We are told the parties are divided as never before ahead of the country’s Parliamentary elections. But are the divisions not exaggerated by a feverish atmosphere which has been generated by politicians and media alike?
It is clear now in what shape the parties will contest this election. Law and Justice (PiS) with its satellite parties is the ruling party with mass support and will stand in the same format as in 2015. The Civic Platform has united with smaller centre and left parties and will stand as the Civic Coalition (KO). The agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) are forming a centre-right force called the “Polish Coalition, but at this stage it is not clear with whom. The last significant contender is an alliance of leftist parties which has just been formed by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Robert Biedroń’s Spring and the socialist Together party.
It is not clear at this stage what will happen to the rock musician Paweł Kukiz’s grouping Kukiz’15. It may ally with the far right groups such as the Freedom party led by the veteran maverick Janusz Korwin-Mikke and the Nationalist Movement (RN). But it has been shifting to the centre and is now seriously considering allying with either the PSL or with a grouping called Local Government Independents that contested the local government elections with limited success.
Consensus on social and economic matters
Leaving Mr Kukiz aside, the four major blocs that have formed are all singing from the same hymn sheet on economic and social policy. All are offering redistribution and maintenance of the social programme activated by the current PiS administration. Indeed, the PO wants to go further by more spending on health and education and by topping up wages of the low-paid with a flat rate payment. So, the partisan climate is not about social or economic policy as such.
Europe not a central issue
It is not about Europe either. Yes, the parties have different visions of how the EU might develop, with PiS clearly arguing for a Europe of sovereign nation states and limited integration and the PO and the left moving towards Euro-federalism. But the parties agree that Poland must remain in the EU, be a part of the western alliance and are all staunchly anti-Putin’s Russia.
History and role of central government more divisive
There is one issue on which there is strong disagreement between PiS and the rest. It’s the interpretation of recent Polish history and the role central government plays in the Polish state. On the history PiS argue that there was too much compromise with the communists early on and too much economic injustice. The other parties view the 3rd Republic and its constitution as a great achievement and defend it to the hilt.
The disagreement over the role of central government in the state is even deeper. PiS believe that to be effective the Polish state needs to be coordinated effectively from the centre. The other three party blocs want to see more decentralisation to local government, civil society and the judiciary, with the role of central government more constrained than at present.
Cultural issues ignite passions
The arguments over history and the role of central government are not really the decisive factor in the febrile state of Polish politics. Far more important is the division that has built up over attitudes on axiomatic issue. Here we are talking about issues such as Church-state relations, LGBT rights, abortion and cultural liberalism.
This range of issues arouses great passions. It is the key to understanding the different electoral behaviour of urban and rural areas. Liberalism dominates in the cities, conservatism in small towns and rural areas.
It is attitudes to axiomatic issues which split the European Coalition that was made up of the KO, PSL and SLD. The PSL with its electorate in rural areas did not want to go down the road of cultural liberalism. The PO on the other hand could not go with the leftist parties alone as it did not want to abandon what was left of its conservative support.
Opposition still in shock from 2015
But there is another factor at play in the partisanship. It is the feeling of entitlement that undoubtedly had built up within the liberal establishment throughout the 1990s and the first 1 years of this century. That feeling was very rudely interrupted by the PiS victories in 2015.
The liberal establishment in their guts felt that losing power and control of the narrative was unfair. And they intensely disliked any attempt by PiS to take control of their bastions of influence in the judiciary, the media and public administration.
This in many ways was natural. Losing influence, jobs and resources is never pleasant. Their reaction was to cast their opponents as a threat to democracy, the rule of law and Poland’s standing in the world.
The problem for the opposition parties, putting aside the two month psycho-drama of agonizing about how they will contest the coming election, is that there has been remarkably little reflection on their record in the nineties and the first 15 years of this century. It’s as if the only thing they have had to say to the voters is that “you have made the wrong choice in 2015, get it right next time.”
Ruling party in poll position
PiS are the clear front runners at this stage. Buoyed up by years of consistent economic growth (cc five percent) and buttressed by popular social policies their poll ratings are now consistently over 40 percent. Their credibility with voters who voted for them back in 2015 is high as they have delivered the policies on which they stood in that election.
The opposition parties have problems with credibility. The PO had been adamant that PiS’s social programmes would collapse the budget. But now in the light of the success of these programme they are proposing to spend 30 billion PLN more in a similar direction. They also face the problem of having failed to deliver on their election promises in their eight years in office (2007-2015).
The left have the problem of still being associated with periods of history in which Poland wasn’t prosperous, democratic nor independent. The PSL have no support in the cities and in rural areas PiS has been very effective in garnering the social conservative vote.
At this moment in time PiS have got to be the favourites. A recent poll showed that over 70 percent of voters think that PiS will win the coming election. But then a week is a long time in politics…