It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice), is now as important figure in European politics as French president François Hollande.
No one should be surprised that Kaczyński is now the de facto leader of Poland, and no one should have doubted that he would direct a PiS-led government to pursue its full-throated agenda of populist economic sops to Poland’s poorest easterners and socially conservative values, mixed with equal amounts of nativism, euroscepticism and paranoia.
But Poland’s fresh government is facing criticism at home and abroad that it is now dismantling many of the features of the country’s post-Cold War democracy. Notably, critics argue that the new PiS government is co-opting both Poland’s constitutional tribunal and its state-run media.
Andrzej Duda, Poland’s new president has refused to seat five judges appointed by the outgoing government to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. Though two of those judicial appointments were subsequently ruled invalid, the new PiS government pushed forward with five new appointments anyway, leaving three judges validly appointed and unconfirmed. Moreover, the new PiS government passed a law mandating a two-thirds majority (not a simple majority) for constitutional rulings. The new government has also asserted greater political power over the state-controlled media.
Barely three months into Poland’s new government, the European Commission is opening a formal inquiry against the PiS-led administration, headed by EC first vice president Frans Timmermans, to determine whether the new government’s actions amount to a ‘systemic risk’ to Poland’s rule of law, a standard that — so far — hasn’t been breached in Hungary or Romania.
Those concerns are legitimate, especially insofar as the new government is undermining judicial independence and press freedom, and some Europeans hopes that US president Barack Obama will even exert pressure, through the NATO alliance, on Poland’s new government. But the overwrought response from EU elites will only play into the hands of the PiS’s most eurosceptic leaders and, what’s more, Polish democracy is far too developed in the year 2016 to crumble as easily as many of Kaczyński’s critics fear.
Throughout the European Union, the Greek economic crisis and lingering problems with the eurozone have undermined the monetary pillar of EU integration, while the deluge of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere, in greater numbers than at any time since World War II, have eroded the Schengen zone and the principle of internal European borders. EU leaders have far greater problems than allowing Kaczyński and the PiS into goading them into confrontation, especially as British voters focus on a 2017 referendum that could result in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Continue reading Give PiS a chance: why the EU has to play nice with Poland’s new populist government→
On Sunday, voters in Poland, the pivotal country of eastern and central Europe, will almost certainly vote to eject the governing, center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), handing an embarrassing defeat to Donald Tusk, the former prime minister who left Polish politics last year to become the president of the European Council.
With the conservative, nationalist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) set to return to power after eight years, Poland’s rightward move could undermine Tusk’s European role. More importantly, for a country of nearly 39 million people and a rising economic powerhouse in the European Union (with the rising clout to match), it could shift European policy to the right on refugee policy. Ever skeptical of Russia, a new conservative government would also agitate for greater European, US and NATO activism to counter Russian president Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and elsewhere.
May’s presidential vote: prelude to a electoral meltdown
In retrospect, the outcome of the October 25 parliamentary elections seems to have been settled five months ago when Polish voters narrowly ousted incumbent president Bronisław Komorowski in favor of 43-year-old Andrzej Duda, a conservative novice in Polish politics and little-known member of the European Parliament.
Former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, a controversial figure on the Polish right, determined earlier this year that he would not seek a rematch against Komorowski, who defeated Kaczyński in 2010 after a tragic airplane crash killed the incumbent, his twin brother Lech Kaczyński, along with dozens of other top Polish officials over Russian airspace. Kaczyński instead, handpicked Duda from relative obscurity to carry the presidential banner.
Komorowski, technically an independent, nevertheless boasted the support of the governing Civic Platform and, until the very end, seemed likely to win reelection. But his wooden style and a lack of engagement did him no favors in a campaign where anti-establishment rage was on the rise. For example, rock singer Paweł Kukiz attracted nearly 21% of the vote as a protest candidate, running an acerbic and populist campaign that won Poland’s youth vote in the first round of the presidential election.
Komorowski fell narrowly behind on May 10 in the race’s first round, and he lost the May 24 runoff to Duda by a margin of 51.55% to 48.55%.
A kinder, gentler Law and Justice Party?
Duda’s outsider status matched a growing sense that Poland’s strong economic performance hasn’t necessarily filtered through to the entire population, especially in Poland’s east, where traditionally conservative voters have missed the boom that’s developed in the country’s west and in urban centers like Warsaw. Moreover, Duda campaigned hard against Poland’s future accession as a eurozone member. Though Poland is notable for achieving the highest growth rate in the European Union since the 2010-11 eurozone sovereign debt crisis — GDP growth peaked at 4.8% in 2011 and achieved an impressive (by European standards) 3.3% growth rate last year — voters are nevertheless in a mood for change.
Kaczyński quickly learned the lesson of Duda’s success, and his party is running the same strategy for the October parliamentary elections. Instead of personally leading the party’s efforts for the parliamentary elections, Kaczyński turned the campaign over to another newcomer, Beata Szydło, a PiS deputy since 2005, the year that the PiS first took power (in a short-lived, two-year government that Jarosław Kaczyński led as prime minister while his brother held the presidency).
At a June party convention, Kaczyński quickly passed the political baton to Szydło, and Law and Justice held a lead in the parliamentary contest ever since. Like Duda, Szydło has taken a softer center-right tone throughout the campaign, avoiding the controversial topics that might otherwise have dogged Kaczyński.
Barring a complete meltdown, it’s nearly certain that Law and Justice will push Civic Platform out of power for the first time in eight years. The latest IBRiS poll, dated October 19, gives Law and Justice 36% of the vote to just 22% for Civic Platform, followed by the Polish left’s electoral coalition with just 11%.
Economic angst and refugee crisis impede Civic Platform’s reelection
Such a damning defeat will leave Tusk somewhat isolated as European Council president and, potentially, in the awkward position of working against Poland’s soon-to-be government, notwithstanding the fact that Tusk’s election was something of an honor for Poland. Befitting the country’s centrality among the set of central and eastern European states that joined the European Union in 2004, Tusk is the first eastern European to hold one of the top EU offices of state.
Tusk left his government in the hands of Ewa Kopacz, a Tusk loyalist, former health minister and former marshal of the Sejm (akin to a parliamentary speaker), who has struggled in the last 13 months in an increasingly Sisyphean attempt to lead Civic Platform to its third consecutive victory. That may have less to do with the amiable Kopacz than a sense of restlessness over eight years of government by a party viewed increasingly as elitist and out of touch. Nagging scandals have emerged in the past two years, the most damaging of which involved the release of secret recordings of former foreign minister Radek Sikorski, former finance minister Jacek Rostowski and others making crude comments, including about the bilateral relationship with the United States, in Sikorski’s case.
As Law and Justice attacks the fits and starts of a Polish economy that still has some wrinkles to work out, Kopacz has been left promising, with little credibility, that young Polish workers can fare just as well at home as in western Europe. Despite growth, Polish nGDP per capita is just around $13,000, far below wealthier countries like Germany and France.
In addition, since the May presidential election, the European migrant crisis is now boosting the Polish right, as the number of refugees across the continent surges to numbers unseen since World War II. In the leaders’ debate on Tuesday evening, Szydło boldly attacked EU refugee policy and argued that ‘Poles have the right to be afraid’ of the unknown consequences of accepting so many refugees. Kopacz, for her part, argued that her government successfully negotiated down the number of refugees that the European Commission’s original quota plan entailed.
The former mayor of Brzeszcze, Szydło is virtually unknown outside of Poland (and perhaps even inside Poland until her elevation earlier this summer), which is somewhat staggering for someone who is set to become the leader of the European Union’s sixth-most populous member:
An ethnography graduate and mother to two sons, the erstwhile PiS backbencher was only recently as unknown as Duda. But she has a reputation for being well-adjusted, hard-working and resilient. But also a little dull…. She doesn’t have to pretend to be down-to-earth — she just is.
Though Kaczyński himself formally nominated Szydło as the Law and Justice prime ministerial candidate, the party founder will surely play an important behind-the-scenes role if the PiS returns to power. So the largest question mark hanging over the coming PiS government is just how much it will be Szydło’s government and not just Kaczyński’s government. Last week, for example, Kaczyński made headlines by suggesting that migrants are bringing ‘all sorts of parasites and protozoa’ to Europe.
For all of Kaczyński’s odd statements, he may turn out to be more distraction than puppetmaster. Duda, for example, has taken a much friendlier line towards Germany than Kaczyński might have liked, and Szydło would be wise to follow Duda in avoiding the confrontational approach with European leaders that Kaczyński deployed a decade ago. Nevertheless, Poland will certainly continue to take a hawkish line against Russia, pushing for greater EU and NATO engagement over Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.
Poland’s voters will elect all 460 deputies of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, and all 100 senators of the upper house, the Senat. The deputies are elected by proportional representation in multi-member constituencies that contain between 7 and 19 representatives, subject in each case to a 5% national threshold. (Senators are elected on a first-past-the-post basis).
For a decade, Polish politics has been a contest between two visions of the ‘right’ — Tusk’s liberal, business-friendly and pro-European variant and Kaczyński’s socially conservative, religious, populist and eurosceptic version. That will remain the case on Sunday, though there are a handful of other parties vying for seats, a handful of which are new to the political scene.
The traditional party of the Polish left, the Democratic Left Alliance, joined forces with four other smaller leftist, centrist and green parties to form the Zjednoczona Lewica (ZL, United Left), under the leadership of Barbara Nowacka. The parties together won 18.8% of the vote in the 2011 election, but polls suggest it will be lucky to win barely 10% in 2015. Though the party boldly advocates taking in as many Syrian and other refugees as possible, the Polish left has long been out of sync with the electorate.
Kukiz, whose own anti-establishment movement took the presidential campaign by storm, seems to have stalled, with support for his ‘Kukiz ’15’ movement fizzling gradually since May, though the group may still win some seats in the Sejm.
The longstanding Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party), a traditional Christian democratic party, and the more libertarian, anti-immigration and anti-European ‘KORWIN’ coalition of the hard-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke could also enter the Sejm. Nowoczesna (Modern), a liberal party formed in May by economist Ryszard Petru, is also hoping to cross the 5% threshold.
If all three parties make it — and if Law and Justice fails to win a 231-seat majority, a distinct possibility — Szydło might be forced to include one of them as a partner in a governing coalition.
It’s safe to say that Polish president Bronisław Komorowski’s surprise second-place finish in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday was one of the most unexpected events in Polish politics of the past decade.
Even after exit polls showed Komorowski (pictured above) training the conservative Andrzej Duda, it was still difficult to believe the popular, capable, moderate incumbent could have failed in a race where polls previously gave him a wide lead.
Though the presidency is chiefly ceremonial, the president serves as commander-in-chief of the Polish army and represents Poland in international affairs, though the prime minister (nominally selected by the president) establishes foreign policy. Notably, the Polish president also has a veto right over legislation, though a three-fifths majority of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, can override a presidential veto.
The presidential vote is widely seen as a prelude to the more important parliamentary elections expected to take place in October 2015.
Complacency among Komorowski’s supporters, the gradual rise in support for Duda (pictured above) and the surprisingly robust protest vote for former rock musician Paweł Kukiz, who waged a populist campaign that called for more direct representation in national elections. Kukiz demands the elimination of party-list proportional representation and the introduction of single-member constituencies, with legislators individually responsible for their voters’ demands. Ironically, Kukiz’s call for a first-past-the-post system coincides with widespread dissatisfaction with the electoral process in Great Britain, where the FPTP system made for some rather inequitable results in last week’s election. Nevertheless, Kukiz won over one-fifth of all voters on Sunday, and both remaining candidates are keen on winning over his supporters.
Both candidates will now advance to a May 24 runoff and, though Komorowski is still expected to win reelection, there’s a chance that Duda could use the momentum of his first-round victory in the next two weeks to propel himself into the presidency. Duda, a 42-year-old member of the European Parliament, is the candidate of the nationalist, conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) that held power between 2005 and 2007. Unlike Komorowski, he opposes plans for Poland to join the eurozone.
Komorowski, nominally an independent but tied closely to the more pragmatic governing Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), receives generally high marks for his performance as president. Komorowski, a former defense minister, has struck a reassuring tone on the threat of growing Russian ambitions in Ukraine and eastern Europe, and his reelection campaign has sought to reassure voters that he will be a steady hand with respect to Poland’s security. Continue reading Komorowski trails in shock Polish presidential vote result→
For Poland, former prime minister Donald Tusk’s elevation to the presidency of the European Council wasn’t the end of a complex inter-institutional process so much as the launch of a new domestic political process.
When former parliamentary speaker Ewa Kopacz, a Tusk loyalist and former health minister, succeeded Tusk as Poland’s second female prime minister on Monday, she did so with a reshuffled cabinet that she will hope to lead into the next Polish election, which must take place before October 2015.
For the time being, Kopacz (pictured above, left, with president Bronisław Komorowski) is expected to act as little more than a placeholder for Tusk, and the rap on her is that she won the job through her loyalty to Tusk, not through any innate political ability or policymaking chops. For now, she’s expected to do Tusk’s bidding, even as he and his team head for Brussels. It’s rumored that Komorowski disapproved of Kopacz’s elevation to the premiership, and there’s no shortage of figures within her own center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) who would rather be prime minister instead.
But if she wins a mandate in her own right, Kopacz could gradually build her own political base and, as time passes, you can expect Kopacz to develop her own policy priorities separate from Tusk’s.
Among the most surprising changes was the end of Radek Sikorski’s seven-year tenure as foreign minister. Sikorski, one of the most hawkish voices against Russian aggression, instead assume the job that Kopacz once held, the marshal of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament. Though the job doesn’t bring the same high-profile notoriety as the foreign ministry, it will given Sikorski more direct parliamentary and domestic political experience and it’s technically second only to the prime minister. That makes it more likely that Sikorski himself could become prime minister one day, especially if Kopacz fails to win a third consecutive term in government. Continue reading Kopacz puts imprint on Poland’s new government→