Part Five of our Summer Series on the Latest Developments in EU Member States

In this GED Summer Series, we analyse what’s taking place in several EU countries and how these developments are impacting Europe less than a year before the 2024 European elections. This week, in the final contribution of the series, we focus on the upcoming Polish election in late 2023 and its impact on Europe.

A heated campaign based on emotions, not policies

The date of the next parliamentary elections in Poland, the sole prerogative of the Polish president, has finally been set. President Andrzej Duda announced on Tuesday that Poles will cast their ballots on Sunday, October 15th, to elect members of both chambers of Parliament (the Sejm and the Senate).

The announcement of the election date, just two months away, has sparked an intense and brutal political battle based on emotion and polarisation. The chairman of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jarosław Kaczynski, sees this election as a final showdown with Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform (PO).

Kaczynski and Tusk, prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014 and former president of the European Council, are long-time rivals. For Kaczynski, fighting for the PiS’ third victory in a row is crucial, and he will be ready to use all the tools at his disposal to keep his political power.

Illiberal “know-how” from Hungary

The PiS has several advantages over all of the opposition parties (PO, the Left, and the Third Way). Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party, through a combination of its policymaking power and efforts to constrain the opposition, legal system, and civil society, is able to control the main narrative in the political space.

Over the years, PiS has followed the governing practices of its ideological ally, the Hungarian Fidesz, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both parties use populist methods to create „enemies”, both external and internal, with the help of central and local media entirely dependent on the government. Similar to the case of Fidesz, the PiS’ perceived threats to state sovereignty are the European Union, the LGBTQ+ community, and opposition politicians willing to „sell out” to other foreign powers.

From the perspective of PiS, that opposition politician is PO’s leader Donald Tusk, who, while prime minister, was, according to the Polish right, an ardent advocate of a “reset” with the Russian Federation. PiS party members have stated that the policy was conducted at the inspiration and in the interest of the German government and business circles, which were keen on building the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, crucial to Germany’s economic development.

The PiS also claims that Donald Tusk’s government was complicit in the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, during which President Lech Kaczynski and his entire political and military delegation died. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has constantly claimed that it was an assassination attempt by Russia targeting his brother, who has continuously warned the West against the neo-imperialist inclinations of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Russian threat as a campaign topic

The current geopolitical situation reinforces the PiS message. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has brought full-scale war to Poland’s doorstep. Russian puppet state Belarus imprisons and harasses representatives of the Polish minority and every week sends refugees from the Middle East and Africa to the Polish-Belarusian border. Morawiecki boasts of recent arms purchases from the US and South Korea, which, of course, can be an essential argument for voters who fear Russian aggression.

Challenges for the PiS

However, PiS’s struggle to win a self-majority for the third consecutive time is tougher than in 2015 or 2019. PiS permanently lost part of its support when, in October 2020, the Constitutional Court, dominated by PiS judges, further restricted the right to abortion. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party has not even come close to 40% support since then.

Current polling indicates that the autumn elections will end in a political stalemate. Neither PiS nor the parties of the “democratic opposition” (PO, Left, Third Way) may succeed in reaching a majority of seats in the Sejm (231 of 460 seats). Also, neither party will want to co-govern with the far-right Confederation, which has third place in the polls and 15% support.

The Confederation is a conglomerate of anti-European libertarians and anti-Semitic nationalists who make no secret of their pro-Russian views. Therefore, accelerated elections in the spring of 2024 are possible, especially since the European Parliament election campaign will already be underway.

Referendum as a populist tool

PiS, realising the objective problems that could affect their chance for a third clear win (high inflation, weakness of public services, scandals related to the spending of public funds), is ready to reach for the referendum tool.

On Election Day, Law and Justice is planning to hold a referendum in which it – very suggestively – will ask about the relocation of refugees within the EU. Three other questions in the referendum on keeping state-owned companies, the retirement age, and building a wall along the Polish-Belarussian border are written in the same manner. Through this tool, PiS can run an additional campaign not subject to traditional spending limitations.

Opposition mistakes

The reason the opposition parties face the spectre of electoral defeat is not so much the lack of a common list of positions but the absence of the ability to cooperate (similar to the opposition parties’ failures in Hungary and Turkey). The Civic Platform under Donald Tusk is strengthening itself at the expense of the Third Way and the Left. For months Tusk’s primary attention has been focused on building a single list of positions rather than discussing what kind of post-PiS Poland the opposition desires.

The Polish Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Liberals have also failed to present a shared vision for governing if  Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party is removed from power. And no one knows whether a “democratic government” would undo the PiS reforms: The cash transfer program for every child in Poland, the lowering of the retirement age, the radical raising of the minimum wage, the 13th and 14th pension transfer during a year. It is also unclear how the opposition parties would improve the functioning of public services, what ideas they have for counteracting the ageing population, or what Poland’s immigration policy would look like under their new rule.

Right and far-right completion on the anti-EU

A third win for PiS, this time without gaining a self-majority (231 of 460 seats in the Sejm), and good results for the far-right Confederation will not go unnoticed in relations between Warsaw and Brussels. The two parties would be able to bid on which of them will be better able to rebuff Brussels bureaucrats who, in their view, threaten Polish sovereignty.

The EU’s New Green Deal, the policy of defending minorities, and respect for the Rule of Law are already under attack by Poland’s political right and far-right wings. If the opposition parties want to counter the further marginalization of Poland in the European Union, they should understand that without winning back PiS voters through a credible alternative political and socio-economic agenda, this fight will likely not succeed.

About the author

Bartosz M. Rydlinski is co-founder of the Polish think tank Ignacy Daszynski Centre and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw

Click here to read all of the posts in our Summer Tour of EU Member States Series