This year’s parliamentary elections in Poland on 15 October 2023 are called, by the candidates and many experts, the most important elections since the fall of communism in 1989. These elections will determine the direction in which Poland will develop over the coming years. There is a lot of truth in these high-sounding words. Depending on the outcome of the elections, we will either see a tightening of the anti-EU course or a pro-EU one. Even the latter, however, does not guarantee that Poland will immediately return to the path of democracy. The outcome of the election is completely open at present.

Every vote counts

According to the latest polls, the United Right (an alliance of Law and Justice – PiS – of Jarosław Kaczyński and Sovereign Poland – the party of the current minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro) is currently being targeted by 36.9 per cent of respondents, the Civic Coalition – KO – (an alliance of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform and smaller pro-democratic parties) by 30.5 per cent, for the Third Way (an alliance of the Peasant Party and Poland 2050) 9.4 per cent, and for the Confederation (a far-right, populist, economically liberal and nationalist party) and the New Left (an alliance of left-wing parties) 9.3 per cent each.

Depending on the final outcome (which also depends largely on voter turnout), the government could, therefore, be formed by the current ruling United Right, with support of the Confederation (in coalition or as a party supporting selected laws) or the current democratic opposition (the other three electoral alliances mentioned).

As the differences in the polls are so small, the final outcome depends on how many people ultimately take part in the elections and how the votes are converted into seats. Two camps, fighting each other for years and presenting two different visions of Poland and approaches to the world, are facing each other. All this makes the election campaign the most brutal so far. The tactics, especially that of the ruling party, can only be compared to the way Donald Trump mobilises his voters.

In this battle, there is little room for substantive discussion on the future of the European Union, the vision for its development, the reforms that a given political party would like to support or the role of Poland in Europe.

From scepticism to Polexit

The United Right makes no secret of its complete distrust of the European Union and has indicated at every stage of the campaign that it will not submit to its rules. The programme itself admittedly reads at the beginning: “Poland’s presence in the structures of the European Union is a permanent element of our policy. Poles have always been and will always be Europeans.”

But in some places it clearly points to the EU as a downright hostile entity with which only confrontation is possible: “Our government is and will be the guarantor of the policy of defending the pockets of Poles against passing on to them the costs of EU reforms, as Brussels and Berlin and their partisans in Poland would wish.” The Union advocated by PiS is: “a strong European Union”. “But the condition for its existence”, as it outlines in its programme, “is the strength (resulting from the sovereignty) of the member states. A strong Poland in a strong Union is our unchanging motto.” PiS also intends to “demand the creation of a procedure to examine the rule of law of the actions of the European institutions” and makes no secret of the fact that it will continue its “reform” of the courts if it wins the elections.

The aforementioned points in the election programme, however, do not fully reflect the resentment towards the EU that beams from PiS’s message during the campaign. The politicians of the United Right are eager to resort to anti-EU rhetoric, with the government-friendly weekly Do Rzeczy outright proclaiming on its cover that ‘we should leave the European Union’.

PiS’s anti-EU rhetoric is getting stronger as polls show that the party has to fight for a percentage of the electorate with the Confederation, a party with an even more anti-European orientation. The Confederation proclaims in its election programme: “The EU policy pursued by successive Polish governments over the last 16 years has been marked by the same fundamental flaw – the inability to take an assertive stance towards the EU and effectively seek the Polish national interest. Throughout this period, all governments have assumed the role of passive executor of EU orders.”

The Confederation plans to change this through the use of veto power, alliances with other states to oppose planned reforms or by blocking the implementation of legislation adopted by the EU that is unfavourable from the Confederation’s point of view.

Given that a Law and Justice government will not be formed without entering into a coalition with the Confederation or without the party’s support for further laws in the event of PiS forming a minority government, one can expect such a government to further deepen its anti-EU course. This would likely include reluctance to support any measures to deepen European integration and they would likely block reforms that would force payment of EU funds withheld as a result of the current PiS government’s violation of democratic principles.

This will likely be accompanied by strident anti-European rhetoric, which, years from now, may lead to an increasingly Eurosceptic attitude in Polish society. If the process of EU disgust gets out of hand, it could even lead to a replay of the British scenario.

Constructive attitude without specifics

As with most topics, the attitude of the democratic opposition is diametrically opposed to that of PiS and the Confederation. However, it is difficult to find many specifics in the programmes as to what kind of Union the current Polish opposition would like and what kind of EU-level reforms it is prepared to support.

The leaders of the Civic Coalition often emphasise in their speeches the strong ties between Poland and Europe, which should be based on the country’s good relations with the European Union. They assure that, if they came to power, Poland would receive EU funds and return to the “decision-making group” in EU institutions.

Apart from a generally pro-European attitude and a desire for constructive cooperation with other EU member states, which KO politicians talk about at election rallies, it is difficult to find specifics about the future of Europe in the programme of the largest party of the current opposition. KO has announced not so much a programme as “100 concretes for the first 100 days in government”, and there, in the section entitled European Union, we read:

  • “We will get money from EU funds.
  • We will return to the decision-making group in the EU institutions.
  • We will secure EU funding for the defence of the Polish border with Belarus. We will eliminate the route of smugglers passing from the Middle East through Belarus to Poland and on to the EU.
  • We will free the courts from political influence. We will implement the rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights regarding guarantees of judicial independence and the independence of judges.
  • With unblocked EU funds, we will increase the availability of geriatricians and long-term care.”

As can be seen, these points mainly revolve around obtaining EU funds. The lack of plans that KO would like to implement regarding the future shape of the EU can be understood by the short timeframe of the points presented (100 days). KO’s reluctance to reveal such possible plans have been immediately criticised by PiS as a betrayal of the Polish national interest.

The Third Way emphasises commitment to the European Union, and one of its primary aims is the unblocking of EU money. “We are united by the conviction that the place of a strong Poland is in the European Union and in NATO, in which Poland must play an active and subjective role and not get embroiled in pointless disputes that are currently costing us the loss of billions of zloty from the “Reconstruction Fund,” write both parties in the “Joint List of Issues”, a document outlining the most important assumptions for the first 100 days of government and for the entire term.”

“There is no security for Poland without the European Union,” writes the Peasant Party, one of the two parties that make up the Third Way, in its programme. It calls for Poland’s membership in the EU to be enshrined in the constitution as a “safeguard against irresponsible steps by certain politicians whose behaviour seeks to divide Poland from the rest of the European family at all costs”.

The Left asserts that it will seek to “strengthen Poland’s role in the European Union”, end the “damaging dispute with the European Union by ensuring an independent and fair judiciary in Poland”, and “unlock the funds Poland needs from the National Reconstruction Plan”. The Left also proposes a ‘roadmap’ for the adoption of the euro, supports the ‘EU aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkan countries’ and the right to vote in European Parliament elections from the age of 16. It mentions: “In addition to being embedded in NATO, Poland and Europe need their own complementary defence cooperation. We will increase Poland’s involvement in already existing programmes under PESCO, especially in terms of joint exercises and equipment modernisation and procurement. Joint, coordinated purchases will standardise equipment at the EU level and increase the rationality of spending.” In addition, the Left mentions: “We advocate the modernisation of the European Union’s trade agreements with the countries of the Global South in the spirit of sustainable development and the reduction of exploitation.”

Not only a government

Assuming that the government were to be formed by today’s democratic opposition (KO, Trzecia Droga and the Left), both the very general points mentioned above about the European Union (and some details formulated by the Left) and the slogans thrown around at rallies that Poland would be put back on the EU road may, however, be difficult to realise. This is because the planned changes require the enactment of new laws. And at the end of the legislative process, the signature of the president is required (The Law and Justice Party’s Andrzej Duda will remain until 2025).

This means that any legislation passed through parliament by a government made up of today’s democratic opposition could be buried by a presidential veto, as they would lack the necessary majority to override a veto. Changes to the law attempting to use other solutions, on the other hand, may be just as undemocratic/illegal as what they will seek to change.

About the author

Dr Agnieszka Łada-Konefał is a political scientist and vice director of the Deutsches Polen-Institut (German Institute of Polish Affairs) in Darmstadt.

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