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→
In a sweeping election, the nationalist conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) will return to power after eight years in the wilderness, bringing the prickly former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński back to the heart of Polish and European governance, according to exit polls pending the release of full election results on Monday.
Though Kaczyński himself didn’t stand for prime minister, he hand-picked the PiS’s prime ministerial candidate, 52-year old Beata Szydło, a more moderate figure who worked throughout the campaign to assure voters that the PiS could form a more constructive government than the one Kaczyński led between 2005 and 2007, when his late twin brother Lech Kaczyński simultaneously served as Poland’s president.
The PiS’s presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, a 42-year-old member of the European parliament, won an upset victory in May’s presidential election. A nationalist who opposes Poland’s entry into the eurozone, Duda (like Szydło) nevertheless portrayed a more moderate quantity than Kaczyński.
Though Kaczyński hasn’t particularly undermined Duda (so far), the presidency is a far more ceremonial office than the premiership, so it’s reasonable to believe that Kaczyński will play a much more hands-on role in the next government, if behind the scenes. That means that most important question that the new government faces is whether it will embrace the more moderate Duda-Szydło approach or revert to Kaczyński’s more pugilistic and confrontational manner. (A close second is the degree to which the next government will embrace economic liberalism, given the PiS’s penchant for populism).
The election results amount to a repudiation of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister appointed last year as president of the European Council. Tusk hasn’t made the easiest transition from Warsaw to Brussels. Part of the reason is that he has spent so much effort trying to continue to shape Polish politics through his hand-picked successor, Ewa Kopacz, who didn’t share Tusk’s immense charisma or gravitas. His party, the more liberal, center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), had trailed consistently since the May presidential election, despite one of the best economic records in Europe. GDP growth since the 2008-09 financial crisis is the highest in Europe, and the country actually avoided recession throughout the past eight years.
Even with Tusk at the helm, a third consecutive mandate would have been difficult. Voters voiced growing concerns over a wire-tapping scandal and exasperation with the unequal pace of economic development. Civic Platform also faced the general sense of fatigue that comes after two full four-year terms in office. Moreover, fears over border security and the European refugee crisis this autumn also played to the PiS’s more nationalist strengths.
Headlines and commentary suggest that the new Polish government will look like Viktor Orbán’s hard-right, nationalist government in Hungary, but that somewhat overstates the case. Though the PiS will echo Orbán’s line on migration and border security (essentially the same position as Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico), Orbán has expressly taunted European values and embraced the concept of an ‘iliberal’ Hungary. No one expects Poland to follow suit.
Nevertheless, the new government will be even more hawkish in pushing for European (and NATO) vigilance against Russia, and the PiS will push for Poland to take a leading role throughout eastern and central Europe on all matters, including security.
Relations with the rest of the European Union will not come quite as easily as under the Tusk-Kopacz governments, though. The PiS government will join both Orbán and British prime minister David Cameron with a far more nationalistic view toward EU reform to restore more powers to member states, especially as EU officials struggle with border security. As Cameron gears up for EU negotiations for greater British opt-outs prior to the 2017 referendum on UK membership in the European Union, Poland’s new government will provide him with a powerful eastern ally. Continue reading Poland election results: PiS sweeps to victory→
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.