Polish voters may not forgive Law and Justice’s divisive rule

By Aleks Szczerbiak

DESPITE ongoing bitter internal conflicts between its component parts, the Polish government’s imminent collapse still appears very unlikely. But the right-wing ruling party may conclude that the only way to break the political deadlock is to form a stop-gap minority government and call an early parliamentary election.

The governing camp’s structural weakness

Following the victory of ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda in last summer’s presidential election, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since 2015, appeared to be at the height of its powers with an outright parliamentary majority and clear run until the next legislative elections, scheduled for autumn 2023. However, since then it has suffered a string of political setbacks, not all of which can be put down to the debilitating effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis. In particular, the governing camp has been embroiled in a series of increasingly bitter internal conflicts between various competing factions over policy, strategy and leadership raising questions about its cohesion, and even survival.

The governing camp’s key structural weakness is that its majority in the Sejm (currently 234 out of 460 seats), the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, actually comprises the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance of which Law and Justice is simply the largest component. It also includes two smaller groupings: the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro; and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie), led by deputy prime minister and economy minister Jarosław Gowin. These two parties increased their representation after the 2019 parliamentary election, securing around twenty deputies each, giving them much greater leverage within the governing camp. This was exacerbated by the fact that the previously unquestioned authority of Law and Justice leader and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński – who exercises a powerful influence in guiding and determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and has previously been the main guarantor of its political unity and cohesion – appears to be waning.

These internal tensions first came to a head last summer when Mr Gowin resigned from, and threatened to pull his party out of, the government over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election. In the event, the election was postponed until June and Mr Gowin re-joined the government following the autumn ministerial reshuffle. ‘Solidaristic Poland’, on the other hand, has tried to stake out a series of hard-line conservative policy positions and criticise the government, especially the more technocratic Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. This included calling upon Mr Morawiecki to veto EU budget negotiations to block a European Commission proposal linking Union funding to so-called ‘rule of law’ conditionality which, the party argued, applies ideological criteria to discriminate against Poland. In the event, Mr Morawiecki agreed to a compromise deal that ‘Solidaristic Poland’ strongly criticised although, unlike Mr Gowin, Mr Ziobro did not follow through and resign from the government.

Numerous escalating conflicts

Since the start of the year there have been numerous clashes between Law and Justice and its junior governing partners. In February, Janusz Kowalski, a ‘Solidaristic Poland’ nominee, was fired as deputy state assets minister, the department that oversees the Polish energy sector. ‘Solidaristic Poland’ has criticised the government’s acceptance of the EU’s energy transformation policy, which envisages a significant reduction of coal consumption, as a threat to Poland’s energy sovereignty. A few days later, and apparently in revenge for the sacking, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ deputies voted for an opposition motion obliging Law and Justice culture minister Piotr Gliński to present information to parliament on a controversial procedure for allocating pandemic crisis aid from the government’s culture support fund.

Similarly, Mr Gowin pledged that ‘Agreement’ deputies would vote against a Law and Justice plan to introduce a media advertising levy to fund additional government expenditure on the health service and culture. At the same time, a pro-Law and Justice faction with the ‘Agreement’ led by MEP Adam Bielan tried to unseat Mr Gowin as party leader arguing that his term of office had expired. Mr Gowin’s allies suspected that the challenge was initiated by Mr Kaczyński, who has been wary of the ‘Agreement’ leader since his apparent betrayal during last summer’s presidential election controversy and suspects him of negotiating with the opposition. In the event, 13 out of the 18 ‘Agreement’ deputies came out in support of Mr Gowin, who expelled Mr Bielan and called upon Law and Justice to remove his supporters from their ministerial posts.

Then, in March, without informing the ruling party ‘Solidaristic Poland’ deputy justice minister Marcin Warchoł announced his intention to contest a by-election for the post of mayor of the South-Eastern city of Rzeszów where he is a local parliamentary deputy, after the extremely popular incumbent Tadeusz Ferenc (originally aligned with the ex-communist left, but now an independent) unexpectedly resigned and endorsed his candidacy. This election, scheduled for May 9th, will be keenly watched by the national media as a key indicator of party support. Rzeszów is the main town in the Podkarpacie region, a Law and Justice stronghold, but there are currently no local mayors elected on the party’s ticket in any of Poland’s larger towns and cities.

A key political test for determining the coherence of the governing camp is likely to be the forthcoming parliamentary vote on the ratification of the EU coronavirus recovery fund, from which Poland is set to be major beneficiary. ‘Solidaristic Poland’, which is increasingly using Euroscepticism as an identity-marker, has, from the outset, said that it will vote against the fund as a federalist Trojan horse. Theoretically, Law and Justice should be able to rely on opposition deputies, most of whom are very pro-EU, to secure parliamentary support. However, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and currently the main opposition grouping – is using the vote to try and force Law and Justice to give a greater say over the distribution of funds to local authorities, many of which are opposition-controlled. The smaller ‘Left’ (Lewica) parliamentary caucus, whose votes would be sufficient to secure the fund’s passage, initially suggested that it would support the government unconditionally but now appears to be backtracking on this. Moreover, even then it would be extremely damaging for the government if it is forced to rely upon opposition votes to pass such an important measure.

Administering not governing?

Moreover, these divisions within governing camp are unlikely to be resolved easily because they are structural and very deeply-rooted. Although Law and Justice leaders insist that the three parties will contest the 2023 election as a coalition, the two smaller groupings are increasingly convinced that the ruling party will limit the number of places available to, or even completely exclude, them from the candidate lists. Consequently, they feel obliged to develop independent political identities for themselves. ‘Solidaristic Poland’ draws upon a very similar core electorate to Law and Justice, so to differentiate itself must attack the ruling party on its right flank. The ‘Agreement’ is less of a direct electoral threat to the ruling party; indeed, there is little social base for a centrist liberal-conservative political formation in Poland. So it needs to look for potential electoral allies among the opposition groupings; which partly explains why Mr Kaczyński is so suspicious of Mr Gowin’s intentions.

Having said that, the government’s imminent collapse still appears very unlikely because there are powerful incentives for the three parties to stick together. For a start, remaining within the governing camp maintains the smaller parties’ access to the power, influence and patronage that flow from government participation. For its part, Law and Justice knows that it would almost certainly be unable to construct an alternative majority in the current parliament, nor govern effectively as a minority administration, never mind implement an ambitious programme of reforms, at a time of crisis. Mr Kaczyński has, apparently, been trying to persuade the right-wing anti-establishment rock star Paweł Kukiz to join the governing camp, but his five-member parliamentary caucus would not even compensate for the loss of one of the smaller governing partners.

Moreover, a Law and Justice-led administration is the only one that can guarantee a stable majority in the current parliament. Only three or four of Mr Gowin’s allies would be likely to follow him if he were to actually leave the governing camp, so any alternative coalition would have to encompass an incredibly broad range of parties from the radical left to right, and risk being held responsible for triggering a political crisis when most Poles feel their leaders should be focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, an early election would also be a huge risk. Not only could it be seen as a self-indulgence, but polls currently suggest both that Law and Justice would fail to secure another parliamentary majority and neither of its smaller allies would secure re-election standing independently. In fact, the most dangerous moment for the governing camp, and most likely time for the two smaller parties to break away, is early-to-mid 2023 in the run up to the next scheduled election. At that point, maintaining access to government positions will be less of an incentive, particularly if it appears that Law and Justice will try and exclude them from the ‘United Right’ candidate lists.

However, one also has to factor in human emotions, disappointed ambitions, revenge-seeking and simple miscalculation which could prevent the governing camp’s leaders from evaluating the various scenarios in a rational way. Moreover, Mr Kaczyński has never been interested in, and knows how politically debilitating, simply being in office and administering, rather than actually governing and implementing a legislative programme, can be. For sure, the pandemic crisis has already put the government on the defensive, forcing it to react to ever-changing circumstances. Nonetheless, Law and Justice also appears to have lost the ability to push through the more controversial elements of its policy agenda and governing programme. It is difficult to see how the party can move forward with its radical state reconstruction programme in areas such as reforming the judiciary, media landscape and local government, if it cannot guarantee the cohesion and unity of its parliamentary support base.

So Mr Kaczyński may conclude that the current situation is unsustainable and the only way to break the deadlock is to form a stop-gap Law and Justice minority government and then hold a snap (perhaps autumn) election, particularly if it appears that Poland is emerging from the coronavirus crisis by the late summer following a successful vaccine roll-out and lifting of restrictions. Indeed, Law and Justice is hoping that it can regain the political initiative through its so-called Polish ‘New Deal’ (Nowy Ład) recovery plan designed to boost economic growth and living standards through a wide range of policies including (partly EU-funded) large-scale investment projects in infrastructure and the public services (especially health care), together with tax reforms favouring the less well-off.

Voters will not forgive self-indulgence

Nonetheless, the pandemic crisis continues to be all-enveloping, with the ‘third wave’ hitting Poland particularly hard and forcing Law and Justice to postpone (for a second time) the formal launch of its ‘New Deal’ initiative until after Easter. Moreover, even in an optimistic scenario in which the government can start to move on from the crisis by late summer, the source of the governing camp’s continuing weakness and instability – a deeply-rooted lack of trust between its component parts, with the junior coalition partners continually and openly contesting key elements of the ruling party’s programme – will remain unresolved. Indeed, one of the reasons why Law and Justice has lost popular support is precisely because many Poles feel that the governing camp lacks unity of purpose and is increasingly self-absorbed. Voters may forgive Law and Justice if it makes mistakes at a time of crisis, but not if the governing camp continues to come across as divided and inward-looking.

This piece was originally published on The Polish Politics Blog and has been republished on Redaction Politics with the permission of the author.

Featured Image: wSensie.tv @WikimediaCommons

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