Analysis: Winds of change for Polish politics?


The local government election results have confirmed the dominance of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) and the liberal Civic Coalition and have left other parties considering their options for next year’s European and Polish Parliamentary elections.

The local government elections showed that both the conservative PiS and the liberal KO are capable of mobilising their supporters against each other. PiS are still ahead in the country at large, but the KO has shown its strength in the cities.

PiS: harder or softer?

Following the 34 percent result in the local government contest, an ongoing debate about the future direction within the ruling PiS is well under way. PM Morawiecki and deputy PM Gowin are advocates of tacking to the centre by ending the rule of law dispute with the EC, putting on ice any attempts to deconcentrate ownership of the media away from foreign hands and making controversial moves on tightening the abortion law.

But there are those who argue that without deconcentration of media ownership, mobilization of the catholic vote and persevering with judicial reform PiS will lose credibility with many of its core voters without necessarily attracting new support. The Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the former PM Beata Szydło and the former Defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, together with Catholic conservatives gathering around Father Tadeusz Rydzyk’s media empire (Radio Maryja, TV Trwam and the paper “Nasz Dziennik) seem to be the most vocal advocates of this line.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS leader is backing PM Morawiecki. His word is law within the PiS camp. However, the judicial reform is close to his heart and he will find it especially hard to swallow any radical softening of the ruling party’s position on that issue. As always he will strive for a degree of balance between the two wings of the party.

The ruling party is particularly anxious about the European elections. This is because turnout in that election tends to be considerably higher in big cities than in rural and small town areas. Additionally, as a result of the conflict between the current government and the EC over the rule of law, the opposition KO has been able to raise the spectre of ‘Polexit’. Poles support EU membership and have no taste for considering leaving.

In order to offset these fears PiS has to accentuate its commitment to playing an active role in the EU. However, that message sometimes jars with its skepticism of further European integration and desire to see more power going to the member nation states. The party is therefore likely to underline how it has defended Polish interests in the EU over issues such as stopping the compulsory relocation of refugees and the maintenance of Poland’s currency, the złoty. On both these issues the party is in line with popular sentiment.

If the hurdle of the European elections can be overcome, PiS will be optimistic about the Polish Parliamentary contest. The economy is likely to still be buoyant, social spending high and election promises from 2015 mostly delivered. There may additionally be boons such as visa-free travel to the USA and a decision to establish a permanent US military base in Poland.

As long as the party can keep its nose clean of any big scandals and avoid any divisions between the different wings of the ruling camp its prospects in that elections look to be very good.

KO: how to broaden the coalition to overtake PiS?

The KO who managed 27 percent in the local polls are weak in rural and small town areas. This is why they want to broaden the coalition to include the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). But they cannot be certain that such an electoral alliance would mean that the voters of these parties would necessarily follow. This is particularly doubtful in the case of the PSL whose voters in past elections have often turned towards PiS rather than the liberals.

Working out a convincing policy platform would certainly be a problem. The Civic Platform (PO) is cautious over issues such as abortion or gay rights and the PSL outright conservative on these matters. The SLD and the Modern Party (N) would like to see the church confronted on these issues. On the economy, the instincts of both the Civic Platform and the Modern Party are liberal, whereas the PSL and SLD would like to keep most of the programmes and policies pursued by the present government. Only on foreign policy and judicial reform would the parties find it easy to agree.

The KO’s leader is de facto Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the bloc’s main party, the Civic Platform . But he does not enjoy the authority and reverence afforded to the PiS leader. Many in the KO look towards the prince over the border in Brussels, the former PM and current President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

It is more than likely that Mr Tusk will become increasingly involved in Polish party politics again. He is already seriously thinking of contesting the Presidential election. It is more than likely he will find a way to participate in some way in the European and Parliamentary elections too. Not as a candidate per se, but as a figure rallying support for the KO.

This is highly convenient for the KO, even if not for Mr Schetyna who has had his differences with Mr Tusk in the past. The liberal KO is hoping to scare urban voters into its fold by raising the fear of ‘Polexit’ on the basis of the controversy over the rule of law issue between the current PiS government and the EC.

PSL: three options

The PSL, who polled 12 percent in the local elections, are considering three options. The first is to stand on their own and take on PiS in rural areas. This is risky, as in the conditions of even greater polarisation of Parliamentary elections and the low turnout of a European one, the party will be in danger of failing to cross the electoral threshold.

The second option the party is considering is to ally itself with the SLD. The rationale for this is that the two parties have different strengths and do not compete with each other. THe PSL has strength in rural areas, the SLD more in urban areas. However, that SLD strength in rural areas is nothing compared to the strength of the KO.

The third option is to ally with their EPP partners in the KO. The problem here is that such a partnership would be unbalanced and the PSL might find it hard to make itself heard in such a broad alliance. It could dissolve in a much stronger brand.

SLD: what future for the left?

The results for the SLD were very poor. It got less than 6 percent of the vote and won just 11 provincial council seats in the local elections. The only consolation was that the results for the other two leftist lists: the “Together” party and the Greens, were even worse with them polling just over 1 percent each.

“Together” have called for talks between these parties plus the fledgling movement being built by Robert Biedroń, the gay activist and former mayor of Słupsk. It is conceivable these gropings might ally for the European elections under Biedroń’s leadership. If the result achieved is promising they might stand together again in the Parliamentary elections. If not, they could then negotiate to find a berth in the KO.

The SLD of course have two other options. They could cut out the middle step and join KO straight away. Or they could try to build a social red-green coalition with the SLD.

Robert Biedroń and “Together” would not countenance joining the KO at the present time. Nor would they wish to ally with the PSL at this stage either.

Kukiz’15: fragmentation of the non-PiS right

Media attention has been drawn to Mr Kukiz’s outbursts against some of his parliamentary colleagues. As a former rock star, his language is often colourful and rather unparliamentary. However, the problems of his grouping are not limited to the temperament of its leader.

Kukiz’15 was a movement based on the name of its founder. He promised that he would not create a political party and has kept his word. The trouble is that this is costly. It means he cannot benefit from state funding for parties.

Some of Mr Kukiz’s parliamentary colleagues, led by the wealthy brewery owner Marek Jakubiak, are not trying to persuade Mr Kukiz to agree to form a political party. This they feel is the way to lure back to the fold many of those who left over the past three years to work with the libertarian conservative Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the National Movement (RN) or Kornel Morawiecki’s “Free in Solidarity” party. None of those entities have made any headway and yet are capable of taking votes away from Kukiz’15.

The movement is clearly at a crossroads. This was always likely for a political grouping stitched together at great speed from a mix of trades unionists, economic libertarians, nationalists, and lately also conservative Catholics led by the former PiS parliamentary speaker Marek Jurek. These elements may have too little in common to be able to stick together.

It is highly likely that, should the grouping fall apart, its voters will go their separate ways too. Some will turn to the veteran Korwin-Mikke, others will turn to PiS in an attempt to keep KO out of power. The likelihood of the grouping being able to survive and prosper without the Kukiz name are minute.

Much may change for things to stay the same

Whatever happens to the left, Kukiz’15 and the PSL, PiS and KO will continue to dominate Polish politics. One or the other will form the nucleus of the next government and it is close to certain that a candidate of one or the other will win the presidential elections in 2020.

Electoral turnout is likely to continue to be high. The polarisation between PiS and KO should see to that. The supporters of both dislike the other side enough to be motivated to vote.