A change in Warsaw: Where is Poland headed for?

The recent parliamentary election in Poland, held on 25 October, delivered two historical results. For the first time on the country’s post-communist political scene there will be a single party to rule by a full majority. The conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, managed to secure 235 seats in the 460-seat Polish Sejm, the national parliament’s lower chamber, by winning 37.58% of the vote. As if this were not enough, the second historical result is the absence of any left-wing party in the new parliamentary set-up. The United Left coalition (Zjednoczona Lewica) received just 7.55% of the vote, which ironically meant it failed to meet the 8% coalition target required to secure any seats in the Sejm. The results of the election are online (Polish)

As expected, the aftermath of the election immediately ignited all sorts of political discussions and passions. It is customary for citizens, analysts, and observers, both locally and abroad, to pose a considerable number of questions on how Poland will be governed for the next four years. Needless to say, this topic sparks fears in the hearts of PiS opponents and fuels the enthusiasm of their supporters.

Resutls of the 25 Oct elections
Results of the 25 Oct elections

To the victor go the spoils

As soon as the festive cheer from the overwhelming victory starts to settle down, PiS politicians should come to understand what majority in parliament means. The answer is – full responsibility. Yes, majority also means political power and ability to implement the party’s platform, but it primarily puts the stakes very high in terms of accountability. From now on, all eventual successes and, even worse, all eventual failures should be attributed to just one protagonist – PiS.

This is a tricky position. There are real risks lurking behind PiS’s electoral success. Imagine a dark scenario whereby Poland’s economy and international standing may deteriorate. Kaczynski’s party will have to be prepared to throw blames at external factors –EU bureaucracy, Putin’s Russia, globalization, etc. – all being convenient scape goats for PiS’s Eurosceptic and nationalist rhetoric.

Alternatively, success will provide ample ground for political boasting. This is all rather part of the norm in political behavior, but the truth is that voters are always much more sensitive to negative developments compared to positive ones. There is really little room for mistakes.

Woe to the vanquished

The outgoing ruling party – the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) – secured 138 seats in the Sejm by winning 24.09% of the popular vote. By contrast, the last general vote in 2011 gave PO 39% support, or 207 parliamentary seats. This shows a considerable weakening for a political force which was in power for two consecutive terms, or 8 years. Although being in the conservative spectrum, the Civic Platform uses more balanced rhetoric as compared to Law and Justice. It has been branding itself as the party of “reason” and was enjoying the support of urban, educated, and “modern” Poles. Ironically, the elections on 25 October showed that the PO seemed to have lost this support as about 10% of voters who chose PO in 2011 now went for PiS. Demographic spreads show that PiS drew the votes of some of those “urban, educated, and modern Poles”.

There should be no doubt that this is a major political defeat for PO. It also meant that economic progress was not sufficient to win over the hearts and souls of voters for a third time. PO went campaigning for “reason” while PiS concentrated on “emotions”. The undefined need for “a change”, the fear of refugees, PO’s reputational loss due to a series of political scandals over the past year, all contributed to PiS’s success. Apparently, many Poles could not feel the “economic progress”, which PO advocated in their campaign, to be tangible enough in reality. PiS seemnigly managed to promise more “visible” benefits.

This said, Kaczynski’s party often plays on patriotic grounds, mixed with populist tunes. They are championing moral conservatism mixed with economic populism. Instead of concentrating on a detailed economic program, PiS was promising benefits – to mothers, children, miners, etc. The party successfully created a narrative of “better” and “worse” poles – those who are patriots and protect the traditions and those who have shown their back to “Polishness”. The rise of patriotism and populism has shifted the political debate in Poland from the area of the pragmatic to the realm of emotions and material promises.

Political reshuffling

The crumbling of the left undeniably created a political vacuum.  Given the sharp rhetoric used by PiS on all the socially sensitive issues like gay rights, abortion, premarital cohabitation, power of the church, religious education in schools, and the refugees, if one were more liberal or moderate in his political views, there would be many grounds to be concerned. Boosting the presence of the church in secular life, reviving traditional nationalism, banning abortion in the constitution are all points on PiS’s agenda.

In this sense, the defeat of the left presents a good opportunity for the stunned Civic Platform to recover. Time will show if the PO will have the strength to push through this current crisis. But if it does so, it may have to reinvent itself by filing in the left and liberal vacuum. It will have to slide along the political spectrum and take differentiation from PiS even further into the ideological direction. There will be challengers along the way, so the task will require tough leadership.

How far can PiS reach?

Law and Justice have been lavish on promises during the election campaign. But reality often cools down politicians the moment they get their hands on the day-to-day. This is well illustrated by the delay with which PiS created the cabinet line-up. It was announced only today (9 November), two weeks after the election.

As laid out above, PiS has taken up some serious responsibility on its shoulders. Branded as “populist and ideological” by many observers, claims which are perhaps valid, PiS is also pragmatic. They, no doubt, took notice of the 8 years they spent in opposition. They have shown some flexibility in their views on the economy; they managed to put up some new faces. Therefore, in my opinion, the key to their success will be to strike a balance between ideology and pragmatism.

This will not be an easy task. Poland is not cut-off from the world around it. There are many external factors and constraints that play their role also in domestic politics. Poland is a member of the European Union, subject to all sort of binding regulations. Its economy has grown to be vitally dependent on trade and services within the EU and, particularly, with its rich neighbor Germany. Polish security depends largely on its relationship with the USA and NATO. Poland is a party to different international treaties and organizations.

There have been some developments over the past decade that PiS would find hard to go against. It will be painful to promote protectionism when Polish businesses depend on free market access. Many expect that PiS will go on a collision course with the EU the way the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban did. However, Polish weight in the EU has grown during the Tusk era (PO). It would be very difficult to give up on such positions. Isolation within the EU can be very detrimental to Poland’s economy and regional geoeconomic standing.

PiS would be also hardly able or willing to change much in the bilateral relationship with the US. Polish defense and security has been benefiting greatly from this mutual cooperation. NATO and the US are key to Polish national security interests, especially within the recent regional context.

May be of all others, the relations with Germany could take a hit. There is a complex mix of history, economy, and geopolitics when it comes to the Polish – German relationship and it needs to be managed carefully. The nationalistic positions which PiS portrays could reverse years of progress made by Germany and Poland. Still, economic realities will probably make PiS take a moderate ground in the more pragmatic aspect of the relationship. There will be perhaps two sides of the same coin – one shown domestically, to satisfy voter’s expectations, and one shown abroad, to do the actual work.

Finally, on the domestic front, Kaczynski’s party will possibly have the greater difficulties to deal with realities. The absence of valid scape goats for excuses, and higher visibility will require political skill in delivering on all promises made. Financing all the lavish social benefits which PiS vowed to give during their campaign, like the the 500 PLN (117 EUR) promised to Polish families for “every child”, will be a real challenge.

It is important to follow what will be the exact role which Mr Kaczynski will choose to play. Is he going to remain an eminence grise pulling the strings in the shadows or is he going to find good valid reasons to come to the fore and take up the prime minster job after publicly stating that the post will be filled by Beata Szydlo? The “change of faces” ploy yielded the expected results. Many voters chose PiS this time as they saw that the “sharp” Mr Kaczynski had moved away from the spotlight. Coming back may certainly raise some eyebrows. The support which PiS has today is not as monolithic as it may seem. They have attracted voters from different age and social groups, with different backgrounds.

To sum up, the change of power in Warsaw will certainly bring changes to the country’s socio-economic life. There will be tough decisions made; there will be fierce debates, probably protests, and passionate political exchanges. But PiS’s victory is not going to be a dark end of democracy in Poland.