The European elections held on 26th May 2019 confirmed what was feared: The national-conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS) won by a clear majority. What are the reasons behind this election result and how has the political mood in the country changed?
Despite legitimate hopes of the opposition parties and even though the start of the election campaign was not optimal for the ruling party, the outcome is what was feared. To paraphrase an old joke about the German national football team, the performance of the national-conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS) in the election campaigns of the last five years could be described as follows: an election campaign goes for 6–8 weeks, it is either boring or full of scandals, but it is always PiS that wins in the end, this time even with a top result!
According to opinion polls, which are rather unreliable in Poland, in the first league, Koalicja Europejska (European Coalition, KE) under the leadership of Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform), after a ponderous start, competed with PiS in what was increasingly a neck-and-neck race. With 38.3 per cent of the votes, it achieved a rather decent result, but PiS left it well behind with 45.4 per cent. In the second league, it was only the newly founded progressive Wiosna (Spring) with 6.1 per cent that made it into the Parliament while the far-right Konfederacja (Confederation) with 4.6 per cent and the right-wing populist Kukiz’15 still represented in the Sejm (3.7 per cent) did not make it over the 5 per cent threshold. The remaining candidates, including the left-wing Lewica Razem (Left Together) with 1.2 per cent and the Polexit Coalition with 0.06 per cent, have no political significance.
Increasing social polarisation around the national prerogative of interpretation
This distribution of votes reflects the continuing social polarisation and the increasingly tiring battle for the prerogative of political interpretation. However, there is also some potential for change. This is manifested also in the record high turnout of 45 per cent, which nearly doubled since the last Euopean elections (2014: 24 per cent). The information available on the distribution of voters supporting the most important parties confirms a trend that has been being observed for some time:
The primary dispute between PiS and KE especially involves those elder generations who witnessed and actively shaped the time following the foundation of the trade union freedom movement Solidarność (Solidarity). While the ruling party mostly addresses the traditionally conservative rural provinces neglected in the transformation process, as well as small towns and families, KE is over-represented in the metropolitan regions and large cities. Although the younger generations are clearly more willing to support other parties, they are also engaging in a highly ideological and socially polarised political dispute, as demonstrated by Wiosna (well-educated urban dwellers, women) and Konfederacja (almost exclusively new, young, male voters).
It’s all about the upcoming national parliamentary elections
For all the important political parties, the election campaign was highly intensive in its use of resources, both material and human. However, in some way, it was also unusual and full of uncertainties. Everywhere it could be sensed that the campaign was about something more than “just” the European elections, since everyone was already eager to position themselves with a view to the upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn and, as a consequence, emphasised domestic issues. PiS did so because, for systemic and intra-party reasons, it is crucial for them to maintain their absolute majority. The Civic Platform did so because they need a good result for KE in order to consolidate this election alliance in compensation for their own relative weakness, especially since KE is actually losing some voters from the individual parties it consists of (primarily those of PSL and SLD). On the other hand, the newly founded parties Wiosna and Konfederacja must prove that, in the near future, it is realistic to do politics in Poland beyond the old party duopoly and that votes cast for them are thus not “wasted” in the electoral arithmetic.
Decisive factors: social issues, propaganda, defending national sovereignty
Given the growing problems, it is a surprise that, after all, PiS still managed to achieve such a good result (especially compared to other European countries) after having held power for four years of political turmoil. The recent increase in (corruption) scandals and the strategy of pushing through reforms on many important fronts (judiciary, education, pensions, healthcare, taxes, economic policy, regional development) led some observers to assume that the national-conservative party would lose its political appeal and dynamism to a significant degree. Morever, Konfederacja, which is rather eclectic in ideological terms, could attack PiS on its very own territory if it insists on the unequivocal defence of Catholic values and exposes the hypocrisy PiS has shown as regards migration in rejecting refugees of civil war while at the same time accepting far more than one million migrant workers.
However, it seems that the decisive factor in the elections outcome turned out to be the (so far) good economic situation and the extremely popular social redistribution policy that is likely to have mobilised people who used not to vote. It was precisely the five social pledges made by Kaczyński during the election campaign that yet again massively extended PiS’s welfare programme, topping it with an increase in child benefits, a promise to pay an additional 13 month’s pension and the prospect of personal income tax being abolished for employees under 27. Teresa Czerwińska, PiS’s Minister of Finance, believed this programme to be unaffordable and unacceptable in economic terms, and thus wanted to resign. However, this does not seem to have upset many PiS voters. Moreover, the broad social appeal of PiS’s “symbolic sovereignity policy” should also not be underestimated. According to this policy, PiS ostentatiously demands respect, recognition and more direct influence for Poland both in the EU and worldwide.
Once again, PiS has shown beyond any doubt that it is determined to ruthlessly use its power instruments, such as: government-controlled state media, who discredit the opposition on a daily basis; the prosecution authorities and secret services, who do not think it beneath them to produce “political cases”; or the buying of political support. The liberal and progressive parties within KE and Wiosna, even though they clearly wanted to reverse the controversial judiciary reforms carried out by PiS, tried to put emphasis on topics related to regional development and sustainability and thus to set a longer-term trend relevant to the whole of society.
Moreover, a particularly strong emphasis was put on socio-political topics (women’s rights, the secular state), which was additionally supported towards the end of the campaign by the “Polish Spotlight”, the independently financed documentary Tylko nie mów nikomu (Tell No One) by the Sekielski brothers. Even though over 20 million people have watched this broadly and fiercely commented film about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church over the last two weeks, contrary to expectations, this did not manage to harm PiS, even though it is closely associated with the clergy. One of the reasons could be that the ruling party is much more present in the regions – and the state media, which are widely consumed there, do not cover such troublesome topics.
PiS’s transformation from a “eurosceptical” to a “conservative” party?
Given the above, the parliamentary elections could be thrilling, even though many factors are still unpredictable at the moment. Thus, it remains to be seen whether KE will be able to bear the growing pressure, how the attitude to Wiosna (which decided to run on its own) will develop, and to what extent both groups will be able to reach also new (non-)voters, in particular. However, the Polish election outcome’s long-term relevance to European politics also remains to be seen. However, as of 26th May 2019, it is certainly no longer possible to claim in the European Parliament that the “sovereignty” orientation of the Polish national-conservative party, especially with respect to visions of the European integration process, does not enjoy broad social support and as such can be ignored. Moreover, the relatively large PiS delegation of 27 MPs will be full of political heavyweights who helped shape this narrative even though they have hardly any personal experience with Euopean politics.
However, it remains to be seen how hard they will actually be able to punch in the new European Parliament, since the political groups have not been formed yet. Given the fact that PiS recently emphasised its distance from Le Pen and Salvini, its return to the EPP is also back on the agenda. Unlike some other European countries, Poland has also not seen a rise in left-wing or progressive forces. The S&D will have only eight Polish members, five of whom come from SLD, which joined KE, and three from Wiosna. And the Greens must still be patient and wait for the possibility of welcoming a Polish party colleague.