2023 Polish Parliamentary Elections: Between Orbanism and the path of Czechia

Magdalena Musiał-Karg, Fernando Casal Bértoa

6 mins - 14 de Octubre de 2023, 23:05

This Sunday Poles will vote to renew the 460 MPs of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, and the 100 members of the Senat, the upper house. According to the last opinion polls, the governing party, Law and Justice (PiS), is on the lead, but support for the opposition parties is rising. This is especially true for the liberal Civic Coalition (KO), headed by former President of the European Union (EU) Donald Tusk, and the social-democratic New Left (NL). With the Third Way (td), a coalition between the Christian-democratic Poland 2050 and the agrarian PSL, expected to reach the 8% threshold required for electoral coalitions, KO, NL and TD would be able to form a government an oust PiS after eight years of populist rule. Everything will depend on how well the fifth electoral contender, the far-right Confederation (KON) will do.
The political landscape
Ever since the presidential elections of 2005, Polish political landscape has been dominated by to parties coming from the same anti-communist post-Solidarity camp: namely, Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO), the leading party in KO, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PiS. However, with the decline of the then Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) - successor to the Polish Communist party and currently integrate in NL – and PiS’ coalition government with the two major populist parties at the time – the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence (SO) – the two post-Solidarity parties (i.e. PiS and PO) increasingly moved away from each other until forming two new blocs: the national-conservative camp, led by PiS, on the right, and the liberal camp, led by PO, on the left. PiS’ victory in both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 increased the distance between the blocs even further, especially after Kaczynski’s party started to adopt a more statist policy, attacking also judicial independence and media freedom. As a result, polarization increased, not just at the political level, but also within a society divided now around cultural, rather than economic, issues (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, climate change, EU democratic values). It is for these reasons that a new PiS’ government would constitute a nail to the coffin of democratic Poland.
The electoral campaign: what is at stake?
First of all, liberal democracy. One of the first decisions PiS adopted upon taking power in 2015 was judicial reform. Thus, in late 2015 PiS appointed new judges to Constitutional Tribunal in substitution of those who had been appointed just at the end of the previous legislature. Later in 2017 PiS changed the rules for the appointment of judges to the National Council of the Judiciary with the clear intention to subordinate it to the government’s interests and appoint “friendly” judges. At the end of 2019, the Sejm passed another law further undermining judicial independence as it empowered the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court to initiate sanctionatory proceedings, including disciplications action, suspension and job transfers, against those judges that challenged PiS' policies and legal reforms.
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Secondly, PiS also took over public media, characterised since 2015 by its extremely biased propaganda. This, of course, has affected the well conduct of parliamentary elections. For example, last Thursday the main Polish TV broadcaster (TVP) issued a communiqué just before a message from Tomasz Grodzki, Speaker of the Senate and PO member, accusing him of electoral agitation. A further attempt to control the independence of the country’s largest private broadcaster (US-owned TVN) was vetoed by the President after strong criticism from abroad, including the EU.
As a matter of fact, the Polish government has also been on a permanent collision course with the EU not just on issues concerning media freedom and judicial independence, and for which recovery funds destined to Poland were withhold, but also migration, the Ukrainian war or human rights. Regarding the latter, one should not forget PiS’ attempts to reform abortion laws via its puppet Constitutional Court in October 2020. This triggered the largest public protests in the country since the workers’ strikes during communist rule. Many (mostly female) protesters faced threats of violence and some of them were even taken to court.
Immigrant and national security issues have also emerged as important topics during the election campaign. Especially when, with the intention of legitimizing its anti-immigration agenda, the government decided to hold a referendum on the very same day of the parliamentary elections. Not only the wording of the questions - containing phrases such as "thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa" or "imposed by the European bureaucracy" – is purposedly ambiguous and manipulative, but also it has a mobilising effect. PiS’ intention is therefore to attract more voters to the polls by instilling fear in Polish society.
More recently, and despite it is against Poland’s geo-strategic interests, PiS has made a complete U-turn in foreign policy. Thus, and due to purely electoral reasons, the Polish government started to question its economic and military support toward Ukraine’s war effort. PiS is afraid of losing voters to KON, who seems to be attracting support not just from farmers who think that Ukrainian grain imports are hurting national market prices, but also from those Poles who complain that the government has gone too far in extending welfare benefits to Ukrainian refugees.

Winning elections is not enough
Like in Spain, the question is not who will win the elections, but who will be able to build a governing coalition. The option by which PiS repeats government in coalition with other like-minded populist parties (e.g. Ziobro’s Sovereign Poland, Kukiz’15), although plausible a few weeks ago, seems no longer realistic. If PiS wants to stay in power for a historic third term (never since the democratic transition in 1989 a party has managed to win elections three times in a row), it will need to reach a governing agreement with KON, an Eurosceptic, economically libertarian, nationalist party. Needless to say, such coalition will not only create further conflict with the EU in general, and Germany in particular, but also push Poland in the direction of an electoral authoritarian regime (the Hungarian way).
If KO manages to form a pro-EU, pro-democratic government together with social-democrats, Christian-democrats and agrarians, Poland might take the Czech way and re-position itself within the liberal democratic camp. This will not be an easy task given the ideological differences among the parties that would eventually form Tusk’s third administration (NL, Poland 2050, PSL). Moreover, the new government would have to face the opposition from the PiS President Andrzej Duda, whose mandate only ends in October 2025, and a judiciary that has been packed with PiS’ acolytes, especially in the Constitutional Court.
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