Polish election: winner takes all, loser goes to jail?

The general election in the autumn of this year, for which the European elections are just a preview, is about much more than which party, or parties, will govern the country and what policies may be implemented.

It’s not unusual for two party systems to emerge with polarisation between the right and left of the political spectrum. This is often encouraged by electoral systems such as first past the post or PR with a premium for the big parties.

In Poland the system clearly gives a premium to the larger parties even though it is one based on proportional representation of MPs who are elected in multi-member constituencies. But it is not just the electoral system which is driving the way that two big political blocks have now emerged in Poland.

The centre-left European Coalition and the ruling Law and Justice are both alliances of groupings are fighting not only for control of Parliament or government but control of institutions and large parts of the economy. Positions in public administration, the judiciary, public media and in major state-owned companies are at stake.

Social and economic policies are not going to be the major battleground during the election. The opposition will not confront the government over its social transfers and economic policies. It will argue that the present government has abused power and the constitution and that it is against EU integration.

The anger of the opposition

The opposition is angry with the government over actions it has taken on judicial reform which it argues were unconstitutional. There are also accusations of politicising the public prosecution service and making the public media a vehicle for pro-ruling party ‘propaganda’.

But the anger runs deeper. It is also related to the fact that the present ruling party has been dismissive of the way Poland was governed until 2015 as a form of ‘post-communism’. They see the ruling PiS as people obsessed with history and religion and suspicious of the EU, not equipped to deal with the modern world.

It is that, rather than any policy agreement which has brought the liberals of the Civic Platform and “Modern” together with the parties whose roots lay in communist Poland; the post-communist Left Alliance (SLD) and the rural Polish People’s Party (PSL). However it is not the first time that opposition parties have come together to attempt the unseating of a government. That was the case in 1989 (Solidarity Citizens Committee), in 1997 (Solidarity Election Action) and in 2015 when smaller right wing parties agreed to stand under the Law and Justice- United Right (PiS-ZP) umbrella.

Plebiscite with repression facing the loser?

What will be unusual about the battle which will take place this year is that large parts of the allied opposition have committed themselves to punishing members of the present governing and parliamentary majority for any breaches of the constitution. This could mean that they would be put before the Tribunal of State and debarred from holding public office.

That would be a novelty in Polish political life. Back in 1989 there was a compromise which saw the ruling communists give up power. It was never stated explicite verbis but they were effectively given immunity from prosecution for what they had done in government (not for any common criminal law offences).

If the members of this government are pursued for their political decisions in the Tribunal of State and/or the criminal courts this would be the end of the unwritten consensus that it is up to voters to administer punishment for political decisions at the ballot box. Some will argue that the present government has pursued its opponents in parliamentary investigative committees and in the courts too. However, in reality no former government minister has been put before the Tribunal of State and any prosecutions have been on criminal grounds related to offences such as corruption.

What is emerging is therefore highly divisive. Both sides are really saying “either you are with us, or you’re against us”. And the polarisation is taking place around attitudes towards the present government. It’s to be a plebiscite on it and, should it lose, it will not only be removed from power but some of its members may face prosecution for their executive and political decisions