This Sunday, when driving past Polish consulate or cultural centres, you might see queues of people. It’s because Poles are going to the polls in the most important elections since 1989. Depending on the results on Sunday, Poland will either sail back to the bright side – the world of European, democratic values and rule of law – or it will drift over the waterfall, go past Hungary and find itself on course to where Belarus is today. So what is the situation and what can we expect?
For the last 8 years, Jarosław Kaczyński party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (“Law and justice”) was in power. During this time they subdued to itself most of the state institutions, virtually dismantling the balance of power. PiS enjoys single majority in the parliament (except for the senate where the opposition has one vote more), and most of justice system up to the Constitutional Tribunal that had been turned into Kaczyński’s puppet theatre.
The public media are under total PiS control and had been turned into Russian-style propaganda machine. Recently government-controlled oil giant took over majority of the local media, which were also quickly drafted into PiS stable of their propaganda outlets. They made some moves to take over TVN, the private owned TV station critical of the govenrment, but as it is owned by Americans, they don’t dare to go too far. They also caused imbalance on the press market by funneling all the advertisement money from the state owned companies and institution almost solely to pro-PiS titles.
The corruption and nepotism is at an unprecedented scale and there is a well-oiled mechanism allowing for syphoning public money into private hands using a network of shady NGOs and foundations that receive, along with Catholic church, majority of the public grants without any supervision – as the prosecution service is fully controlled by the ruling party.
Many people, especially from older generation, still support PiS, because of the church’s influence, but also thanks to generous social give-aways that are mostly tailored in such a way that PiS voter base benefits the most. Many people also fall for the populist narration in which Poland got up its knees in order to stand up against German attempts to dominate Europe, LGBT ideology, hordes of Muslim migrants and Russia (that, according to PiS mythology assassinated (in cooperation with Donald Tusk) Polish president Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in 2010).
But as the economy starts to slow down, inflation and living costs spiral out of control, the money pot starts to dry out, and PiS incompetence and stubbornness in foreign politics turned us from one of the raising stars of European politics into a pariah in par with Victor Orban the anger is growing. Imposing draconian abortion laws on Polish women was a spark that started the fire, but as PiS still enjoys a lot of support, the society is divided as never before.
Who’s in the game?
Apart from PiS (which can be compared to today’s Tories), the voters will be able to chose from the following parties:
Platforma Obywatelska (“Citizen’s Platform”), a centre-right party of Donald Tusk and the other half of the polarised political scene of the last two decades. They were in power for 8 years, conducting a “no-frill” politics and trying to ensure support by telling people “unless you vote for us, you’ll get PiS back (PiS was already in power for two years before until their government collapsed and they called snap elections). They have relatively conservative economic and social policies and are strongly pro-European, although they were afraid of bold moves and significant reforms.
In many ways Platforma can be compared to Labour.
Lewica (The Left). This social-democratic movement is a coalition of smaller parties, of which the most significant will be Razem, a left wing party of mostly young people that teamed up with leftovers of the old socialist party that has their roots in the communist regime and the movement focused around Robert Biedroń, a prominent gay right activist. They are most progressive force on the Polish political scene and are also strongly pro-EU.
In British terms, think of the SNP.
Trzecia Droga (“Third Way”). This is a coalition containing a weakened farmers party (PiS bite a large chunk of their traditional voter base while upcoming farmers activist organisation teamed up with PO) and the new Christian-right movement created by a media personality Szymon Hołownia, who came with unexpectedly good result as an independent candidate during most recent presidental election. It’s hard to say what can be expected from them, although both parties are pro-European and quite conservative.
I can’t think of an equivalent to them on the British political scene, but they are also on the right, as Polish political spectrum is heavy-leaning to this side.
The three above parties came to the agreement for the election to the Senate and put only one candidate in each single-member district that is supported by all three of them. They, however go separately for the election to the lower chamber, as PO argues that due to d’Hondt proportional method that favours bigger parties only that could ensure victory over PiS. The smaller parties disagree with that assesment, pointing that only having three opposition forces in the parliament will make it possible.
Apart from that there are two other significant forces:
Konfederacja – and extreme right coalition of fringe movement that recently tried to rebrand itself as the party of common sense, promised to slash taxes and public expenditure and, ultimately, leave the European union. This was successful and they polled as high as 15% until they announced the list of their candidates, that included neo-Nazis, flat-earthers, pro-Russian propagandists and anti-vaxxers. And then their senior and spiritual leader, Janusz Korwin-Mikke,s came out from the hiding to defend paedophiles, which resulted in their ratings dropping dramatically.
In British terms think: coalition between Brexit Party, Birtain First, English Defence League and the Official Monster Raving Loony Party if it was not a satire.
Bezpartyjni Samorządowcy (“Non-partisan Local Activists”) – this is a late entry and threw many people off. This movement was quite sucesful in most recent local election, only to quickly affiliate itself with PiS in many local governments – so much, that the movement was quickly nick-named “non-partisan PiS activists”. Some suggest, that they are helped up by PiS that hopes that they will syphon some votes but fail to make it above the threshold, which, as I mentioned before, will mostly benefit the victors.
In British terms I’d risk a comparison that they are to PiS what Nigel Farage is to today’s Tory party: unlikely to succed on his own and officially denying he is a Tory, but seems to be awfully close to them.
There is also a referendum, what’s that about?
On the day Poles go to vote, there is also a referendum. It is not worth mentioning, as the questions are not really relevant to any actual decisions the government can make. They are biased at the verge of being ridiculous and they can all be summed up as “Do you support what PiS is doing, or are you a traitor?”. The opposition calls for boycott, but even if that fails, the results won’t be significant or enforceable in any way.
So what is is about? It’s simple. By organizing referendum around the question related to key points of their programme, PiS can circumvent election campaign spending limits. Because how would you prove that when a billboard is set up to scare about immigrants it’s part of PiS election advertising and not part of the government information campaign related to referendum? There is really nothing more to it.
What can we expect?
Well, PiS is clearly afraid. Their propaganda machine went into overdrive, and they totally disregard any rules. They flooded whole cities with their billboards, very often put up illegally. All the media under their control pump their message 24/7 and, thanks to the referendum loophole, the government and other state institution come up with messages which are also aimed to benefit PiS.
During last election they used an infamous spying system Pegasus to spy on the phones of prominent opposition politicians (and then even used doctored versions of their message to smear them on TV), so nothing is out of question. But not everything is going well for them and recently many major scandals – including visas-for-bribes – made the headlines. It does not helped that they challenged Donald Tusk for debate in their TV station and when he called their bluff and agreed to it, Kaczyński (who already moved to the more safe seat outside Warsaw) chickened out.
Most of the polls predict that PiS will get the most votes, but not enough to have majority, even if they enter into coalition with Konfederacja. It seems that most likely coalition PO – Lewica – Trzecia Droga will easily be able to create a majority government, but president Duda already announced that he will entrust the mission of creating the government to the party that comes first, not to the majority coalition.
The most likely scenario therefore is a minority government of PiS and several months of chaos, in which the opposition will try to topple it, while PiS will try to bribe MP from other parties to switch sides. So if you expect this election to be a magic switch that removes PiS and restores order in Poland, you might be disappointed. But in case of PiS victory in which they again secure majority, Poland will quickly slip for the darkness for decades.
A recent cartoon by Bartosz Minkiewicz (see here) depicts a drowning man desperately trying to cast a vote to the ballot box floating near him amongst some other rubble. This is an accurate depiction of the situation, as even if he succeeds, it looks like it will be a long time for him to reach dry land again.
For more articles from Tomasz, click here.