Poland’s Populists Win Second Term: With Feathers Ruffled – Analysis


Poland’s governing Law and Justice party has won the lower house of parliament but lost the Senate. What will this mean for its populist programme?

By Claudia Ciobanu

In the end, the exit polls got it right. Poland’s nationalist-populist Law and Justice party (PiS) won a second term in Sunday’s general election after scooping enough seats to dash opposition hopes of forming a coalition government.

At the final count, PiS secured a majority in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, with almost 44 per cent of the vote.

The centrist Civic Coalition got 27.4 per cent while the left-wing Lewica alliance scored 12.6 per cent. Next came the PSL-Kukiz’15 alliance of agrarians and populists with 8.6 per cent and the far-right Confederation with 6.8 per cent.

That translates into 235 seats for PiS, 134 for Civic Coalition, 49 for Lewica, 30 for PSL-Kukiz’15 and 11 for Confederation, the Polish electoral commission said on Monday.

Poland’s system for counting seats in the Sejm favours the largest party. PiS benefited from the backing of 8,051,000 voters versus 8,957,000 for the democratic opposition (comprising the three formations entering parliament minus the far-right Confederation).

The upshot was a five-seat majority for PiS.

“We are very happy,” PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said on Monday night after the final results. “We received legitimacy to continue to change Poland, to continue the ‘good change.’”

His upbeat tone contrasted with a more muted response to exit polls on Sunday night, when Kaczynski told supporters at party headquarters: “We are a political formation which deserves more. We got a lot, but we deserve more.”

Why would Kaczynski not be ecstatic? 

While PiS won the Sejm — allowing it to form the government — it lost the Senate upper house, by just one seat.

Poland’s 100 senators are elected using a first-past-the-post system. The three main democratic opposition forces (Civic Coalition, Lewica and PSL-Kukiz’15) had made a pact not to field candidates against one another. And the strategy worked.

The democratic opposition and independents supporting it will have 51 seats in the new Senate, compared with 49 for PiS allies. 

This is important.

While the Senate is the least influential of the two houses in parliament, the fact that it remains in the hands of the opposition means it will be impossible for PiS to pass important legislation overnight, with no public scrutiny, as it did with controversial justice reforms in the first year of its initial stint in power.

The Senate at least has the power to hold up legislation it does not like or it considers unconstitutional — opening the door to greater scrutiny of executive action.

Moreover, the Senate controls appointments to key institutions, allowing it to safeguard their independence. 

In his speech on Monday, Kaczynski said he hoped the Senate would become a place where “political war will be limited”.

To critics, this was sour grapes. They say that when the Senate was under PiS control, the ruling party had no problem in picking fights with the opposition.

Analysts say the fact that the democratic opposition got more votes than PiS also casts next year’s presidential elections in a new light, with the opposition sniffing possible victory. 

Meanwhile in the Sejm, PiS’s five-seat majority is not enough for a constitutional majority nor strong enough to counter any presidential veto.

Were the opposition to win presidential elections next year, PiS’s control of the Sejm would suddenly mean far less than it does today. 

Despite its improved vote count, PiS has the same number of seats it got four years ago due to a higher turnout than in 2015.

And it is a fragile majority.

It is important to note that PiS got this many seats as part of a coalition. Called “United Right”, the coalition included two other parties — one led by maverick conservative Jaroslaw Gowin and the other by Kaczynski’s close ally, Justice Minister and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro. 

Without Gowin and Ziobro, PiS would only have secured 200 seats, as the two formations combined got 35 places in the Sejm.

And while Ziobro is likely to remain faithful to Kaczynski, Gowin’s allegiance is not guaranteed. He was, after all, once a minister in the Civic Platform government led by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.

“The results of the elections are profoundly paradoxical,” said Jakub Majmurek, a political commentator for Krytyka Polityczna. “On the one hand, PiS won more than 8 million votes … more than any other party achieved since 1989. It should be seen as a great success. However, I think it is not, nor does Kaczynski.” 

He added: “Despite the very strong economy, the generous social handouts, the shameless pro-government propaganda on public TV and radio, PiS failed to secure the support of the majority of the electorate. It’s hardly possible that Kaczynski will ever get a better chance to gain more votes. It seems that the whole ideological project of PiS has just hit its glass ceiling.”

Before the election results were announced, and with opinion polls pointing to a more emphatic victory for PiS, analysis warned that the party’s next goal could be to complete its takeover of the judiciary and to hit back at private media critical of the government.

While some argue that a weaker grip on power might make the party act tougher and faster, in a desperate bid to cement its control, others say the current configuration in parliament will at least ensure there is resistance to any further attempts to control independent institutions.

Pressed from all sides

PiS’s performance aside, the novelty of this election is that the Polish parliament will be more diverse than it has been for the past four years.

The left is reentering parliamentary politics and it does so with fresh vigour. Many of the new lawmakers from the progressive alliance are young activists, famous in their own right and not shy about their beliefs and programmes. 

For the first time ever, Green politicians are also staking out territory in parliament, having run for the Civic Coalition. Alongside Lewica politicians, they are likely to provide an important environmental voice even as Poland remains one of the few countries to oppose EU targets of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Then there is the far-right Confederation. Analysts say the party’s entry into parliament may bring increased pressure to tighten abortion legislation or pass discriminatory anti-LGBT laws. 

“The Sejm is going to be much more representative and picturesque than the former one, and this will make the day-to-day politics in the house much more difficult for PiS,” said Majmurek. 

“PiS will be pressed from the right by Confederation — a loose coalition of fringe figures, extreme nationalists, conspiracy-theory peddlers, fundamentalist Catholics and hard-core free-market libertarians.

“They might propose motions to completely criminalise abortion or penalise ‘homosexual propaganda’. And PiS won’t be able to reject or pass them without paying a significant political cost. 

“On the other hand, PiS’s credentials to be the party of social solidarity and redistribution will be checked by the left-wing opposition, which is now made up of young, well-educated, articulate politicians, many of whom are thinking of themselves as the Polish Pablo Iglesias or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

PiS’s next term will not be the walk in the park it might have hoped for. For one thing, it will need  to follow through on promises made to its electorate while keeping the economy in good shape — at a time when both the EU and Polish economies are slowing down.

No wonder Kaczynski sounded nervous.  

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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