partnership with Georgia Meloni, tacitly approving Emmanuel Macron’s brutal crackdown on public protest, and turning a blind eye to rampant corruption – as well as the state-sanctioned abuse of minority populations – in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party was once a member of the European People’s Party which Tusk used to lead. On a substantive level, the Euro-Atlanticist policies of PiS and KO are not much different: rapid militarization, the retention of ten thousand US troops on Polish soil, shutting out refugees and sabre-rattling against Russia. The current government fell afoul of the Commission and ECJ not because of its right-populist politics, but because it challenged the EU’s legal supremacy and weakened the power of its institutions in Poland. This is the sin for which KO, by reaffirming its fealty to the Treaties, must atone.

Whoever governs Poland over the coming years will face an international situation fraught with difficulty. The Ukraine conflict will continue to take a major economic toll thanks to ongoing supply chain disruption, reduced energy supplies and higher military spending. If the new government does not significantly invest in housing and public services, hostility towards the large Ukrainian minority in Poland – whom the far right is portraying as the source of the country’s problems – may grow. A PiS opposition could easily capitalize on the discontent. It remains the largest party in parliament, attracting support from some of the most socially excluded sections of society; and it retains the Presidency, which has the power to veto government policies and – for now at least – controls the Supreme Court and public TV networks. As the euphoria of election night subsides, opposition parties must bring diverse political forces into a government that is united primarily by antipathy to the PiS. The latter stands ready to use its substantial influence to undermine this coalition and expose its internal divisions. Tusk looks set to become Prime Minister – but the last laugh may not be his.

Read on: Gavin Rae, ‘In the Polish Mirror’, NLR 124.