poland elections 2019

Polish voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect their representatives in the Polish bicameral Parliament. According to official results from 41 electoral districts, Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) won its next four-year term by securing 235 seats in the 460-strong lower house (the Sejm). PiS will have an independent majority to continue its policies of social transfers and illiberal reforms. The party led from the back row by Jarosław Kaczyński won in 14 out of 16 Polish provinces, receiving 43.59% of the vote on the highest turnout rate (61.74%) since 1989.

The opposition, with the exception of its main force – the Civic Coalition (KO), has reasons for celebration. A coalition of left-wing parties under the flag of Lewica (the Left) enters the parliament with 12.56% of the vote (49 seats) after a four-year absence of any left-wing representation. The Polish People’s Party (PSL) received 8.55%, which translates into 30 seats and is the best result for this agrarian, Christian-democratic party in 26 years. A political grouping of far right and radical nationalists, called Konfederacja, marks its parliamentary debut with 6.81% of the vote and 11 seats. On the other hand, the Civic Coalition, which stems from the liberal, center-right Civic Platform, failed to unite the anti-PiS opposition, but with 27.4% and 134 seats is still a leading opponent of the PiS government.

Candidates running for the Senate competed in 100 single-mandate constituencies. Results from the upper house are disappointing for PiS. Despite its 48 senators, Law and Justice will face a majority represented by 43 senators from KO, 3 from PSL, 2 from the Left and 4 independents. These senators will be able to delay legislative processes and influence the selection of important state officials.

The results presented on Monday evening demonstrate the ongoing divide within the Polish society. The political scene has solidified, putting almost 8 mln voters who support the PiS government against

8.9 mln voters who fiercely oppose it. The clash of these two groups over the next four years is likely to be reinforced by external factors, such as global trade tensions, unresolved international conflicts and the slowing economy.

Law and Justice: the next four years

Law and Justice (PiS) is a right-wing populist party with a program based on four pillars: anti-communism, conservatism rooted in Christianity, solidarity defined in terms of the superiority of the collective interest over the right of an individual, and strong economic interventionism that rejects the principles of neoliberalism.

With each election since 2015 PiS has taken advantage of Poland’s good economic situation and fueled its growing support with a “festival of promises”. It has won votes with large redistribution programs, dubbed “a responsible economic policy”. The child benefit program 500+, additional pensions for the elderly, a gradual increase in the minimum wage are a few election-winners that have significantly increased the country’s public spending. This allowed PiS to effectively reach people from non- metropolitan areas who feel dissatisfied with effects of the economic transformation after 1989. “Return of the strong state” is a theme that appeals to residents of these underprivileged communities. The opposition, according to PiS, simply “lies in wait to take away all your social privileges”.

Yet the party’s electoral victory is disappointing to PiS leadership. Internal opposition and two new parties in the Sejm will keep throwing up roadblocks in the way of a disciplined political machine. The ruling party has extensive agenda and many battles to fight in the next four years.

Law and Justice speaks of the need for a deep reform of the EU and advocates the concept of “A Europe of Homelands”, which limits the interference of the EU central bodies in internal policies of the member states. PiS opposes “the cultural unification”, which is associated by its supporters with the left-wing ideology. Poland’s strained relationship with the EU will have an impact on the country’s negotiation powers, exposing its political isolation when it comes to discussing the EU’s long-term budget, migration or climate change issues.

Law and Justice based its foreign and security (including energy) policies on Poland’s exclusive relationship with the United States. It seems a risky strategy, considering U.S. President’s unpredictability and issues he is facing on the road to reelection. To give PiS credit, it has brought some success, e.g. at the start of 2020 the U.S. is to include Poland in its Visa Waiver Program.

PiS has been also actively promoting the idea of strengthened Central European cooperation, manifested in the Three Seas Initiative that focuses on infrastructure development and energy security. While PiS politicians often present Poland as a regional leader, it will be difficult for them to build successful coalitions in the CEE region.

In the campaign’s final days PiS emphasized its achievements in the arguable development and modernization of the armed forces. While failing to complete major acquisition programs, Law and Justice did give pay raises to the military and convinced President Trump to increase the presence of U.S. troops in Poland.

PiS has also announced major investments in the road system expansion, a modernization of the railway network and aviation infrastructure, as well as extensive investments in the energy sector, including further development of the gas transfer system, a construction of the first blocks of Poland’s nuclear power plant. On top of this, PiS is making plans for extensive digitization and the construction of the 5G network.

Civic Coalition: still too far

The opposition centered in the Civic Coalition (KO), an electoral alliance formed shortly before the campaign by Civic Platform, proved to be stronger than expected, but not strong enough to threaten PiS. Support for KO among voters increases with the level of education and is clearly visible among entrepreneurs and managers. However, the KO electorate is similar to the supporters of the Left, which heralds a rivalry between the two camps in the coming term. For now, a double score ahead of the Left gives a short break to the party leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, who announces further cooperation and integration of opposition parties.

The result in Warsaw was important for the future of KO. A convincing victory of Małgorzata Kidawa- Błońska over Kaczyński is a strong argument for making her a candidate in the 2020 presidential elections. The former Speaker of the Sejm is more likable than the current leader of KO. Schetyna does not have sufficient public support to run for president.

The Left: back in the game 

The Polish left returned to the parliament after four years of political exile. Back in 2015, the post- communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) failed to meet the threshold partly due to an outflow of its traditional electorate to Law and Justice, but also due to the arrival of Razem (Together) – a new party, inspired by Spanish Podemos and Greek Syriza, which effectively split the left’s vote in Poland. The disarray in the left was deepened even further in February 2019, when Robert Biedroń, a charismatic mayor of Słupsk and perhaps the most important LGBT voice in Poland, founded Wiosna (Spring) and successfully run for a seat in the European Parliament.

This time the three parties decided to run under a single banner – the Left. Reenergized by the agreement and with three leaders representing three generations, Lewica run a fairly successful campaign, securing 49 seats in the Sejm and 2 seats in the Senate. Upon entering the Parliament, the formation’s unity will be put to a test. Analysts predict that internal discrepancies between Razem hardliners, Wiosna liberals and SLD old guard are likely to tear the new block asunder.

If preserved, the unified left can work hand in hand with liberal opposition to challenge Law and Justice’s further power grabs, protect the media and judiciary, as well as reduce Poland’s isolation in the EU. At the same time the Left might support or even work with the ruling majority when it comes to social policy proposals such as a greater tax progression or a higher minimum wage.

PSL: new hope

The agrarian, conservative Polish People’s Party (PSL) ran together with the right-wing Kukiz’15 movement. Both groups campaigned under the banner of the “Polish Coalition” with a program of increased healthcare spending, a mixed electoral system, and greater subsidies for seniors and students.

The party’s biggest strength is its leader, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, respected across all opposition parties and credited for bringing his party back from decline. He teamed up with Paweł Kukiz, a punk rock musician who is a proponent of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

PSL has played the role of kingmaker in several Polish governments, including one of Donald Tusk’s, completing his mission as President of the European Council. In recent years PSL has been losing support to Law and Justice, which has increased subsidies for farmers and provided other support for rural areas. During the campaign PSL showed a distant approach towards a possible coalition with either PiS or the opposition.

Confederation: unknown hazards 

The Confederation is a mix of far-right, nationalist, libertarian, conservative and pro-Christian parties which formed a coalition for the 2019 EU elections. Its representatives define their grouping as “uniosceptic” and are in favor of dismantling the EU, while maintaining the benefits of the Schengen area and the EEA. The Confederation’s leaders hope that their presence in the Parliament will strengthen their legitimacy with the voters. In the 2019 EU election, the group failed to win a single seat.

Their supporters primarily include young people with extreme right-wing views. The central figure of this movement is Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a veteran of the Polish political scene. After a term in the EU Parliament, where he confirmed his bad reputation making offensive statements about women, negating LGBT rights and showing signs of anti-Semitism, he comes back to the Sejm where he last sat in 1993.

The Confederation is not afraid to promote a pro-Russian agenda and oppose e.g. increasing the presence of US troops in Poland. Ignored by state-owned television, the Confederation was underrated throughout the campaign. The party calls for restoration of the death penalty for extraordinary crimes, liberalization of firearms license regulations and reducing immigration from non- European countries.